U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Thinking About Reconstruction and African American Memory

As intellectual historians, we often note how much the importance of cultural memory plays in the development of ideas over time. For African American intellectuals, battles over the importance of how we conceptualize both memories of the African American experience, as well as history of that experience, have been a rallying cry since Emancipation. With Black History Month having just ended, it’s as good a time as any to consider how memory of various events is contested terrain for different groups of people. After all, Carter G. Woodson’s original fight for a Negro History Week (which became Black History Month) was largely a battle to make sure that Americans were aware of the contributions by its Black citizens to the nation at large. The rationale for doing this was largely for the benefit of African Americans, however, so that they were aware that contrary to the popular narrative of American history circa the 1910s, people of African descent had a history worthy of remembering.

There are particular historical eras that, I believe, still need some thinking about in regards to memory and public commemoration. One such event, or series of events, is the Reconstruction era. As I discussed a few weeks ago, there’s still not very much in popular culture about this era. When we discussed Reconstruction and pop culture in the comments under my post, many folks mentioned Gone With The Wind. Certainly, this book and film is important in understanding how several generations of Americans remembered Reconstruction. But in thinking about that statement we must also clarify who was doing the remembering. The film was an exemplar of the common understanding in the 1930s of the Civil War era: a clash between North and South boiled down to a war between brothers, with slavery being something that enslaved Blacks didn’t quite mind so much.

One of the elements of 1930s African American intellectual history that I’ve always found interesting is W.E.B. Dubois’ book Black Reconstruction. By 1935, the nearly 70-year old Dubois had been part of every major debate among African American intellectuals over the direction “the race” had to take next to survive and, someday end, discrimination in American society. His magnum opus, Black Reconstruction was an attempt not only to overturn decades of the Dunning School of Reconstruction historiography (to make it short: that the Reconstruction era was a disaster for the South due to “Black Rule”, carpetbaggers, and scalawags destroying the white South until it was “Redeemed” by the Ku Klux Klan and, more importantly, the Democratic Party), but to make it clear that African Americans were as worthy as anyone else of participating in the American public sphere.

That’s a relatively well-known story among historians of African Americans, the United States, and American intellectuals. Dubois’ lonely battle against the prevailing understanding of Reconstruction, best shown in his book chapter “The Propaganda of History,” is one that should be remembered by historians if only as a reminder that the prevailing school of thought for any historical subject should constantly be challenged. But it’s also worth thinking about Reconstruction memory in another time period: the 1960s.

This era of change has started to become known as the “Second Reconstruction.” Instead of rebuilding after the Civil War and promulgation of new rights for African Americans, however, it was an era dedicated to the restoring of rights that African Americans earned after the 1860s war. While some historians (I’m thinking, most notably, of Manning Marable and his book Race, Reform, and Rebellion: The Second Reconstruction and Beyond in Black America) use the title of “Second Reconstruction” to make clear links between the 1860s-1870s and 1960s-1970s, it’s still important to look at what activists and intellectuals were saying about the Reconstruction period in the late 1960s.

So, over the next few weeks I’m going to start investigating this idea and devoting my next few posts to the subject. Let’s not forget that the Civil Rights Movement itself happened against the backdrop of the Civil War Centennial, a subject covered by David Blight in his book American Oracle. But the Reconstruction era also loomed in the minds of many Americans, especially white and black Southerners, who were in the midst of another era of political upheaval.

7 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Robert: a wonderful intro to what I am sure will be a great series of essays.

    One theme that is of great interest to me is the question of state capacity and Reconstruction. American anti-statism (including hatred of a standing army) is so interwoven with the southern project of ending Reconstruction that much of the liberal historiography of the state (conservatives were against it, liberals for it, and then they all agreed to be kind of in the middle under the aegis of “corporate liberalism”) is radically distorted. It misses the crucial racial dimension of what it means to have an expansive state and a federal army to enforce, especially, the various “due process” clauses. I wonder if you can squeeze in some discussion of this in your posts? (I know, I know, I’m adding from my “to do” list to your “to do” list!)

  2. Forgot to mention that in iTunes U . Will need to search on the symposium title. Then all talks can be downloaded to ipad etc.

  3. Excelente, Robert, I will be following these posts closely. You probably have read this, but Claire Potter’s response to Eric Foner’s recent NYT review of Egerton’s The Wars of Reconstruction, dovetails a bit with the subject of the memory of Reconstruction in the US, albeit from a different perspective, through the role of women (the comments section is quite interesting too): http://chronicle.com/blognetwork/tenuredradical/2014/02/because-the-ny-times-cant-print-everything/

  4. Thanks, everyone, for the wonderful comments. There are plenty of important questions for me to answer that have been raised here! I’d like to respond more thoroughly tomorrow to what everyone has said, but rest assured I’m taking everything here under great consideration.

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