U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Slavery and Reconstruction in History and Popular Culture

Recent weeks have seen the release of several books on slavery and Reconstruction. The culmination of the landmark trilogy written by David Brion Davis, The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Emancipation, has already sparked considerable discussion on the fields of slavery studies, transatlantic history, and the intellectual history of Anglo-American abolition. The field of scholarship on slavery has also received another work on the evils of the slave trade through Greg Grandin’s The Empire of Necessity: Slavery, Freedom, and Deception in the New World. Douglas Egerton’s The Wars of Reconstruction is another important history of the Reconstruction era in American history. While this post is not intended as a review of this book, or of the others I’m going to discuss, I do want to express a few thoughts about what these books mean in terms of both scholarship and public history.

Davis’ book is an excellent ending to his trilogy on slavery and Anglo-American ideology in the 18th and 19th centuries. In short, his series of books (also including The Problem of Slavery in Western Culture and The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Revolution, 1770-1823) examine both how Western societies came to justify slavery and, eventually, overturn the Peculiar Institution. One of the reasons I’ve decided to write about Davis’ series is that it’s a very important work for U.S. intellectual historians. Conceptualizing the entire Anglo-American intellectual world from the middle of the 18th century until after the American Civil War around the ideas of race and slavery is one of Davis’ most significant contributions from his slavery series. He certainly doesn’t disappoint in The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Emancipation, focusing particular attention on what he calls the “animalization” of slaves, as well as the battle against the Colonization movement by free African Americans in the United States.

While I’ve not had the pleasure of reading Grandin’s latest work, I do think it’s telling that a work such as this would be released right as Davis’ concluding book in his trilogy is also just being released. In a way it shows the impact of historians such as Davis, Eugene Genovese, Laurent Dubois, Winthrop Jordan, Walter Johnson, and so many others on the field of slavery studies in the last thirty years. Reviewing the work of Davis and Grandin side by side, it’s apparent that Grandin’s work is an example of some of the prevalent trends in slavery studies. The Empire of Necessity reflects upon a revolt on a slave ship in 1805 which became the inspiration for the Herman Melville story Benito Cereno.

Thinking back to what Tim Lacy has said elsewhere about our blog, that we can always use more intellectual history from before the late 20th century, it’s important to look to these two books, and the many others they cite from, as examples of how to do intellectual, social, and cultural history before the 20th century. At this point I know I’m largely preaching to the choir when I think about the era of slavery and emancipation in as an intellectual historian. Nonetheless it’s important to take a look at these works, to consider the long view in conceptualizing how we came to our present debates about race in American (and Western) society.

Douglas Egerton’s book, The Wars of Reconstruction, takes a fresh lens at the Reconstruction era. As with the work of slavery studies, the last two decades have seen new works on the Reconstruction period, and the idea of Black political agency during and after this time period (I’m thinking of Eric Foner’s Reconstruction, but also of Steven Hahn’s A Nation Under Our Feet, Gender and Jim Crow by Glenda Gilmore, and the very recent work by Omar Ali, In The Lion’s Mouth: Black Populism in the New South, 1886-1900 among others). All of these books show that, among both academics and the reading public, there’s still some demand for books on slavery, race, and the foundations of American democracy.

All of this is to bring me to my last point, and that’s the intersection of popular culture and intellectual culture. In this case I’m thinking about films such as 12 Years A Slave and Django Unchained, which both tell stories of slavery (albeit the former based on a true story, and the latter as much a Western as it is about slavery). These new and exciting works about slavery by Davis and Egerton (not to mention so many other works that have come out in recent years from both academic and popular presses) show that there’s much still to be written about slavery in the United States, Great Britain, Brazil, and elsewhere. Thinking about Egerton’s work, however, it appears to me that mainstream culture has relatively little to say about the Reconstruction era. It seems to me there isn’t a 12 Years A Slave equivalent to the Reconstruction period, as far as I can tell. There’s no epic film about, say, the first African American congressmen (a story told by Foner and also in Capitol Men by Philip Dray), or the Exodusters, or the tragic 1898 Wilmington “Race Riot” which was, for all intents and purposes, a coup of a legally elected city government.

What I’m thinking about, in other words, is what the public consumes in theaters and documentaries as history versus what we, as historians, discuss amongst one another. I don’t want to get into the lazy “academics don’t talk to regular people!!!” discussion, although that’s an important one that needs serious contemplation and nuance. Instead, I want to ask the question, what types and eras of history appeal to Americans, and what do they talk about as historical moments? Considering that we’re currently going through the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (and don’t forget the 24th amendment as well!) as well as the sesquicentennial of the American Civil War’s pivotal year of 1864, I find it interesting that we’re having public discussions about the institution of slavery that led to the Civil War, as well as the legacy of that conflict a century later, yet very little about that all important era in between. The literature is there, and it’s being read. Perhaps, beyond the rare miniseries such as Roots: The Next Generations or movies such as Rosewood we can, sooner rather than later, begin to catch up to the Reconstruction, Gilded Age, and Progressive Era stories of race, racism, and political debates over both.

