Howell Raines is the former executive editor of the the New York Times, a political commentator on MSNBC, and author of “My Soul Is Rested,” an oral history of the Southern civil rights movement.
Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. felt the first stirrings of what would become his latest book, “Stony the Road: Reconstruction, White Supremacy, and the Rise of Jim Crow” during his 1969-1970 sophomore year at Yale. He was enrolled in his first African American history course — no such classes were given at his high school — and was introduced to Reconstruction, the brief period after the Civil War when blacks exerted their newfound rights and leadership in the former slave states. The course also covered the racist reaction to Reconstruction, known as Redemption, Gates writes, “when the former Confederate states ‘redeemed’ themselves at the expense of black rights” and took up with vehemence and violence the dictates of white supremacy. “I have connected Reconstruction with Redemption ever since, as the apex and nadir . . . of the African American experience.”
During that academic year, Gates also took a course on the Harlem Renaissance, a period of black intellectual and artistic ferment from the late 19th century to the mid-1920s; he continued to study that period and the emergence in those years of what became known as the New Negro. “In this book,” Gates writes, “I attempt to show that the New Negro was the black community’s effort to roll back Redemption, which was itself a rollback to Reconstruction, and to do so by coining a metaphor, of all things, and then by seeking to embody that metaphor.” The result is “Stony the Road” — as Gates describes it, “an intellectual and cultural history of black agency and the resistance to and institutionalization of white supremacy.” His title is borrowed from James Weldon Johnson’s 1900 poem, “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” known as the Negro national anthem: “Stony the road we trod/ Bitter the chast’ning rod.”
Gates’s book covers territory well known to scholars and Civil War buffs: how our received wisdom of the “tragic decade” of Reconstruction flows from two polluted streams, the myth of the Lost Cause and the Jim Crow segregation mania that swept American legislatures and popular entertainment after 1900. For those wishing to know more about this dismal story of racial hysteria in places as high as Woodrow Wilson’s White House and as low as the blackface minstrel show, “Stony the Road” is excellent one-stop shopping. With a main text of about 250 pages, Gates offers a compressed, yet surprisingly comprehensive narrative sweep: Along with the usual catalogue of political sins, he adds an overview of the lesser-known stories of how our “best” universities, such as Columbia and Harvard, allowed two pseudo-disciplines — “scientific racism” and eugenics — to create a false dogma of black misrule and white suffering at the center of the Reconstruction narrative.
With a dazzling selection of cartoon stereotypes, the author shows that, in the white-supremacist reaction, “all along, the issue had been about the fabrication of hateful imagery in order to justify robbing black people of their constitutional rights and their economic potential.”
Gates, a PBS broadcast personality, adds to a steadily growing canon of revisionist studies following in the footsteps of Eric Foner’s monumental 1988 history, “Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877.” Foner’s searing scholarship inspired other books such as Nicholas Lemann’s “Redemption.” But whereas Lemann looked closely at racial terrorism in Louisiana and Mississippi, Gates prefers the bigger canvas that he and Foner, as an adviser, used in the PBS documentary “Reconstruction: America After the Civil War.”
With the rise of scholars like Foner in the 1960s, the Reconstruction story began to take the outline followed by Gates and other writers in the field. They have shown that earlier historians and the public were conditioned by films such as “Birth of a Nation” that depicted Reconstruction as a period of Lost Cause myths and white suffering. Gates describes the 1915 film by D.W. Griffith as “one of the most blatantly racist motion pictures ever produced. . . . The film was an unapologetic, blistering attack on what the Redemptionist Griffith saw as the appalling tragedy that Reconstruction had been, represented through a dazzlingly effective marshaling of racial pornography in the emerging language of the motion picture.”
In tracing the emergence of the New Negro, Gates notes that Booker T. Washington “was named the very first new Negro” by the white press. But Washington was “problematic” — he called for a regime of economic cooperation and social separation as a necessary condition of black progress. Gates observes that Washington was gradually eclipsed by more militant followers of Frederick Douglass and W.E.B. Du Bois. The latter’s scholarship in combination with the Harlem Renaissance saw the emergence of a “newer New Negro” and vigorous pursuit of the rights of equal treatment first promised by the Reconstruction Congress that passed the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments.
Gates is at his most fluent in defining the newer Negro as a feature of the Harlem Renaissance powered by Alain Locke, Langston Hughes, James Weldon Johnson and other key figures of the African American creative pantheon. Locke is depicted as a flawed visionary who believed that artistic achievement would be as sure a path to equality as politics or economics. “They saw themselves as members of the black upper class,” Gates writes, “a cosmopolitan mobile elite that could be integrated into American society, even if ‘the slow-moving black masses’ (as the head of the Urban League Charles S. Johnson would actually call them) could not.”
Notwithstanding his high regard for the Renaissance, Gates clearly tilts toward politics, rather than art-for-art’s-sake or pure commerce, as the most reliable vehicle for black progress. “No people, in all of human history, has ever been liberated by the creation of art. None,” Gates asserts with a sense of certainty that is a signature of his rhetoric.
He prefers Du Bois to the classic Victorian gentleman Washington as a role model. Even so, the author is a painstakingly honest broker in describing the combat among black opinion leaders over the roles of class, skin color, education and social adaptation vs. rebellion in the African American saga.
Analytically, this is a lively, consistently challenging book. I was struck by a sweeping criticism Gates offers in discussing the Harlem Renaissance. He blames Locke’s 1925 anthology, “The New Negro,” for ignoring “those great geniuses of black vernacular culture, the musicians who created the world’s greatest art form in the entire twentieth century — jazz.” The grandiose language feels like special pleading, based on personal taste, but Gates usefully reminds us that “jazz and its companion blues,” while rooted in black culture, have a unique place in one of modernity’s great stories: the African American experience on the American continent in the previous century. Gates’s telling of that story is a contribution to what we ought to be thinking about, given the rocky launch of this newest American century.
By Henry Louis Gates Jr.
Penguin Press. 296 pp. $30