Stony the Road: Reconstruction, White Supremacy, and the Rise of Jim Crow by Henry Louis Gates, Jr.; Penguin Press, 320 pp., $30
In Black Reconstruction in America (1935), W. E. B. Du Bois wrote, “The slave went free; stood for a brief moment in the sun; then moved back again toward slavery.” The forces that pushed the freedmen back and how the black community responded are the subjects of Henry Louis Gates Jr.’s Stony the Road, its title taken from James Weldon Johnson’s 1900 poem “Lift Every Voice and Sing.” Gates, a distinguished scholar, filmmaker, and critic, writes with clarity and force about Reconstruction, Redemption, and the problem of representation. He describes his book—a combination of text and visual essays—as “an intellectual and cultural history of black agency in the face of white supremacy and resistance to it.”
In the spirit of Eric Foner’s Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution (1988), Gates views Reconstruction as a revolutionary moment in American history. He emphasizes the importance of the Civil Rights Act of 1866, and ratification of the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments, as well as efforts by African Americans to build “businesses, churches, schools and other legacy institutions.” He reminds us that, during the period, there were at least 2,000 elected black officeholders, including two United States senators and 20 representatives. With citizenship and voting rights assured, Frederick Douglass wrote in 1870, “at last, at last the black man has a future.” How, Gates asks, was Reconstruction “allowed to fail”? The answers, he suggests, “are relevant to understanding our contemporary racial politics.”
Reconstruction yielded to Redemption as white Southern Democrats “redeemed” their state governments from Republican control, which they derided as “Negro rule,” and crafted a multifaceted racist ideology. Critical to this process of dehumanization was “a fixed set of signs and symbols” that denigrated freed people and led to the invention of the “Old Negro,” the portrayal of blacks as uncivilized, illiterate, and childlike, but also dangerous. Gates meticulously unravels the strands of this discourse that led one writer to conclude that all “scientific investigation … proves the Negro to be an ape.”
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