Henry Louis Gates Jr. and the Long Arc of Reconstruction

Henry Louis Gates Jr. and the Long Arc of Reconstruction

Vigilant Struggle

The long arc of Reconstruction.


The story of Reconstruction, more than any other topic in American history, is often tied to the myths and whims of the era in which it is written. Most historians and public commentators agree on what Reconstruction was: an attempt, after the Civil War, to rebuild American democracy so that it guaranteed civil, political, and economic rights to almost 4 million formerly enslaved people. But there is often disagreement about how much it achieved, what slowed its progress, and why it came to an end before its project was fully realized.

For the Republicans in office after the Civil War, there were really two Reconstructions. The first, the Reconstruction of Andrew Johnson, was designed to be conciliatory toward much of the rebellious South and had little intention of upsetting the status quo beyond a grudging acceptance of the end of slavery. The other Reconstruction, led by Radical Republicans like Thaddeus Stevens, attempted to change the very terms of American democracy by extending the franchise and civil rights to African American men. It also aspired to something more—land reform, economic democracy, and the remaking of the American polity around the principles of racial equality and inclusion. The 14th and 15th Amendments to the Constitution guaranteed citizenship to all those “born or naturalized in the United States” and ensured that the right to vote would not be limited because of skin color. The second Reconstruction found its expression in the nation’s original civil rights legislation. The Civil Rights Act of 1866 was the first in American history to ensure equal protection under the law. It was followed by the Civil Rights Act of 1875—the last gasp, in many respects, for the black political power and Radical Republican spirit that fueled many of the advances of Reconstruction.

From 1865 to 1877, both Reconstructions took place in an American South convulsed by almost constant violence. African Americans were massacred in cities as large as Memphis and in towns as small as Colfax, Louisiana, and Hamburg, South Carolina. The era was marked by a near-revolution and a counterrevolution, the latter succeeding in 1877, when the narrow victory of the Republican presidential candidate, Rutherford B. Hayes, was followed by the withdrawal of the few remaining federal soldiers in the South in order to persuade Congress to back Hayes’s presidency. Although Reconstruction had been largely rolled back across much of the South before 1877, the withdrawal of federal troops is recognized as the end of the period.

The battle over whose Reconstruction would be remembered, however, persisted into the 20th century. During the Gilded Age and the Progressive era, as the democratic advances of the Civil War and Reconstruction were reversed by the Democratic and Republican parties and the Supreme Court, a new narrative of Reconstruction began to take hold: that of a white South broken by the Civil War, then taken advantage of by Northern carpetbaggers, Southern scalawags (white Republican Southerners), and recently freed African Americans who had gone from being enslaved to holding power over their former masters. This new narrative was more than an oversimplification; it was mostly downright wrong, a willful misrepresentation of the past by white Southerners and Northerners interested in telling a story that justified the rise of the Jim Crow system. But this view of Reconstruction stuck, and a whole body of historiography arose from it that prevailed for the first decades of the 20th century. It became known as the Dunning school, named after the prominent Columbia University historian William Dunning. Many of his popularizers, including Claude Bowers (author of The Tragic Era) and E. Merton Coulter (author of The South During Reconstruction), went even further in their efforts to paint Reconstruction as an era of corruption and mismanagement—one that called into question the ability of African Americans to govern.

W.E.B. Du Bois and other black historians provided dissents to this dubious narrative even as the accounts were being drafted. As early as 1909, when Du Bois gave a paper on Reconstruction to the American Historical Association, it was clear that African American scholars would have to lead the way in countering the prevailing narrative of Reconstruction as an era of black misrule across the South. While his 1935 Black Reconstruction in America became the seminal revisionist history of the period, Du Bois was not alone in this counterattack against a racist historiography. Reconstruction-era politician turned historian John Roy Lynch wrote The Facts of Reconstruction in 1913, just as the Dunning school’s influence on popular culture was reaching its peak. Anna Julia Cooper, in her 1892 A Voice From the South, described Reconstruction as a “period of white sullenness and desertion of duty.”

