How the South Won the Civil War
April 2, 2019 7:23 PM   Subscribe

During Reconstruction, true citizenship finally seemed in reach for black Americans. Then their dreams were dismantled.

Adam Gopnik of the New Yorker reviews the new book by Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Stony the Road: Reconstruction, White Supremacy, and the Rise of Jim Crow.
posted by Barack Spinoza (21 comments total) 42 users marked this as a favorite
Not so long ago, the Civil War was taken to be this country’s central moral drama. Now we think that the aftermath—the confrontation not of blue and gray but of white and black, and the reimposition of apartheid through terror—is what has left the deepest mark on American history. Instead of arguing about whether the war could have turned out any other way, we argue about whether the postwar could have turned out any other way. Was there ever a fighting chance for full black citizenship, equality before the law, agrarian reform? Or did the combination of hostility and indifference among white Americans make the disaster inevitable?

Henry Louis Gates, Jr., in his new book, “Stony the Road: Reconstruction, White Supremacy, and the Rise of Jim Crow” (Penguin Press), rightly believes that this argument has special currency in the post-Obama, or mid-Trump, era. He compares the rosy confidence, in 2008, that the essential stain of American racism would fade through the elevation of a black President with the same kind of short-lived hopes found in 1865, when all the suffering of the war seemed sure to end with civil equality. Instead, the appearance of African-American empowerment seemed only to deepen the rage of a white majority. Then it brought forward Klan terrorism and Jim Crow in the South; now it has brought to power the most overtly racist President since Woodrow Wilson, openly catering to a white revanchist base. It’s a depressing prospect, and Gates is properly depressed and depressing about it.
posted by Barack Spinoza at 7:24 PM on April 2 [28 favorites]

Publishers Weekly:
Gates, the director of Harvard’s Hutchins Center for African and African-American Research, provides an expansive exploration of Reconstruction, Redemption (white southerners’ attempts to reinstate a white supremacist system), and Jim Crow, demonstrating how they informed and engendered one another and sowed the seeds of the modern resurgence of white-supremacist ideas.

Gates begins in the 1860s, with the ratification of the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments providing African Americans basic civil rights, and continues through the backlash of Jim Crow legislation and related cultural trends (including eugenics, stereotypical representations of African-Americans like Uncle Remus, and D.W. Griffith’s KKK-redeeming film The Birth of a Nation). Gates illustrates how this widespread racism and resentment gave rise to the “New Negro,” a rallying of “black intellectuals, creative artists, and political activists” that became the Harlem Renaissance (and whose rhetoric prefigured respectability politics).

Gates outlines the ideals and accomplishments of black thinkers including W.E.B. Du Bois, George Washington Williams, Frederick Douglass, and Booker T. Washington, and he insightfully demonstrates how history repeats itself by comparing the emergence of Jim Crow with the rise in white supremacism surrounding Barack Obama’s presidency.
posted by Barack Spinoza at 7:29 PM on April 2 [4 favorites]

And, finally: a four-hour documentary based on Gates’ book will air on PBS this month — Reconstruction: America after the Civil War.
Henry Louis Gates Jr. presents a vital new four-hour documentary series on Reconstruction: America After the Civil War. The series explores the transformative years following the American Civil War, when the nation struggled to rebuild itself in the face of profound loss, massive destruction, and revolutionary social change. The twelve years that composed the post-war Reconstruction era (1865-77) witnessed a seismic shift in the meaning and makeup of our democracy, with millions of former slaves and free black people seeking out their rightful place as equal citizens under the law. Though tragically short-lived, this bold democratic experiment was, in the words of W. E. B. Du Bois, a ‘brief moment in the sun’ for African Americans, when they could advance, and achieve, education, exercise their right to vote, and run for and win public office.
posted by Barack Spinoza at 7:43 PM on April 2 [7 favorites]

About time. Looking forward to it.
posted by eustatic at 8:57 PM on April 2

This sounds like a great book. Gates is a great scholar and a great writer. I'm especially interested in the attention he's apparently given to the cultural impact of Reconstruction.
posted by shapes that haunt the dusk at 9:19 PM on April 2

And this is something a lot of people aren't taught about in school. At least, I wasn't, in Maryland in the 1980s. There was the Civil War, the slaves were freed, then there were a couple of big wars and we didn't really hear anything about race relations until it was time for Brown v. Board of Ed. It wasn't until I was in college and happened to read Eric Foner's book A Short History of Reconstruction that I knew that it even happened. And I'd listened to the REM album Fables of the Reconstruction hundreds of times at that point. I thought it was just a cool word.

Decades of history that largely undid what I was taught to understand as the high point of the American idea in the 19th century. And we just... skipped it.

I hope schools are better at this now. I hope Gates's work helps them get better.
posted by escabeche at 9:27 PM on April 2 [17 favorites]

I'm grateful that this work will be made more accessible with the PBS 4 hour documentary on the subject. I know that "Eyes on the Prize" was the most impactful and important documentary I saw as a youth. I hope that like "Eyes on the Prize" it will be shown in schools nationwide.