13 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Excellent post, Robert. I will be writing about similar themes on Tuesday, so this is especially useful for me.

    I am going to be continuing circling around recent obsessions by looking at “social death” and touching on the work of Orlando Patterson and Abdul JanMohamed… it will be totally inadequate, of course–at this point a thorough review essay on the history of the idea of “social death” in the historiography of slavery, Jim Crow, and comparative unfree labor regimes is badly needed–but I hope it will get at some of the questions you are asking (especially regarding the politics of certain revenge fantasies/a certain pornography of pain making their way into Hollywood mainstream product; and the simultaneous “unfilmability” of many other moments, events, actors in African American history). A deeply ideological situation, no?

  2. Yes, completely agreed. I’m really intrigued by your idea post and look forward to reading it. It just strikes me that what we’ve chosen to remember as a society about slavery, race, and the American experience has a gap from around 1865 until 1963. Just HOW is Reconstruction remembered? I think that question is difficult to answer because there’s no events for us to commemorate from the era (at least, nothing that stands out as a Gettysburg-like event). I have colleagues, here in Columbia, who wrestle with this question every day as public historians. Their work with, for example, the Woodrow Wilson House (a boyhood home of the president’s in Columbia) has come to be a place where scholars can talk to the public about the Reconstruction era that his family would have experienced while he grew up here.

    Next week I’m going to delve into this topic some more. But as a teaser of what’s next, I’m going to explore the differences of national memory by race. Some of the readings I’ve done of the 1960s include quotes from MLK and others about how they saw the post-1965 backlash as the repeat of Reconstruction. And, I suspect, quite a few African Americans not in the academy but are still curious about our nation’s history are aware of things like the Wilmington Coup of 1898 (we really need to stop calling it a race riot. Those are terrible, but calling it a coup brings to light just how the odd the crisis was, as well as highlighting the nation’s refusal to do anything about it). Finally, there are the stories, passed down from generation to generation, that let young African Americans know that there’s a different social memory among Black citizens in this country from the vast majority of the white population.

    Those are just stray thoughts, but I’ve been thinking about Reconstruction and myriad national and racial memories for some time. I think the next few posts will dive deeper into the topic.

  3. IIRC, *Gone With the Wind* does a lot of Reconstruction memory work for the Lost Cause. In fact, I would guess that the film’s portrayal of that era is the most familiar/most viewed “history” of it.

    • Great point. And of course “Birth of a Nation” before it. In regards to “Gone With the Wind”, an important question to ask is whether or not it’s still taken seriously by most people today who view it. In the academy the scholarship is well beyond this, of course, but we don’t really have any big films that “correct” this narrative that I can think of. Perhaps “Roots” does that? I’m not sure.

  4. One of the most provocative points made in Clyde Woods’s work on blues is the simultaneous departure of the “blues”–the federal troops–and the arrival of the other “blues”–with the compromise of 1877.

    “Gone With the Wind” has a crazy fascinating history–protested by African American activists upon release, and protested upon re-release; nowadays shown on TV at holidays… a truly appalling failure of historical memory.

    • Indeed. I’ve actually become so accustomed to it coming on television that, despite being appalled by the messages the film sends, I just shrug my shoulders when it’s on television. And I’ll watch portions of it from time to time, to get a sense of race relations in the late 1930s.

      I’m glad both of you have brought up “gone With the Wind”, because it speaks to my general point. What I’m concerned with (and perhaps the continued showing of GWTW is another piece of evidence) is why popular culture doesn’t reflect the rich diversity in monographs and articles about the African American experience from 1866 until the Civil Rights era? The final chapters of “Roots” get into this, as does “Roots The Next Generations”, but those parts of the Haley story are often downplayed.

      Maybe I should just start writing that Frederick Douglass miniseries script I’ve always argued needs to be made by HBO. If done properly, you could capture the entire story of being Black in America in the 19th century.

      • Exc post, RG2. And yes, Frederick Douglass is perhaps the one man I can think of–in both word and deed–who is the most neglected figure in popular American history.

        In the least for an HBO special. If that ninny John Adams could get one…


        GWTW-as-Reconstruction is well-cited here, and the real tragedy of course begins after the Republican sellout in 1878 [also well-cited in this discussion].

        However, to my mind, the most overlooked facet is what you could honestly call “Black History,” the resilience of Black America despite Jim Crow in the South and unapologetic racism most everywhere else north and west. The Black Family in Slavery and Freedom 1750-1925*, the Harlem Renaissance, that sort of thing.
        *Which I didn’t know until now was written and researched in response to the Moynihan Report.


        Success stories are good too.

  5. Since in the history of this country, corporate power seems always to be the elephant in the room, I’d like to see a closer look at whatever connections there were between corporate power and slavery.

