‘Stony the Road’ lays bare the failure of Reconstruction

Historian and television host Henry Louis Gates Jr. explores the brief flowering of African American leadership after the Civil War.

Penguin Press
'Stony the Road: Reconstruction, White Supremacy, and the Rise of Jim Crow' by Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Penguin Press, 296 pp.

As a literary scholar and authority on African American history, Henry Louis Gates Jr. has written or co-written 24 books and serves on the faculty of Harvard University.

But he didn’t achieve broad public attention until he began hosting “Finding Your Roots,” a popular PBS series in which celebrities explore their ancestry, often with surprising results. During an episode of a related program, “African American Lives 2,” comedian Chris Rock discovers that his great-great-grandfather, Julius Caesar Tingman, had fought for the Union with the United States Colored Troops during the Civil War, then served in the South Carolina legislature under its Reconstruction government. The revelation brought the typically glib Rock to tears.

“How in the world could I not know this?” Rock asked Gates.

“I realized then,” the historian recalls, “that even descendants of black heroes of Reconstruction had lost the memory of their ancestors’ heroic achievements. I decided I would try to do something about that.”

The result is Stony the Road: Reconstruction, White Supremacy, and the Rise of Jim Crow, which serves as a kind of companion volume to “Reconstruction,” his recent PBS documentary series about the years immediately after the Civil War in the American South. Readers don’t have to see the TV project to appreciate the book.     

Reconstruction, the federal policy through which the defeated Confederacy would be stitched back into the Union, began to a large degree as an act of deconstruction – the dismantling of a system of racial oppression. “The process of Reconstruction,” Gates tells readers, “involved nothing less than the monumental effort to create a biracial democracy out of the wreckage of the rebellion.”

For a while, that radical reinvention of Southern society created dramatic results. Within a short time, Gates notes, “an estimated two thousand black men served in office at every level of government, including two U.S. senators and twenty congressmen.”

But that glimmer of equality, a kind of Prague Spring for former slaves, wouldn’t last. The federal military occupation that enforced Reconstruction policies was costly. A war-weary nation, also worried by the Panic of 1873 and a subsequent economic depression, decided to declare victory and leave the South to its old habits.    

The defeat of Reconstruction was also driven by racist attitudes in the North, Gates points out. Although Union leaders had fought against slavery, being an abolitionist “was not the same thing as being a proponent of the fundamental equality of black and white people, or the unity of the human species . . . to say nothing of equal citizenship rights and equal protection under the law.”

Even Abraham Lincoln, the Great Emancipator, was at best ambivalent on the question of racial equality, Gates adds.

With slavery officially eliminated, the Southern plantation economy still needed cheap labor, and keeping newly emancipated blacks in a variation of economic and social bondage was a way to preserve the status quo. Putting Jim Crow policies in place, Gates argues, required a “suffocating white supremacist discourse” – a system of propaganda that continues to inform reactionary racial attitudes in modern America.

Reflecting its origin as a complement to a TV series, “Stony the Road” is heavy with images and relatively light on text. Sometimes, in an apparent attempt at brevity, Gates oversimplifies a narrative, as in his account of Plessy v. Ferguson, the 1896 U.S. Supreme Court case that established the odious legal principle of separate but equal.

Readers interested in a more comprehensive discussion of Plessy and related themes might consider another recent work, Steve Luxenberg’s “Separate.”   

The illustrations in “Stony the Road” are far from decorative afterthoughts. Gates, who collects racist memorabilia as a cautionary testament to its long tradition in American life,   includes within the book an extensive gallery of such vintage iconography. Collectively, it underscores the scale of the cultural media machine used to justify Jim Crow policies.

The deeply dehumanizing images include novelty postcards in which black infants are labeled as “alligator bait” for a nearby reptile, and various posters and book covers portraying black men as either clowns or sexual predators.

The pictures are difficult to confront, yet hard to ignore. The same can be said for the book as a whole, which argues that the premise of Jim Crow has inspired a resurgence of white supremacist ideology among the alt-right. That legacy, says Gates, “drifts like a toxic oil slick as the supertanker lists into the sea.”      

Danny Heitman is a columnist for The Advocate newspaper in Louisiana.

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