Historians Discuss Henry Louis Gates's Documentary "Reconstruction"

Pat Young

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Pat Young

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The article begins with a reflection on the distorted view of Reconstruction generated during the Jim Crow Era:

In 1884, formerly enslaved African American author and newspaper editor T. Thomas Fortune wrote Black and White: Land, Labor, and Politics in the South, his analysis of the political and economic conditions in the South after the formal end of Reconstruction in 1877. He described the uncertain reality facing freedmen less than two decades after their emancipation. “There is no question today in American politics,” Fortune argued, “more unsettled than the negro question.” Fortune, a newspaper man himself, condemned the national mainstream press for not only failing to advocate for the rights of Black people, but also misrepresenting them as “incapable of imbibing the distorted civilization in the midst of which they live and have their being.” “Day after day,” Fortune explained, “they weave a false picture of facts—facts which must measurably influence the future historian of the times.”

Sadly, the history of Reconstruction would for too long be based on these false facts and clouded by the fog of white supremacy. With few notable exceptions, until the second half of the twentieth century a narrative of unprepared freedmen, cruel and exploitative northerners, and southern nostalgia for the lost confederate cause dominated the story of Reconstruction in both academia and popular culture. From the 1950s through the present, historians worked to undo this narrative distortion, yet for many Americans the period remains one of the least understood in American history.
 

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More from the article:

The PBS production Reconstruction: America After the Civil War, executive produced and hosted by Henry Louis Gates Jr., takes this new history and presents it as an engaging, thought-provoking, and heart-wrenching documentary. The film is divided into four, hour-long episodes, televised in two parts (all episodes are also available online). Part one tells the story of the immediate aftermath of the Civil War, a hopeful time during what W. E. B. Du Bois called African Americans’ “brief moment in the sun.” These were the tumultuous early years of rising hopes and daunting challenges. Part one concludes with the darkening horizon following the end of federal Reconstruction and the so-called redemption of white supremacist southerners.

Reconstruction is remarkable for its ability to tell the story of the past, while never losing its anchor in present day. Beginning with the tragic and racist slaughter of Black churchgoers in the 2015 massacre at Charleston’s “Mother” Emanuel AME Church, the film uses the story of Reconstruction to understand the persistence of white supremacist ideology and violence in America. What happened at Mother Emanuel was not a “singular horror,” but part of a tragic and dishonorable history of racism and violence going back to the end of the Civil War. “Violence,” historian Shawn Alexander explains, “goes side-by-side in American history to the creation of white supremacist racial ideology that has driven us from slavery all the way to the present day.”[2] The roots of Charleston, the film shows, start in Reconstruction.

Some of the most celebrated experts on Reconstruction guide the viewer through this history. Especially notable is the expertise of scholars like Martha Jones, Kidada Williams, Kimberlé Crenshaw, and others who push the study of Reconstruction forward with new knowledge of citizenship, the law, and the lived experience of African Americans during Reconstruction, especially that of African American women. The film, however, does not rely only on “talking head”-style commentary by academic experts to move the narrative forward. In several scenes, Gates interviews historians, descendants of Reconstruction era leaders, clergy, and lawmakers. He engages them in discussion of not just their knowledge of the past, but also what the history of the era means to them today. For the viewer, this provides an intimate connection to the past as witness to a casual conversation, providing an intimate present-day understanding of the resonance of the era.
 

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Hilary Green writes about the second half of the documentary:

As the Reconstruction moment draws to its ultimate conclusion in the documentary, African Americans and their radical white allies continued to imagine a different type of world. Rather than accept second-class citizenship, they kept fighting. The tastes of Reconstruction-era freedoms drove their sacrifice, activism, and demands for justice. Gates concludes that Reconstruction never ended but remains an unfinished revolution, in which the nation is still grappling with what it means to be a “multiracial nation with equality for all.”[3]

Overall, the second part of this four-hour, engaging, teachable documentary captures the complexity of the long retreat of Reconstruction. It brings to popular audiences the recent scholarship in Reconstruction studies and African American history. Gates, moreover, showcases the rich diversity of stellar scholars on screen. For once, white male scholars appear as the minority.
 

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Green concludes with an assessment of the documentary:

While comprehensive in scope and content, the documentary is not perfect. Gates’s telling of this complex and misunderstood era still permits the silencing of black women’s activism within the National Association of Colored Women and even the rise of New Negro Womanhood, to favor a rather conventional narrative centered on the Niagara Movement and emergence of the NAACP....Yet, they are absent from Part two. The southern focus also ignores the complex experiences of the Reconstruction North, Midwest, and West. Despite these missed opportunities, Henry Louis Gates’s Reconstruction: America After the Civil War is a worthwhile update to previous documentaries. Regardless how stony the road, Gates demonstrates in this fine documentary the necessity of understanding Reconstruction and its legacy in the present.
 


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