Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Of an altered landscape, historians, and political lies

A couple additional notes about Eric Foner's Reconstruction: America's Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877 feel warranted. It's nearly 700 pages after all and paradigmatic for late 20th century understanding of that painfilled period.

A friend, like me educated in the 1960's, noticed the book sitting by my desk and asked: "weren't we taught that Reconstruction was a failure, a scam, somehow a wrong turn?" Yes, those of us in that age group were so taught.

Foner devotes his volume to resurrecting a very different truth.

... the magnitude of the Redeemer [white Southern] counterrevolution underscored both the scope of the transformation Reconstruction had assayed and the consequences of its failure. ... The tide of change rose and then receded, but it left behind an altered landscape. The freedmen's political and civil equality proved transitory, but the autonomous black family and a network of religious and social institutions survived ... Nor could the seeds of educational progress planted then be entirely uprooted. ...

He goes on to recount how the literal descendants of brave freed-people who were active for black empowerment during Reconstruction became leaders of subsequent black struggles to the present day.

And Foner is specific about who he blames for the false narrative taught to both whites and blacks during the first two-thirds of the 20th century.

By the turn of the [19th] century, as soldiers from North and South joined to "take up the white man's burden' in the Spanish-American War, Reconstruction was widely viewed as little more than a regrettable detour on the road to reunion. To the bulk of the white South, it had become axiomatic that Reconstruction had been a time of "savage tyranny" ... Black suffrage, wrote Joseph LeConte, who had fled South Carolina for a professorship at the University of California to avoid teaching black students, was now seen by "all thoughtful men" as " the greatest political crime ever perpetrated by any people." ...

This rewriting of Reconstruction's history was accorded scholarly legitimacy -- to its everlasting shame -- by the nation's fraternity of professional historians. Early in the twentieth century a group of young Southern scholars gathered at Columbia University to study the Reconstruction era under the guidance of Professors John W. Burgess and William A. Dunning. Blacks, their mentors taught, were "children" utterly incapable of appreciating the freedom that had been thrust upon them. The North did "a monstrous thing" in granting them suffrage, for "a black skin means membership in a race of men which has never of itself succeeded in subjecting passion to reason, has never, therefore, created any civilization of any kind." No political order could survive in the South unless founded on the principle of racial inequality. ...

The views of the Dunning school shaped historical writing for generations and achieved wide popularity through D.W. Griffith's film Birth of a Nation which glorified the Ku Klux Klan ...

It took the uprisings of the Civil Rights era to undo this lying narrative.
As is true of most of the longer books I write about here, I read Foner's opus as an audiobook, all 41 hours of it. This presented one challenge that I suspect would have felt less acute in print: in this narrative, the white "good guys" -- insofar as there were any -- are the "Republicans." What impulse toward liberation and equality existed among white Northern politicians -- and there was some -- was located in the then newly-formed Republican party. Democrats seeking to disenfranchise black freedmen are the "bad guys" in Reconstruction history.

It is not as if I didn't understand that this was how mid-19th century politics aligned, but living in the times we do, it is slightly jarring to listen to stories of Black Republicans fighting off rampaging Democratic Klansmen. But that's how the political parties operated from 1863 to 1870 or so. Democrats only became a party, in the North, that sought Black adherents from about 1936; the Voting Rights Act of 1965 completed the shift that made Republicans the white supremacist party in the South.

Contemporary right-wingers peddle a modern crackpot historical meme that highlights 19th century Democrats' hostility to black empowerment in order to downplay their own current Republican drive to curtail Black voting. History remains a battleground upon which truth and freedom have to struggle against convenient lies.


Hattie said...

I'm just skimming this, but it has occurred to me that the survival and even thriving of black people and their culture in the face of unremitting white hostility is incredible. I'll read more deeply into this when I have the time & am feeling better.

janinsanfran said...

Hi Hattie -- the resilience of Black people, endlessly kicked in the teeth and beat over the head, needs to move to the center of our national understanding. When it does, we will begin to be an enviable country.

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