From The Economist - April 27 - 2019



American history



A kind of freedom


Stony the Road: Reconstruction, White Supremacy and the Rise of Jim Crow. 


By Henry Louis Gates junior. Penguin Press; 320 pages; $30 and £25




“In what new skin will the old snake come forth?" The abolitionist and former slave Frederick Douglass posed this question in 1865, a month after America's civil war ended. Slavery was dead Hopes soared—and were soon dashed. As another great African-American intellectual, W.E.B. Du Bois, put it: "The slave went free; stood a brief moment in the sun; then moved back again toward slavery."


The post-war history of civil rights in America Was dismal. Reconstruction—in which the North tried to rebuild and reform the South—lasted only a dozen years. It included some triumphs; for example, roughly 2,000 black politicians entered government in the late 19th century. But when Ulysses S. Grant, a racially progressive president, left office in 1877, the North tired of browbeating the South. White supremacy returned in force during a period shockingly known (by some) as "Redemption". The discrimination and segregation of Jim Crow took hold; black people were oppressed and denied the right to vote.


"Stony the Road", the new book by Henry Louis Gates junior, a professor at Harvard, is a concise, powerful account of African-Americans' efforts to resist the rollback of their rights. It describes the onslaught of degradations they faced and their leaders' valiant, if flawed, bid to reverse bigoted perceptions, highlighting the —role of literature and the arts. It is an important addition to America's evolving view of its own history.


The cultural and scientific assault on African-Americans was relentless. They were seen by many whites as subhuman, consigned to inferiority by pseudo-science. Theirs was a “childlike” race (though according to the propaganda, black men were also prone to savagely raping white - women). In white literature, blacks were nostalgic for slavery and its supposed protections. A story of 1893 featured a character known as "little Mammy" who "grieved, as she crept down the street, that she had never mounted the auctioneer's block."


Such representations were everywhere, serving the political goal of keeping black Americans out of power—for who would trust a beast or a child to make laws? Mr Gates includes dozens of searing images: cartoons showing black men eyeing white women, "Sambo art" lampooning blacks as imbeciles, and grotesque postcards distributed to celebrate lynchings.


Well-to-do black people fought back. — But so ingrained were the dehumanising stereotypes, all those Mammies and Uncle Toms, that the only solution seemed to be separating themselves from the impoverished masses. Enter the "New Negro", a term adopted by the black elite of the late 19th century. Whereas the "Old Negro" was "degraded" or "degenerate", Mr Gates summarises, the New Negro was sober, classy and sophisticated. The rebranding culminated in the Harlem Renaissance (originally known as the New Negro Renaissance), which showcased the talents of the starriest African-Americans.


From today's perspective, the glitch is obvious. As Mr Gates writes: "You might

say that its own formulation embedded its own critique." The existence of the New Negro implied the inadequacy of the old. In its own way the strategy adhered to white standards, as some African-Americans observed at the time. In the end, as Mr Gates notes, some of the richest elements of African-American culture—jazz, blues and spirituals—arose from the grassroots, rather than descending from the elite.


The New Negro was ultimately a "vain attempt to confect positive images of noble black people powerful enough to brace against the maelstrom of excruciating images that the white supremacist imagination had spawned". But the enterprise still mattered. This was the era in which anti-lynching campaigns began and the NAACP was formed. Eventually, says Mr Gates, such acts of resistance grew into the civil-rights movement of the 1960s, when real and lasting change occurred—a century after Reconstruction.


Even so, as he laments, the awful imagery of the Redemption period still "drifts like a toxic oil slick" through contemporary culture. Far as America has travelled, the road remains stony. ■


TRULY  THE  PLIGHT  OF  THE  AFRICAN-AMERICAN  HAS  BEEN  A  HARD  STONY  ROAD,  WITH  WORN-OUT  SHOES  AND  CALLUSED  FEET.


IN  THE  AGE  TO  COME  ALL  PEOPLE  WILL  BE  OF  EQUAL  WORTH;  ALL  WILL  KNOW  GOD  CREATED  ALL  RACES;  ALL  WILL  KNOW  THERE  IS  ONLY  ONE  WAY  INTO  GOD’S  KINGDOM;  ALL  WILL  KNOW  THAT  ALL  PEOPLE  ARE  LOVED  BY  THE  HEAVENLY  FATHER  AND  HIS  SON  CHRIST  JESUS.


IN  THAT  AGE  THERE  WILL  BE  NO  MORE  VANITY,  EGO,  SELF-RIGHTEOUSNESS;  THERE  WILL  BE  NO  MORE  THE  THOUGHT  OF  ONE  RACE  OF  PEOPLE  BEING  GREATER  THAN  ANOTHER  RACE;  ALL  WILL  KNOW  THEY  STAND  ON  EQUAL  GROUND  FOR  SALVATION;  ALL  WILL  KNOW  THEY  CAN  BE  THE  CHILDREN  OF  GOD.


SO  WE  PRAY,  “THY  KINGDOM  COME,  THY  WILL  BE  DONE  ON  EARTH  AS  IT  IS  DONE  IN  HEAVEN.”


Keith Hunt