However, the majority of the historical profession ignored these demands for a new historiography until the 1960s, when the ascendant civil rights movement and a group of radical and liberal scholars began to chip away at a narrative shamefully long accepted by professional historians. Some of this was the result of their returning to Du Bois’s Black Reconstruction and acknowledging the need for a more accurate narrative about the era. But many other historians felt it was incumbent upon them to rethink Reconstruction in light of the civil rights movement, recognizing it as a period of biracial democracy in which black Americans took their destinies into their own hands and demonstrated their ability to help remake the country.

Historians like Kenneth Stampp argued in the 1960s that it was time for a narrative that avoided the racist exaggerations of the Dunning school and offered a more empirical exhumation of the nation’s past. African American historians like Lerone Bennett Jr. went further, asserting that Reconstruction provided Americans with a “usable history” that could better help everyone—black and white alike—understand the political tumult and possibilities of the 1960s. Bennett argued in the pages of Ebony magazine in November 1965 that there were two Reconstructions: a “white reconstruction from 1865 to 1866” and a more radical and emancipatory “black reconstruction from 1867 to 1877.” The revisionary work of the 1960s and ’70s culminated in Eric Foner’s 1988 classic Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877, a book that continues to set the standard against which any history of Reconstruction is judged and that, in its 690 pages, helped unearth the period’s forgotten attempts to radically alter the nation for the better. For Foner, Reconstruction centered on the struggle over African American rights—and whether the nation would live up to the lofty ideals at the heart of pro-Union rhetoric after the Emancipation Proclamation became a rallying cry in 1863.

Attempting to bring this more radical and egalitarian history of Reconstruction to the general public and incorporating the last 30 years of work following up on Foner’s monumental book, Henry Louis Gates has produced a new PBS miniseries, Reconstruction: America After the Civil War, and a companion book, Stony the Road, that aim to provide a fresh perspective for a mostly lay audience. Both seek to consolidate this revisionary narrative of Reconstruction, but they also carry it beyond 1865 to 1877. For Gates, Reconstruction was not just those years immediately after the Civil War. Instead, it encompassed a political era that began with the war itself, which opened the door to questions about race, citizenship, and democracy that were previously unfathomable, and then persisted as a moral, social, and political dilemma throughout the civil rights movement.

Gates adds a second argument to this historiography. He posits that Reconstruction was about not just the rise and fall of black political power in the South—although that is still a key element of any history of the era. He argues that it also concerned African American equality in the spheres of civil society, culture, and economics and that black Reconstruction continued in these areas well into the 1920s, even as the Southern revanchists attempted to impose a new white racial order.

Lengthening the Reconstruction era, Gates insists, allows Americans to think more deeply about how the African American experience fits into the longer arc of progress and retreat that has shaped the history of American democracy. His story of the rise of the “New Negro” is a case in point. Traditionally situated around 1920, this idea—of African Americans dedicated to restoring the lost dignity and rights of the Reconstruction era—is traced in Stony the Road back to the mid-1890s, when the first generation of African Americans born emancipated began to question their second-class citizenship. For Gates, this is an important reconsideration of the African American past. “The concept of the New Negro was employed by children of Reconstruction in the grip of Redemption,” he writes, but it has deeper roots and a longer history. The same is true, he continues, for all struggles for freedom in this country, in particular by black Americans but not by them alone. The history of American democracy has been one of constant push and pull, with rare moments of revolutionary triumph for the oppressed—surrounded and threatened with destruction by long periods of reaction.

One of the strengths of Stony the Road is the ample room it gives to showing the racist imagery prevalent in popular magazines, political cartoons, and other cultural products of the era. With so much already written about Reconstruction’s achievements, this may be the book’s most important contribution: drawing links between the political and intellectual racism of the 19th and the 20th centuries and their racist popular culture, and then showing how black Americans struggled against them. For Gates, as well as for many other scholars of Reconstruction, the realms of politics and culture are inextricably linked. One cannot make a study of political power and inequality without looking at the ways they are manifested in everyday life.

Moreover, the racist and anti-racist images of American culture can help us better understand modern politics. One powerful example is found in the section titled “Chains of Being: The Black Body and the White Mind,” in which the reader is confronted not only with drawings and paintings that show “impartial” depictions—in the minds of many 19th and 20th century scientists and intellectuals—of the differences between the races but also with flyers and pamphlets created by white supremacists that reproduced these images well into the 1990s.

