Henry Louis Gates Jr. Seeks to Reconcile History and Truth in 'Reconstruction'

The extent to which Americans are willing to face the truth of the past--in the fullness of its tragedy and triumph--is the extent to which there’s hope that society can collectively achieve freedom and liberation. This is especially relevant for our understanding of the history of the post-Civil War period known as the Reconstruction Era, which lasted from 1863, the date of the Emancipation Proclamation, until 1877, when federal troops left southern states. Harvard historian Henry Louis Gates Jr. examines Reconstruction’s history and its meaning today in his latest historical project. He recently published Stony the Road: Reconstruction, White Supremacy, and the Rise of Jim Crow in conjunction with the companion documentary Reconstruction: America After the Civil War, which premiered in April. He also collaborated with accomplished children’s author Tonya Bolden to produce a young adult book, Dark Sky Rising: Reconstruction and the Dawn of Jim Crow, which coincided with these projects.

Through a compelling narrative, stunning visuals, and provocative storytelling, the books and series advance the idea of an intimate relationship between freedom’s fullest expressions and a robust reckoning with American history’s messy racial contradictions. The projects argue that truthfully probing white supremacy’s pathological and violent anti-Blackness is key to realizing liberation. The books and film declare that full and legitimate equality is only possible through nuanced honesty.

If history is a mirror, for the duration of this nation’s past white America has often refused to look at itself long enough to recognize the truth.

Current political and social conditions informed Gates’ retelling of Reconstruction’s history in our present moment. Reconstruction opens with Dylann Roof’s murderous rampage at Charleston’s Mother Emanuel AME Church, which killed the Reverend Clementa Pinckney and eight congregants. Gates contextualizes Reconstruction’s contemporary relevance by connecting its history with the white supremacy that motivated the Charleston church shooting and the political firestorm surrounding the removal of Confederate monuments. He dedicates the book to “The Mother Emanuel Nine,” whom he describes as “martyrs to white supremacy.”

Also pertinent are current manifestations of Reconstruction’s legacy, including the Reverend William Barber’s Moral Mondays movement, which he envisions as part of 21st century grassroots activism he calls “Third Reconstruction.” Yet the project spotlights a shining moment of political possibility. The jubilation of emancipation was palpable and inspiring; a limitless horizon beckoned advancement and opportunity for African Americans. The Civil Rights Act of 1866, and the immediate passage of the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments abolished slavery across the nation, legalized equal protection under the law, established voting rights, and transformed citizenship. Educational institutions, churches, schools, and businesses formed a solid foundation for the collective progress of Black social and cultural life.

Gates and his collaborators present a detailed picture of this evolution, from the innovative Black political and social advancement during Reconstruction’s “moment of opportunity,” to African Americans’ calculated struggles against Jim Crow. “There are not many moments in recorded human history where a group that was so subordinated, so dispossessed, would within the space of a decade, be fully integrated into the highest echelons of political society,” Kimberlé Crenshaw observed in the documentary’s opening episode. In response to such expansive political progress, vicious oppression soon blanketed the country. Reconstruction documents how the lineage of anti-Black policing and private prisons originated in the post-Civil War period with policies like vagrancy laws and convict leasing. The rise of the Ku Klux Klan and the extralegal violence that sought to destroy Black people through intimidation and lynching is presented as a backdrop to recent white supremacist violence. It explores historical relationships between white supremacy’s disenfranchisement of Black voters, political maneuvers to remove Black lawmakers, and current efforts for stricter voter ID laws — many of which exist in former Confederate states. The rise of the New Negro movement during the Jim Crow era is another noted historical turning point. The documentary highlights how Black artists, scholars, and teachers began to recraft historical narratives of the United States with Black people at the center. Music, literature, and art reframed Black history as a more nuanced story of ingenuity and complexity. Such acts of cultural rebellion challenged the fabrications of Lost Cause ideology, which aimed to retell the story of the South through the lens of states’ rights instead of slavery, anti-Black propaganda, and scientific racism. Two noteworthy strengths of Gates’ Stony the Road and Reconstruction enhance our understanding of Reconstruction’s pertinence today. The first is an emphasis on what Gates terms white supremacy’s “visual rhetoric” — the expansive array of art, political cartoons, advertisements, blackface minstrelsy, and, later, movies such as The Birth of a Nation, which sought to denigrate Blackness by depicting it as animalistic, rapacious, violent, threatening, and unintelligent.

Harnessing the power of images utilized by Frederick Douglass and Sojourner Truth in the 19th century to re-envision life after slavery, Gates shows how 20th century scholars such as W. E. B. Du Bois likewise responded to racist depictions of African Americans. For the World’s Fair in 1900 held in Paris, Du Bois carefully curated the American Negro Exhibit, which included photos of respectable, refined, leisurely, dignified, self-assured, and confident Black Americans, displays designed to counter prevailing stereotypical images. Today’s visually saturated culture still traffics in anti-Blackness, so placing the politics of visual protest into a longer arc makes this history immediately relevant.

The second strength is Gates’ detailed coverage of the role of the Black press in liberation struggles. While Frederick Douglass’ The North Star is, of course, a central part of this history, Ida B. Wells takes the documentary’s center stage as her bold anti-lynching newspaper publications backed by an unyielding commitment to fact-based, truthful reporting, stirred white supremacy’s fierce animus. In episode four, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People’s (NAACP) main publication, The Crisis, receives extended coverage for its fearless reporting, adversarial tone, and use of images to depict Black beauty and brilliance.

In episode four, an astute observation by journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones communicates both the history and necessity of freedom fighter reporting. “Failing to tell our stories was giving up our agency,” she commented. “We were never going to have a true and accurate depiction of what our lives were like, what our America was like, as long as other people were telling those stories.”

Consonant with freedom is a deep devotion to truth-telling.

Despite post-Civil War backlash, anti-Black policing, mass incarceration, white supremacist violence, the persistence of poverty, and voting rights violations continue to manifest today. As a result, the traditions of Black creativity, resistance, and rebellion against the injustice that marked the Reconstruction era are important to recognize today. History doesn’t repeat itself in a simplistic sense, but there are striking echoes of the past in contemporary times.

Journalist and activist Shaun King recently explored this dynamic of understanding in a recent episode of “The Breakdown,” observing that “it’s hard to understand a moment in history when you are in it.” This astute commentary calls for a keen attempt to carefully and accurately document history as it is happening. The purpose of narrating history through the lens of current times — the same perspective Gates offered about Reconstruction through his books and documentary — preserves the past, and its nuanced storytelling must reflect truth, without which transformative expressions of freedom and liberation are not impossible.

About the Author

Phillip Luke Sinitiere is a sections editor at The North Star. He is a historian who writes on race, religion, culture, and society. He teaches history and humanities at the College of Biblical Studies, a predominately Black school located in Houston’s Mahatma Gandhi District. Sinitiere is the author or editor of several books including Protest and Propaganda: W. E. B. Du Bois, The Crisis, and American History; Salvation with a Smile: Joel Osteen, Lakewood Church, and American Christianity; and Citizen of the World: The Late Career and Legacy of W. E. B. Du Bois.