Skip to main content

Whether or not you were able to see Henry Louis Gates, Jr.'s PBS special dealing with Reconstruction and its long shadow, be sure to get your hands on the companion book, Stony the Road: Reconstruction, White Supremacy, and the Rise of Jim Crow (Penguin Books, $30).


But be prepared for a shock when you leaf through the book's many plates (and take care to review the illustrations yourself before handing the book to a young child). Gates and his publisher provide a vast array of the vicious anti-Black cartoons, caricatures, tracts, fake phrenological charts, minstrelsy song sheets and playbills, and (of course) the "Sambo" images that were ubiquitous in major corporate advertising from the 1890s through the 1950s, albeit these are images dating from much earlier. Other repellent illustrations in the book include the postcards of lynchings that white people would send each other routinely, making light of a murderous terrorism.

Gates tells us in his introduction that he provides no commentary on these images because they speak for themselves, unspeakably. Gates wants us to see, and to reckon with, these stomach-turning visualizations of orchestrated contempt. They comprise the documentary evidence of white criminality.

He begins with a chapter explaining how so many white people, including Mr. Lincoln, could be staunchly anti-slavery while remaining shamefully anti-Black.

And, of course, he wants us to understand the historical roots of such vileness. He begins with a chapter explaining how so many white people, including Mr. Lincoln, could be staunchly anti-slavery while remaining shamefully anti-Black. He quotes a northern (Cincinnati Enquirer) editorial written shortly after the bloody war ended: "Slavery is dead, but the negro is not, [and] there is the misfortune."

Despite this anxiety among whites, newly-freed African American people by the millions were expecting the Union to make good on the promise of Gen. Sherman's Special Field Orders No. 15: i.e., access to the land and tools needed for economic self-sufficiency. They were building schools, building churches, and signing up to vote. In 1867 that one fact alone—the pending enfranchisement of Black men throughout the South—struck fear into the hearts of a down-but-not-out white planter class; they knew full well that Black men made up either a majority or close to it in all of the former Confederate states.

Gates notes that defeated white elites needed to "emasculate" this rising Black power in order to create a new system of "neo-slavery" that would allow the cotton fields they still owned to continue to supply the sharply rising demand for cotton in the postwar period. Hence the rapid formation of the Klan, the rapid enactment of the Black Codes, and the rapid rollout of an unprecedented avalanche of anti-Black propaganda. The Southern elites were confident that their equally rapid imposition of a lethal new economic regime—convict leasing, or slavery by another name, along with sharecropping based on debt peonage—would take care of their labor needs while simultaneously buttressing white supremacy

These good Christian white men called their many-pronged pushback campaign "Redemption" without a trace of irony, seeing no connection (or choosing not to see any) between the cross of Christ and the lynching tree. Those of us who claim to be Christian might do well to reflect on that connection as we approach Good Friday this year.

One of the most important takeaways from Gates's book is how horribly long this "Redemption" has lasted (it's still not over) in contrast to the painfully brief duration—just 12 year—of federally enforced Reconstruction.

Gates proposes that along with the application of simple terrorism there were four main pillars serving to advance the long postwar anti-Black campaign:

Scroll to Continue

Recommended Articles

  • the deployment of fake racial "science" (suggesting, for example, that Blacks form a separate non-human species),
  • a pervasive anti-Black current running through much mainstream journalism,
  • a finely-honed anti-Black politics operating in the North as well as in the South,
  • and (most important, according to Gates) the production and propagation of powerfully anti-Black fiction and folklore.

The long-term impact of the Federalist Society and other Koch Brothers initiatives—a democracy in chains—will undoubtedly be far greater than any particular poisons that Trump leaves in his putrid wake.

I suggest that we pause here to consider how pervasive these pillars still remain. The "science" of Black inferiority has gone underground, but it hasn't gone away. And while it may not come across as explicitly "anti-Black," a mainstream journalism that is substantively anti-Black isn't hard to find. Try Sinclair Broadcasting and Fox News and the whole farrago of upscale conservative magazines aimed at policymakers. Anti-Black politics? It would be hard to beat the 45th president (although he has said that he thinks "Fred" Douglass is a very fine fellow), but the long-term impact of the Federalist Society and other Koch Brothers initiatives—a democracy in chains—will undoubtedly be far greater than any particular poisons that Trump leaves in his putrid wake.

Which is not to say that nothing changes. Gates certainly doesn't say that. One of the more interesting and novel things he does in the book is to draw a fruitful contrast between the image of "Old Negro" spun out of the white propaganda machine and the self-created image of the "New Negro" emerging between 1894 and 1925. The book's fourth and final chapter shows how the monumental effort by Blacks to present a new image of themselves—educated, proud, attractive, fearless—may have brought with it some problems of its own ("respectability politics") but nevertheless expressed vividly the astonishing agency and resilience and brilliance of Black America in the face of relentless denigration. Gates cites Claude McKay's magnificent poem "If We Must Die" (1919) as an example of this indomitable spirit. Gates argues persuasively that through these rich self-created images and artworks, an important form of Black Reconstruction persisted right into the 20th century.

Throughout Stony the Road Gates is unfailingly generous to other writers and historians, notably introducing his readers to the pioneering work of Victoria Earle Matthews. As always, Gates writes simply but with supreme scholarly authority.

The book is a treasure, in part cause it is a disturbing treasure: disturbing by design. This reviewer only wishes that Gates had said slightly more about antebellum instantiations of white supremacy, going back to early Colonial times. Clearly the wretchedly racist materials that were marshaled in support of Redemption had a very long pre-history. He mentions this pre-history, but only in passing. My fear is that too many readers of Stony the Road could be left with the impression that toxic white supremacy essentially begins during the Redemption period.

Likewise, and related to this point, the book would have benefited greatly from some acknowledgment, however brief, of the role of white settler colonialism in "clearing" the land which enslaved Africans would then be made to cultivate--settler colonialism and its ethnic cleansing being the other core constituent of the 500-year white supremacy project on this continent.

These may seem like mere quibbles in relation to a book that is this valuable. My view is that as long we are now finally reckoning with the real history of white supremacy, we've got to connect all the dots.

Gates could not have chosen a better title for his book. Just about every African American knows that the title comes from "Lift Every Voice and Sing," often referred to as the Black National Anthem. Gates believes author James Weldon Johnson had to be thinking of the horrors of Redemption as he penned this pain-haunted second stanza during a peak moment in anti-Black terror (1900):

Stony the road we trod, bitter the chastening rod,
Felt in the days when hope unborn had died;
Yet with a steady beat, have not our weary feet,
Come to the place for which our fathers sighed?
We have come over a way that with tears has been watered,
We have come, treading our path through the blood of the slaughtered;
Out from the gloomy past, till now we stand at last
Where the white gleam of our bright star is cast.

No one, not even Prof. Gates, can really say for sure where the inspiration for James Johnson's words came from. But everyone knows that those words, set to the rousing music composed by his brother, J. Rosamond Johnson, can still bring tears of jubilation while kindling a renewed passion to keep marching "till victory is won." A good thing, too, because the battle to bury the Redemption narrative, let alone release the tenacious grip of white supremacy, is still so very far from being over.

Peter Laarman

peter laarman 2018