    • This is really important, and also gets back to the debates over slavery and the beginnings of capitalism. On a separate (but very much related) note, American political rhetoric from the 18th century until the late 19th century can’t even be understood unless one has a basic understanding of the importance of slavery in American society.

  6. Oh yes, TVD, the success stories need telling too. There’s so many good stories that can be told through novels, television, or film, about this era. “Roots The Next Generations” kinda gets into that, but is mostly a depressing story of triumph, reversal, triumph, reversal…until we get to Alex Haley himself. And even that story, if seen beyond the miniseries and taking into account his legal troubles over the writing of “Roots”, is very complex.

    • Alex Haley’s plagiarism was unfortunate, but like MLK’s, such small potatoes. His accomplishment was great.

      I’ll admit I didn’t watch “Roots: The Next Generations,” or if I did, I bailed.

      But in my own defense, I’ve watched the I, Claudius miniseries 3 times, I’ve never made it through the last 2 episodes.

      So it is with “Slavery and Reconstruction in History and Popular Culture,” I make it. 12 Years a Slave or I, Claudius–without Fassbinder as the Worst White Man in the History of the World except for John Hurt’s Caligula–it’s just all so friggin’ boring without a decent villain, let’s face it.

      The quiet triumphs of good people against all odds? Looking at the awesome cast of Roots:TNG*–with a $16.6M budget, a lot for back then–pop history/culture gave it a shot.

      *Georg Stanford Brown – Tom Harvey
      Lynne Moody – Irene Harvey
      Debbi Morgan – Elizabeth Harvey
      Beah Richards – Cynthia Harvey Palmer (older)
      Henry Fonda – Colonel Frederick Warner
      Olivia de Havilland – Mrs. Warner
      Richard Thomas – Jim Warner
      Marc Singer – Andy Warner
      Stan Shaw – Will Palmer
      Fay Hauser – Carrie Barden
      Irene Cara – Bertha Palmer Haley
      Avon Long – Chicken George Moore
      Roger E. Mosley – Lee Garnet
      Paul Koslo – Earl Crowther
      Harry Morgan – Bob Campbell
      Dorian Harewood – Simon Haley
      Ruby Dee – Queen Haley
      Hal Williams – Alec Haley
      Greg Morris – Beeman Jones
      Brian Stokes Mitchell – John Dolan
      Ja’net Dubois – Sally Harvey
      Slim Gaillard – Sam Wesley
      George Voskovec – Mr. Goldstein
      Jason Wingreen – Judge Quartermain
      Charles Robinson – Luke Bettiger
      Ossie Davis – Dad Jones
      Kene Holliday – Detroit
      Albert Popwell – Fader
      John Rubinstein – Lieutenant Hamilton Ten Eyck
      Bernie Casey – Bubba Haywood
      Pam Grier – Francey
      Roosevelt Grier – Big Slew Johnson
      James Daly – RSM Boyce
      Percy Rodriguez – Boyd Moffatt
      Robert Culp – Lyle Pettijohn
      Dina Merrill – Mrs. Hickinger
      Brock Peters – Ab Decker
      Bever-Leigh Banfield – Cynthia Palmer (young adult)
      Paul Winfield – Dr. Horace Huguley
      Lynn Hamilton – Cousin Georgia
      Kristoff St. John – Alex Haley (child)
      Logan Ramsey – D.L. Lewis
      Dennis Fimple – Sheriff Duffy
      Damon Evans – Alex Haley (age 16-28)
      Debbie Allen – Nan Branch Haley
      Andy Griffith – Commander Robert Munroe
      Diahann Carroll – Zeona Haley
      Rafer Johnson – Nelson
      Carmen McRae – Lily
      John Hancock – Scotty
      Telma Hopkins – Daisy
      Kim Fields – Lydia Haley
      Milt Kogan – Mel Klein
      James Earl Jones – Alex Haley (age 39-46)
      Howard Rollins – George Haley
      Marlon Brando – George Lincoln Rockwell
      Al Freeman, Jr. – Malcolm X
      Barbara Barrie – Dodie Brattle
      Linda Hopkins – Singer
      Bobby Short – Pianist
      Lee Chamberlin – Odile Richards
      Norman Fell – Bernie Raymond
      James Broderick – Dr. Lewis
      Michael Constantine – Dr. Vansina
      Johnny Sekka – Ebau Manga
      Zakes Mokae – African Minister
      Claudia McNeil – Sister Will Ada
      Bianca Ferguson – Sophia
      Philip Michael Thomas – Eddie Franklin

      [Man, they need to fire this one up again.]

      • I would recommend giving it a shot someday. BET has shown it every once in a while; I’ve seen parts of it the last two Christmases. At one point, Haley’s father (or grandfather? Can never quite remember, but I’m pretty sure it’s his father) goes off to fight in WWI. Given my personal fascination with the history of Black soldiers in the American military, it was one of my favorite episodes of the two “Roots” miniseries.

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