The noted African-American literary scholar and critic examines the tangled, troubled years between the end of the Civil War and the beginning of the modern civil rights movement.
From the outset, writes Gates (African and African-American Research/Harvard Univ.; 100 Amazing Facts About the Negro, 2017, etc.), there was, among whites, a profound difference between being opposed to slavery and advocating equality for emancipated black people. Alexis de Tocqueville, he notes, warned of the latter that since “they cannot become the equals of the whites, they will speedily show themselves as enemies.” Meanwhile, countless enemies emerged among the white population, from unreconstructed Southerners to the architects of Jim Crow laws. Gates argues, with Frederick Douglass, that freedom without the vote is meaningless, and those laws did all that they could to suppress suffrage. Meanwhile, there was the hope that a “New Negro” would emerge to change affairs once and for all—a trope, Gates notes, that emerged anew with the election of Barack Obama, a metaphor “first coined as a complex defensive mechanism that black people employed to fight back against racial segregation.” Other mechanisms were born of necessity even as white culture found endless ways to appropriate from black culture while never accepting its authors. In a highly timely moment, Gates discusses the history of blackface, which was put to work in depictions of lascivious, predatory black men advancing the “thought that the ultimate fantasy of black males was to rape white women”—a thought that soon became an “obsession.” Reconstruction failed for many reasons, and the ethos that followed it was no improvement: The period under consideration, as the author recounts, marked the rise of “scientific” racism, of “Sambo” images that were “intended to naturalize the visual image of the black person as subhuman,” reinforcing the separate-and-unequal premises of Jim Crow itself. Gates suggests that it’s possible to consider the entire history of America after the Civil War as “a long Reconstruction locked in combat with an equally long Redemption,” one that’s playing out even today.
A provocative, lucid, and urgent contribution to the study of race in America.