In ‘Stony the Road,’ Henry Louis Gates Jr. Captures the History and Images of the Fraught Years After the Civil War

In ‘Stony the Road,’ Henry Louis Gates Jr. Captures the History and Images of the Fraught Years After the Civil War

Reconstruction, White Supremacy, and the Rise of Jim Crow
By Henry Louis Gates Jr.

The inauguration of Donald J. Trump as president seemed to come from some place other than America, as though the white nationalism, the sexism, the meanness of spirit belonged to some hateful foreign country. Henry Louis Gates Jr.’s “Stony the Road: Reconstruction, White Supremacy, and the Rise of Jim Crow,” an indispensable guide to the making of our times, addresses 2017’s mystifications. The book sets the Obama era beside Reconstruction and the Trump era beside the white supremacist terrorism of Redemption, the period beginning in 1877 during which Reconstruction’s nascent, biracial democracy was largely dismantled. Gates juxtaposes the optimism of Reconstruction, the despair of Redemption and the promise of the New Negro movement — the effort by black Americans, starting around the turn of the 20th century, to craft a counternarrative to white supremacy. In doing so, “Stony the Road” presents a bracing alternative to Trump-era white nationalism.

Gates takes his title from one of the New Negro’s most enduring cultural artifacts: “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing,” composed in 1900 and still widely known as the “Negro national anthem” (the “Negro” here is historically correct). The song looks back at enslavement and exclusion — at our people’s “dark past” and “stony road” — decrying its “chast’ning rod” and the “blood of the slaughtered.” It exhorts black Americans to stay “in the path” toward full emancipation, to remain faithful to “our God” and to “our native land.” The struggle remains a long way from over. But as Gates’s survey of the iconography of white supremacy from the past two centuries reminds us, 2017 represents far from the worst we have faced.

“Stony the Road” offers a history lesson on connivance, or, in today’s idiom, collusion, by cataloging in words and pictures the white supremacy at the highest levels of American politics, including President Woodrow Wilson’s praise for “The Birth of a Nation,” a Negrophobic hymn to the Ku Klux Klan that was shown in the White House in 1915. By recreating such potent scenes, Gates makes clear what early-20th-century blacks were up against, and “Stony the Road” seems to encourage us to take hope. The book’s devastating inventory of cruel, ugly stereotypes, lynchings and torture puts our current era immediately in context.

Gates contrasts the iconography of Negrophobia with the New Negroes’ own cultural productions: family photographs and portraits of well-dressed and inevitably light-skinned African-Americans featured in black periodicals. In this matchup, white supremacy wins in volume and pungency over “the vain attempt to confect positive images of noble black people powerful enough to brace against the maelstrom of excruciating images that the white supremacist imagination had spawned.” Gates’s epilogue explains why. Upstanding New Negroes, no matter how pale, straight-haired, well dressed or impeccably educated, ultimately proved no contest for white supremacy, which had much more than iconography going for it. In the century after the Civil War, when most black men and women could not vote, white supremacy had political power — local, state and national. For all its hopeful eloquence, New Negro cultural expression could not overcome disfranchisement. Then, as now, the ballot held the key to a new Reconstruction.

Much of the scholarship Gates cites is not new, including W. E. B. Du Bois’s 1935 classic, “Black Reconstruction: An Essay of the History of the Part Which Black Folk Played in the Attempt to Reconstruct Democracy in America, 1860-1880,” as well as an abundance of academic articles and books inspired by the civil rights revolution of the 1950s and 1960s (an era often termed the Second Reconstruction) and which effectively undermined the prevailing account of Reconstruction as an era of ignorant and corrupt Negro rule.

New in “Stony the Road” is a wealth of visual material related to “Reconstruction,” a documentary series that Gates produced for PBS and which aired this month. The visual bounty began to emerge in the late 20th century, thanks to the digitization of hitherto scattered archives. In “Stony the Road,” the vicious imagery — postcards, photographs, newspaper cartoons, political broadsides, knickknacks, theater posters, playing cards, children’s books, games of all sorts — forms a sickening onslaught that raises a question: Is the book African-American history or American history?

The winter of 2017 revealed stark contrasts between a vision of the country held by millions of blinkered Americans who insisted that the president’s attitude toward immigrants and minorities was “not the America” they knew and a fuller vision of history and society, including what has so often been buried under the rubric of “African-American history,” as though African-American history had little or nothing to do with American history. Those familiar with African-American history would hardly say, “This is not the America I know.” For in our current politics we recognize African-American history — the spot under our country’s rug where the terrorism and injustices of white supremacy are habitually swept. “Stony the Road” lifts the rug.

Now American history is once again at stake. As Gates so usefully phrases it, “Few American historical periods are more relevant to understanding our contemporary racial politics than Reconstruction. Think of the fundamental questions that the study of the period forces us to consider: Who is entitled to citizenship? Who should have the right to vote? What is the government’s responsibility in dealing with terrorism? What is the relationship between political and economic democracy?”

As essential history for our times, “Stony the Road” does a kind of cultural work that is only now becoming widespread in the United States but that Germans have been undertaking for decades. The German word for this effort is Vergangenheitsbewältigung — coming to terms with the past — and it carries connotations of a painful history that citizens would rather not confront but that must be confronted in order not to be repeated. Vergangenheitsbewältigung is essential for understanding the American past as a whole.

Treating African-American history as American history in the interest of Vergangenheitsbewältigung, “Stony the Road” explains how the politics of 2017 belong squarely within our trajectory as a nation, another phase in the cycle of Reconstruction (expanded democracy), Redemption (democracy defeated) and the New Negro (black culture’s creation of a counternarrative to white supremacy). It is a history that very much needs telling and hearing in these times.

So, yes, to the history. But what of the historiographical infrastructure? While Gates rightly cites Du Bois and the historian Eric Foner as the period’s core experts, he also names, sometimes obsessively, authors of recent works who are mostly nonblack or foreign-born. The black scholars who laid the historiographical groundwork during and after the Second Reconstruction — call them the New New Negro historians — do not appear in the book. These scholars researched and wrote in the second half of the 20th century, when their scholarship was sidelined as black history. These scholars are many, but one name will stand for them all: John Hope Franklin. Gates cites Franklin’s influence on his thinking in his acknowledgments; I wish that he had cited Franklin’s scholarship and that of his peers in “Stony the Road.”

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