By showcasing the long history of antiblack imagery in American society, Stony the Road makes clear that the racist depictions of African Americans dating back to the Civil War and Reconstruction continue to cast a long and frightening shadow on contemporary life. To state the obvious, racism did not vanish during these years of emancipation and political possibility, and for that very reason, Gates writes, it is important for progressives to always be on their guard: The struggle for freedom requires challenging those forms of racism that do not have direct links with politics but still inform the larger culture, a point that he discusses further in Stony the Road’s third chapter, “Framing Blackness.” Given the modern debates about Confederate statues and cultural representation, it is useful to recall how figures like Frederick Douglass stressed the importance of a positive portrayal of African Americans in popular culture—especially in photographs. (He was one of the most photographed Americans of the 19th century.) Images matter—a point that many of his heirs in the civil rights movement recognized.

Gates’s examination of the Harlem Renaissance bears out this point. Arguing that it was a “counterrevolution” against America’s cultural racism, he nonetheless notes that with the rise of the New Negro, black Americans at once staked out a new path for themselves and unfortunately embraced “some of the stereotypes about the Old Negro”—especially that formerly enslaved people could not take care of themselves and therefore that a New Negro needed to emerge.

By tracking the sometimes overlooked cultural battles among African Americans after Reconstruction, Stony the Road is also a story about how they fought against an internalized oppression even as they struggled to change a rampantly antiblack society. Efforts to promote the beauty and diversity of African American culture—in Du Bois’s “Exhibit of American Negroes” at the 1900 Paris Exposition, for instance—were paired with efforts to fight for the restoration of the civil and political rights lost during Reconstruction. Yet black Americans were also faced with an overwhelmingly powerful cultural apparatus that was difficult to escape. For every Paris Exposition, there were blockbuster films like Birth of a Nation and a plethora of other movies, books, and cartoons that portrayed African Americans using nothing more than backward racist tropes.

In both the miniseries and the book, Gates comments on how the Charleston, South Carolina, church shooting in June 2015 informed his work on Reconstruction and the racist backlash. The history he was working on was far from over, even for someone as young as Dylann Roof, the terrorist who gunned down black worshippers at the Emanuel AME Church and who carried with him images that celebrated the Confederate States of America and the white supremacist regime of Rhodesia. The racism of the Reconstruction era and later, Gates writes, has “long become part of our country’s cultural DNA and, it seems, imprinted on [Roof’s] own.” Even as new laws were passed to abolish older racist ones, the cultural forms of racism survived, leading to new acts of political violence and new expressions of racial supremacy.

For this reason, the context of Stony the Road matters—not just given the current moment of revanchist white supremacy on the rise across the Western world but also in Gates’s battle for the mind of America. His career as a public intellectual has long been centered as much on the cultural expressions of racism as on the political and economic ones. It began in the 1990s, when a whole generation of liberals claimed that the work of racial equality had largely been achieved. In “The New Intellectuals,” the cover story for the March 1995 issue of The Atlantic, Robert S. Boynton held up Gates along with others—notably Cornel West and Patricia J. Williams—as part of a vanguard of thinkers who insisted that racism in American society was still prevalent and that the country needed to make real the goals of the various civil rights movements of the 1950s and ’60s. Like the post-Reconstruction era, the ’90s were a period of “scientific” racism and interpretations of crime as a racial, not socioeconomic, phenomenon, which were used to justify the political and civil inequalities that steadily crept back into American society after the advances of the 1960s.

Stony the Road—the title of which comes from “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” often called the black national anthem—gives us a powerful narrative of just how fragile the triumphs of American history truly are. The emphasis today on Reconstruction as an era of African American political and social power, snuffed out by white supremacy across America, is important not just because historians have treated it as such for decades now. It is also because many African Americans see their nation as one that has betrayed, over and over again, its greatest promises—to them as well as to the very idea of American democracy. Through the book and its companion miniseries, Gates calls on us to be ever vigilant in “our own struggles against the abhorrent face of anti black racism and white supremacy today.”

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