Michael Gerson on the Failure of Reconstruction

Reconstruction 2

The Washington Post columnist reminds us of the “horrors” of Reconstruction.  The column basically serves as a reflection on Henry Louis Gates’s Stony Road: Reconstruction, White Supremacy, and the Rise of Jim Crow.

Here is a taste:

Gates is especially insightful in revealing how black people, after their constitutional rights were stolen, attempted to reassert their dignity in nonpolitical ways. Through Booker T. Washington’s version of self-help. Or by cultivating the achievements of W.E.B. Du Bois’ “talented tenth.” Or through the artistic excellence of the Harlem Renaissance. Or through pan-African pride.

Ultimately, Gates argues that Frederick Douglass got closest to the truth — that there is no path to pride and equality that does not include political power, particularly voting rights. This was the main theme of the NAACP and, eventually, of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. It is a tribute to the importance of justice as the first human need.

The denial of justice recounted by “Stony the Road” was every bit as bad as apartheid. It was not just racism, but also the systematic attempt to destroy — through violence, threats and mockery — the dignity, political rights and social standing of blacks in America. It was far worse than anything I was taught in history classes. Yet only by knowing this period can we understand how white supremacy became the broadly accepted, and sadly durable, ideology of white America.

Read the entire piece here. It is good to see Gerson writing on this theme.

Coates and Obama Talk Race: Part 3

coates-obamaHere is an excerpt from Part 3 of their conversation on race published at The Atlantic. (See our previous post to get up to speed).

Obama: …And then you’ve got Skip Gates being arrested, which, to me, I was saying something pretty obvious. They ended up handcuffing this middle-aged, elderly man on his own porch. No matter how much he cursed you out, you overreacted, and it probably would not have happened had there not been some assumptions about who he was based on his race. Again, immediately folks ignored the discussion.

So this is part of the reason why when I hear people say we need a dialogue about race, or we need commissions on race, or this or that, I’m always somewhat skeptical, because trying to engineer those kinds of conversations on a national level in a way that could actually capture reality is very hard. What can happen, I think, is for us to act in ways that show mutual regard, propose policies that safeguard against obvious discrimination, extend ourselves in our personal lives and in our political lives in ways that lead us to see the other person as a human worthy of respect. It’s what we do more than what we say, I ultimately think, that saves us. All right?

Coates: All right.

Quote of the Day

“Far more people know that Ben Affleck is descended from slave-owners now than would have known if he had just cooperated as everyone else did.” –Kevin Gutzman, Western Connecticut State University (via Facebook).

Need some context for this quote?  Try this.

Are We Finally Getting a Frederick Douglass Movie?

I have been teaching Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave in my United States history survey course for fifteen years.  It is the most teachable primary source I have ever encountered. Nearly every time I teach this text I tell my students that it would make a great movie. There are so many moving scenes:  the shooting of Denby by Mr. Gore, Frederick’s fight with Mr. Covey, the attempt by Sophia Auld to teach young Frederick to read, etc…

This is a slave story.  This is an American history. (It works very well when read in the same semester as Ben Franklin’s Autobiography).  This is a human story.  And now, if Henry Louis Gates’s Twitter feed is correct (or Elizabeth Alexander’s retweet is correct), it may finally be coming to the big screen.  It looks like the movie will be based on David Blight‘s forthcoming biography of Douglass.  Stay tuned.

UPDATE:  Gates’s tweet seems to have disappeared.  Let me know if you find it on his feed.  Maybe he let the cat out of the bag too quickly.