Reconstruction Reading List: Eric Foner and David Blight
South Carolina and every other state and entity and person must stop flying the Confederate flag: Yes, absolutely yes. I began campaigning against the old Georgia flag, with its Confederate motif, in 5th grade. Nothing will ever convince me that the flag constitutes anything but hate speech.
But our response must not end there. We must also understand that the Confederacy seceded from the Union and fought the Civil War to preserve the institution of slavery. The Union may not have fought against slavery, but without a doubt the South fought and died for the cause of slavery. We know this intuitively; we know it in the marrow of our bones.
Yet I keep encountering bad history. It’s as if people glean what they think they know about the past through word-of-mouth, a little tidbit culled here and there from Twitter and think-pieces and something a cousin said once. And bad history is no accident: there is and has been a concerted effort to exploit our intellectual laziness by feeding us easy interpretations of the past that promote the interests and the power of the few. It will take more than following a link on Facebook to resist these dangerous ideologies. We must take more time than that, and expend more effort. We must combat these falsehoods through a devoted reading of history. To begin, I recommend a deep study of the Reconstruction era and its aftermath.
The failure of Reconstruction to enforce a rule of law in the South that would protect former slaves from violence and to provide equal treatment under the law has shaped this region, this country, and this world beyond measure–but just because you can’t measure something doesn’t mean you can’t call it what it is: the worst and most disastrous miscarriage of justice in United States history. It is the worst because the disaster keeps happening. It is the most disastrous because it still feels as though the worst is yet to come.
This may at first seem to be a short reading list at only two titles, but taken together you’re in for 1248 pages. Reading these two books will give you an excellent foundation in this most crucial era of our history.
Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877 by Eric Foner
Read Foner. Read it all. This definitive tome, the result of three decades of research, tells the story of how the South won the ideological, economic, and political war that followed its military defeat. In that second war, the “unfinished revolution” of Foner’s title, the North surrendered to the idea that white southerners were best equipped to rule. The federal government threw in the towel. The Supreme Court gave the South a pass. This meant black codes and eventually Jim Crow. This meant the “restoration” of white supremacy effected legally by the Southern Democrats and extralegally by the KKK. The 14th and 15th amendments endured, yes, and that has been a vital stay against untold horror. Southern apologists, for their part, will whine ad nauseam about the opportunistic carpetbaggers, as if that were the tragedy of Reconstruction. It wasn’t. So much was lost. In Foner, you get the whole sweep as well as every damning detail. And then you will see it everywhere you look.
Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory by David W. Blight
When I first heard tell of the Civil War, I was four or five years old, sitting in my grandparent’s kitchen in Grand Ridge, Florida, minutes before my parents, brother, and I would say our goodbyes, gently place foil-wrapped plates of pound cake and biscuits in the trunk among our luggage, and drive back to Atlanta. My grandfather sat me down in the kitchen and told me a story about a fight between brothers. “One brother over here, and one over there,” he said, gesturing toward opposite walls. I knew, intuitively, that he wasn’t speaking literally about my father and my uncle Ralph, who lived next door to my grandparents. He was talking about a time long ago. But he did have the sad look of a parent whose children can’t get along. Most of Granddaddy’s lectures were about how my brother and I shouldn’t fight because one day we would be all each other had, so this story was certainly on theme.
I didn’t make the connection between that lecture and the Civil War until I was eleven or twelve, after Granddaddy died and left me with my first broken heart. And it wasn’t until years after that, when I read Race and Reunion by David W. Blight, that I found out that the “war between brothers” approach to teaching a child about the Civil War was not my grandfather’s invention, but was the prevailing and intentional narrative of Reconciliation, in which the (white) brothers, both heroic in their fight, had mended fences, patched over their differences, and united for the common (white, rich, powerful) good.
As Foner notes in his very positive review of Race and Reunion, this Reconciliationist narrative still held sway when Blight’s book was published in 2001, and fourteen years hasn’t changed that. Race and Reunion is as much historiography as history, in that it tells the story of how America came to tell its story.
Reconstruction tells the real story in exhaustive detail. Race and Reunion shows how the real story was, in the next 50 years, totally obscured in America’s memory. I recommend both. Unless a great many more people commit themselves to learning the facts as they happened, and to examine the way those facts were elided in the service of violence and oppression, we will continue to get the story wrong, and the white South’s ideological victory will remain unchallenged.
As Blight writes, “All memory is prelude.” A prelude to what is the question that will be answered according to how faithfully we choose to remember.
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