Reviewed in the United States on November 16, 2019
I watched Henry Louis Gates’s new documentary, Reconstruction: Life After the Civil War with great interest. To be honest, I have waited for something like this with anticipation for some time. I’ve often felt like Reconstruction, a profoundly important era in our history, is overshadowed by the war years. Admittedly, the Civil War looms large - but the aftermath is at least as important in terms of defining (or not) the meaning of freedom and citizenship moving beyond the sectional conflict...in a reunited nation. Like many, I would be very much like it if this media event inspired a documentary filmmaker to address the Civil War from a fresh perspective, perhaps dethroning Ken Burns as the reigning documentarian on the topic. In fact, I recently spoke with historian Keri Leigh Merritt, who has been vociferously advocating for such an thing, on exactly this idea. We had plenty to say on the subject.
Of course I ran right out and bought Gates’s new book, Stony the Road: Reconstruction, White Supremacy, and the Rise of Jim Crow. I rather enjoyed the book. It makes for a wonderful companion piece to the documentary and I highly recommend it. Now, I have at times questioned Gates’s judgement. For example, in 2009 he concluded that black soldiers served in the Confederate Army, a myth masterfully debunked over the years by historian Kevin Levin on his blog Civil War Memory and in his recent publication, Searching for Black Confederates: The Civil War’s Most Persistent Myth. Honestly - I think Gates was mislead by some of the more problematic evidence of the period…while trying to to make sense of the complexity of the Confederate cause. In addition, Gates was charged with violating PBS editorial standards when the program Finding Your Roots - a show he produced - agreed not to air an episode that exposed the slave-holding history of a famous actor. We are all human and thus all flawed. Gates made a mistake, and he apologized. I tend not to hold a grudge, and despite these rather troublesome shortcomings, I still respect Gates, his dedication to scholarship, and his drive to understand the black experience in American history.
And so his look at the trajectory and legacy of Reconstruction piqued my interest. The potential of Republican leadership, black self-advocacy temporarily realized, the redemption movement by white supremacists reversing the black community’s gains post slavery, and the depths of racist support for Jim Crow segregation all make for a compelling story - and Gates tells it well. This book is accessible, concise, and beautifully supported by visual resources.
W.E.B. Du Bois famously stated in his 1935 publication, Black Reconstruction in America: “The slave went free, stood for a brief moment in the sun, then moved back again toward slavery.” Stony the Road struck me as an important broad view of how this happened…of how the pernicious racism that informed the latter third of the 19th century - a racism, built on the racist policies and racist ideas that Ibram X. Kendi clearly explains in Stamped from the Beginning - forced black people back into quasi-slavery.
Black people - their voices, their aspirations, their actions - take center stage in Gates’s book, and rightfully so. It is often tempting to accentuate the tragic elements of this story and emphasize the victimhood of formerly enslaved people who find themselves facing trials similar to slavery. But simply reducing these narratives to stories of victimization tends to rob human beings of their agency, in essence denying them their humanity - which is precisely what the white supremacists had in mind when they rolled back Reconstruction era Civil Rights legislation. Black people made strides in this era, they redefined freedom, and they created institutions, both cultural and political. I am pleased that Gates chose the framework he did to illuminate the human experiences of the Reconstruction years.
Gates also explains the ideology of white supremacist resistance to black agency and the development of Jim Crow segregation by looking closely at the pseudo-scientific foundation of racist ideas and the visual imagery that supported it. This is an especially important aspect of the book. As Gates shows, there was not such a great leap from the “scientific” evidence of black inferiority to the caricatured images used to sell soap and other consumer products. These “race characteristics,” as Gates demonstrates, were the differences that “became the evidence in the argument for de jure (legal) segregation” (56).
Students of the early-20th century will find Gates’s chapter on the so-called New Negro instructive, as he unfolds the ways in which black people redeemed the race from the redeemers, as it were. New Negroes - a leadership class created two decades after the end of Reconstruction, as the story goes, saw themselves as best suited to combat entrenched racist policies that had spread throughout the nation. They were “young, post-slavery, modern, culturally sophisticated, and thoroughly middle class and most effectively equipped to combat the mounting injustices that the mass of black people were facing [at the turn of the century]” (186). There is a good deal to ponder here about class as a category of distinction and analysis within a very large (10 million perhaps) group of people, while keeping in mind that the law only knew black people in monolithic terms.
My final thoughts on Stony the Road have to do with D. W. Griffith’s 1915 silent film, The Birth of a Nation, which appears frequently in the book as one of the most significant cultural iterations of pervasive racism. I’ve been working for a while now on a book on this film so Gates’s comments have got me to wondering…particularly about his framing of the movie as propaganda. I believe he is correct in that the film empowered racist whites to act. Scholars have long pointed out how the film helped inspire the 1920s incarnation of the Ku Klux Klan and how the Klan used the film as a recruiting tool. In my recent interview with historian and memory scholar Ashleigh Lawrence-Sanders, she rather astutely pointed out how the film grew in popularity roughly at the same time as black people began to migrate out of the South to northern destinations such as Detroit, Chicago, and New York. The film most certainly inspired (or justified…) racial violence in these northern regions - what folks in groups such as the NAACP, who resolutely condemned the film, feared the most.
But we might also look at this film as confirmation bias blown into gargantuan proportions on the big screen - the harnessing of a new medium to confirm for white Americans what they already knew. And if anyone asked, they had their receipts. In an even more pernicious sense that Gates suggests, the racism in The Birth of a Nation was a reflection of the film’s profound connections with academic scholarship. The most distinguished scholars of the era provided the intellectual support for this film (and the novel on which Griffith based the film, The Clansman by Thomas Dixon), and when former Princeton University scholar Woodrow Wilson gladly welcomed a screening in the White House, Griffith had his intellectual endorsement. Propaganda strikes me as the willful manipulation of evidence to convince someone to change their mind. According to Gates’s own evidence, this was certainly not a issue for whites in America educated and well-versed in racist ideas. Neither was it an issue for D. W. Griffith, who claimed to have authored the authentic history of the Civil War and Reconstruction for the movie-going public. He even offered to pay anyone a hefty sum if they could prove his “history” was ahistorical. Honestly, I wish he hadn’t squandered his fortune before he dropped dead. I would love to connect with the executor of his estate and cash in on that offer.