PBS highlights 10 black history documentaries to watch here (surprisingly, they are not all PBS documentaries).
posted by el io at 9:53 PM on April 2 [5 favorites]

It’s so utterly unsurprising to learn that after heavy criticism of The Birth of a Nation, D.W. Griffith responded with the follow up Intolerance — a searing indictment of the inherent prejudice and bigotry of everyone who was mean to him just for creating a hagiography of racist terrorists. 100 years later and the typical response to being called out has barely changed.
posted by Proofs and Refutations at 10:16 PM on April 2 [14 favorites]

Excellent post for Confederate Heritage Month!
posted by TedW at 1:43 AM on April 3 [2 favorites]

...the rise in white supremacism surrounding Barack Obama’s presidency.

Exemplified by Gates' own experience when he was accused by a white person of trying to break into a Cambridge, MA house and subsequently severely hassled by the cops. The house was Gates' home, which he owns. White people getting publicly racist has not subsided since Obama left office, of course. With one of their own explicitly encouraging them from the White House, they've been acting out more and more.

Locally, my neighbor's lawn jockey is no longer on his front lawn. It was a full-on caricatured affront, with fresh paint. My fantasy is that his wife discovered the meaning of the thing and ordered it out. That was my fantasy regarding his Trump sign, too, when it disappeared from his lawn in the middle of the 2016 campaign. Even if she did, it's not enough to give me hope.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 3:45 AM on April 3 [4 favorites]

Exemplified by Gates' own experience when he was accused by a white person of trying to break into a Cambridge, MA house and subsequently severely hassled by the cops. The house was Gates' home, which he owns.

Followed by the President acquiescing to an idiotic "beer summit" with Gates and the cop, in service of some incoherent "both sides" narrative , since, I suppose, it is Seriously Very Bad to insinuate that the police are racist.
posted by thelonius at 3:50 AM on April 3 [8 favorites]

Open Yale Courses features David Blight's The Civil War and Reconstruction Era, 1845-1877, if you're looking for 27 hours of deep dive.
posted by whuppy at 5:18 AM on April 3 [6 favorites]

It will be shown in inner city schools.

But it won't be shown where it might do some good.
posted by notreally at 5:49 AM on April 3 [1 favorite]

One of the things I discover in reading American history as an adult is how much of my childhood history curriculum was actually mythology. Recognizing that my schools were deeply misleading about the start of WWII, it's reasonable to deconstruct what I was told about the American Civil War as well. It may have been a war that ended slavery, but it was absolutely not a war to end White Supremacy. Concurrent with the American Civil War, the Union military massacred Native Americans, and Union industrialists treated "non-white" immigrants as a cheap labor underclass. The people of the Union states had the political clout to fully commit to Reconstruction and prevent Jim Crow. Our failure to do so was not just a moral failing, it was a refusal to examine the very real discrimination and segregation of our own cities, churches, schools, and workplaces.
posted by GenderNullPointerException at 7:33 AM on April 3 [11 favorites]

So it's not that the South won the Civil War. It's that the North was also White Supremacist and expansionist, and won the war to impose an industrialist version of White Supremacy over its territorial claims.
posted by GenderNullPointerException at 7:46 AM on April 3 [5 favorites]

I'm still working my way through Foner's extended history of Reconstruction, off and on over a year. It's excellent but also very slow going, too much detail. As much as I respect Gates I'm not sure I have the fortitude for another detailed book on the topic right now.

Which makes me glad there's a TV version too. Here's the broadcast schedule on PBS; it's showing April 9 and April 16, two 2-hour slots. Also available via streaming and hopefully soon thereafter via unlicensed downloads of your choice.
posted by Nelson at 7:52 AM on April 3

Interesting and related, from Princeton University's Leah Boustan - Question: what happened to the sons of slaveholders who lost wealth (sometimes tremendous fortunes) after the Civil War? Did sons rebound & join elite, or did wealth loss transmit to next gen? [tweets | threadreader]

The Economist: The sons of slaveholders quickly recovered their fathers’ wealth
Washington Post: What Southern dynasties’ post-Civil War resurgence tell us about how wealth is really handed down
posted by peeedro at 5:30 PM on April 4 [3 favorites]

Wow, that's a fascinating new study peeedro. My immediate cynical take is that the awful people I grew up with in the South would just look at this as evidence that the wealthy families are somehow innately superior, perhaps genetically. But according to the WashPo summary, the authors controlled for that factor "by focusing on situations where wealth and location were similar in 1860 yet families still differed in the number of black people they enslaved".

Here's a direct link to the paper, and also a link to SSRN. But the main site is down and I haven't found a cached copy on Sci-Hub or Wayback yet.
posted by Nelson at 8:45 AM on April 5

The first two hours broadcast last night. All four hours are now available for streaming, at least if you're in the US and tell it KQED is your local station. Not sure about internationally.
posted by Nelson at 10:23 AM on April 10 [2 favorites]

Sorry Ken Burns, the success and brilliance of the new PBS series on Reconstruction is a reminder of the missed opportunity facing the nation: Why We Need a New Civil War Documentary.
posted by peeedro at 10:30 AM on April 30 [2 favorites]

Heather Cox Richardson follows a thread of taxation, representation, and white wealth from Reconstruction to today (twitter)
posted by the man of twists and turns at 12:51 PM on April 30

« Older "Mad weave is triaxial"   |   The hypothetical losses of the women he might have... Newer »

This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments