“Black Reconstruction,” published against a backdrop of violence and segregation, met with a vitriolic reception. White writers leveled sharp-tongued critiques. Black journalists assessed the work favorably but with reservations. Despite the early criticism, over time “Black Reconstruction” came to be recognized as a towering analysis of American culture and an important work of history. Nonetheless, the book’s contribution to the understanding of American racism is, nearly 90 years after its publication, still subject to stale objections that echo those heard when it first hit bookstore shelves.
The 2021 release of the Library of America’s edition of “Black Reconstruction,” edited by Eric Foner and Henry Louis Gates Jr., confirms the book’s place in the pantheon of great works of enduring influence. Historians today return to Du Bois’s study to understand how Reconstruction, its accomplishments and its disappointments grew out of the legacies of slavery and the divisions of the Civil War. Du Bois underscored the political agency of Black Americans, noting how, among other examples, enslaved people changed the course of the Civil War by stopping work on Southern plantations in what he called a “general strike.” Du Bois challenged historians to stop using history to justify the suppression of Black voting rights. The nation, he urged, needed historians “who regard the truth as more important than the defense of the white race.”
Today, “Black Reconstruction” is a must-read for scholars in the fields of history, literature, education, political theory, law and conflict studies. But it wasn’t always so. Immediately after its publication, the book was mostly disdained or simply ignored. In those years, Columbia University professor William Dunning and his followers dominated thinking on Reconstruction. This conservative school of thought turned out shoddy studies that labeled the Reconstruction era a “tragedy” that threatened white supremacy by elevating Black Americans to full citizenship. Echoing Dunning School sentiments, University of Chicago historian Avery Craven issued an unvarnished denouncement of Du Bois’s book in January 1936. Craven charged that Du Bois wrote “Black Reconstruction” out of a festering in his soul rather than from his graduate training at the University of Berlin and at Harvard, and his authorship of more than a dozen previous books. “It is, in large part,” Craven mocked, “only the expression of a Negro’s bitterness against the injustice of slavery and racial prejudice.”
Craven characterized “Black Reconstruction” as “history re-written,” not to laud the book’s contribution to the historiographic debates of the time but to malign it as an illegitimate analysis. Du Bois, he asserted, cherry-picked his evidence such that “source materials so essential to any rewriting of history have been completely ignored.” If Du Bois did not include the range of materials Craven expected, it was because, as a more sympathetic reviewer pointed out, he “had not the time, money, and opportunity requisite to permit him to go back to the original sources in all cases.” Du Bois himself openly conceded that he was a Black historian subjected to Jim Crow restrictions in the academy and in the archives.
When Du Bois did plumb the documentary record, he turned to evidence that Craven deemed out of bounds: “abolition propaganda and the biased statements of partisan politicians.” The result, Craven contended, was a “half-baked Marxian interpretation.” He concluded that the book presented a “badly distorted picture” and that Du Bois had overreached.
Black journalists were among the first to closely read “Black Reconstruction.” Henry Lee Moon, writing for Harlem’s Amsterdam News, explained that Du Bois showed how “there could be no serious study and consideration of the period immediately following the civil war which did not view the Negro as being a human being endowed with the same weaknesses and strengths that characterize other races.” But Moon broke with the near-consensus among Black reviewers who praised Du Bois’s scholarship and brilliant style. He found Du Bois’s evidence lacking in some places and warned presciently that “Black Reconstruction” should expect negative reviews from readers on the right and the left.
What Moon could not have imagined is that, today, much of the early criticism has resurfaced. A case in point is Helen Andrews’s recent review of the Library of America’s reissue of “Black Reconstruction.” At times, Andrews appears to borrow directly from Craven, mocking Du Bois, as she writes in the American Conservative, for his “bold attempt to apply a Marxist framework to the Civil War period.” Andrews virtually parrots Craven when she criticizes the book’s “limited sources” and lack of “original archival research,” which Du Bois himself lamented. A senior editor at the American Conservative, Andrews endorses the Dunning School view, as Craven did, when she concludes that “Reconstruction was bad, objectively bad.”
Between Craven in 1936 and Andrews in 2021, historians have produced a small library’s worth of works on Reconstruction. Many build upon Du Bois’s thinking, while some others depart from it. But among these studies, most rare is the historian who fails to reach back to Du Bois’s ideas to explain the genesis of their interpretation. With the rise of the modern civil rights movement, Reconstruction received serious reconsideration, and “Black Reconstruction” became a staple in scholarly debates. Du Bois’s work maintains an unshakable relevance to understanding what some have termed the second American revolution, a brief period when the nation worked toward a multiracial democracy.
Today, we read “Black Reconstruction” to further our thinking about racism and inequality in America, and to heed the book’s call to assess clear-eyed where this country has been and where it still might go.
An Essay Toward a History of the Part Which Black Folk Played in the Attempt to Reconstruct Democracy in America, 1860–1880 & Other Writings
By W.E.B. Du Bois
Library of America. 1,085 pp. $45