Stony the Road: From black triumph to racial hysteria to the ‘new Negro’Historians in the News
tags: books, Reconstruction, Henry Louis Gates, Jr., White Supremacy
Howell Raines is the former executive editor of the the New York Times, a political commentator on MSNBC, and author of “My Soul Is Rested,” an oral history of the Southern civil rights movement.
Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. felt the first stirrings of what would become his latest book, “Stony the Road: Reconstruction, White Supremacy, and the Rise of Jim Crow” during his 1969-1970 sophomore year at Yale. He was enrolled in his first African American history course — no such classes were given at his high school — and was introduced to Reconstruction, the brief period after the Civil War when blacks exerted their newfound rights and leadership in the former slave states. The course also covered the racist reaction to Reconstruction, known as Redemption, Gates writes, “when the former Confederate states ‘redeemed’ themselves at the expense of black rights” and took up with vehemence and violence the dictates of white supremacy. “I have connected Reconstruction with Redemption ever since, as the apex and nadir . . . of the African American experience.”
During that academic year, Gates also took a course on the Harlem Renaissance, a period of black intellectual and artistic ferment from the late 19th century to the mid-1920s; he continued to study that period and the emergence in those years of what became known as the New Negro. “In this book,” Gates writes, “I attempt to show that the New Negro was the black community’s effort to roll back Redemption, which was itself a rollback to Reconstruction, and to do so by coining a metaphor, of all things, and then by seeking to embody that metaphor.” The result is “Stony the Road” — as Gates describes it, “an intellectual and cultural history of black agency and the resistance to and institutionalization of white supremacy.” His title is borrowed from James Weldon Johnson’s 1900 poem, “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” known as the Negro national anthem: “Stony the road we trod/ Bitter the chast’ning rod.”
Gates’s book covers territory well known to scholars and Civil War buffs: how our received wisdom of the “tragic decade” of Reconstruction flows from two polluted streams, the myth of the Lost Cause and the Jim Crow segregation mania that swept American legislatures and popular entertainment after 1900. For those wishing to know more about this dismal story of racial hysteria in places as high as Woodrow Wilson’s White House and as low as the blackface minstrel show, “Stony the Road” is excellent one-stop shopping. With a main text of about 250 pages, Gates offers a compressed, yet surprisingly comprehensive narrative sweep: Along with the usual catalogue of political sins, he adds an overview of the lesser-known stories of how our “best” universities, such as Columbia and Harvard, allowed two pseudo-disciplines — “scientific racism” and eugenics — to create a false dogma of black misrule and white suffering at the center of the Reconstruction narrative.
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