Book of the week
Stony the Road: Reconstruction, White Supremacy, and the Rise of Jim Crow
The ugly chapter in U.S. history that followed Reconstruction “in some ways has never really ended,” said Michael Schaub in NPR.org. In a “brilliant” new book, Harvard scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr. returns to that often neglected period to examine how many of the rights newly won for the nation’s ex-slaves were taken away and how a white-supremacist ideology arose to justify and secure the apartheid policies of the long Jim Crow era. Gates is interested too, in how African-Americans eventually pushed back on other fronts, establishing a cycle that continues repeating today. “Predictably,” Gates delivers a fascinating analysis, “but he’s also just a joy to read.”
For anyone wishing to study this sorry story, Gates’ 250-page book is “excellent one-stop shopping,” said Howell Raines in The Washington Post. He captures how statehouses in the South stripped blacks of rights and how the violence of the Ku Klux Klan backed the legislative campaign. But he also chronicles how Harvard and its ilk nurtured two pseudo-disciplines—eugenics and “scientific racism”—that contributed to racist myths and a central theme of the era: that Reconstruction had been a radical attempt to put white Southerners under the boot of an inferior people. But around the time Jim Crow terrorism was at its worst—and President Wilson was screening Birth of a Nation at the White House—black people began pushing back, said Gene Seymour in Newsday. The term “the New Negro” was first applied to Booker T. Washington, but it was embraced during the 1920s Harlem Renaissance by educated African-Americans who aspired to be models of the race—an artistic and intellectual vanguard. Gates calls the New Negro “black America’s first superhero,” and he “rousingly” contends that the ideal established a pattern for black resistance to racism.
The question of why Reconstruction failed lies at the heart of the book, said Adam Gopnik in The New Yorker. Though there’s reason to denounce the liberal institutions that failed to protect black Americans from re-enslavement, perspective helps. It was, perhaps, “not entirely realistic” to think a small cohort of former abolitionists could impose their ideals on a large population that held opposite views, especially in the wake of a wearying war. But flawed institutions also enabled freed slaves to build—through achievements in music, literature, athletics—the social capital and rich culture that have sustained a generations-long fight for true equality. In the long view, “resilience and resistance are the same activity, seen at different moments in the struggle. It’s a good thought to hold on to now.” ■