U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Reading Reconstruction (Guest Post by Holly Genovese)

[Editor’s Note: This is the last in a series of six guest posts by Holly Genovese, which have appeared every other Sunday in recent weeks. — Ben Alpers]

I’ve been spending a lot of time this break thinking about my Syllabus for a 2000 level African American History course I will be teaching this summer. I took one of these courses as an undergrad – but we heavily relied on the textbook, something I am determined not to do. My research is primarily in the late 20th century, so I think I’ve got that covered. I’m excited to have them read MLK’s speech to the garbage workers, James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time, and some of George Jackson’s letters. I will blast them with photos of Black Panthers at soup kitchens, show them the COINTELPRO files on Fred Hampton’s apartment, and try with all my might to convince them that Rosa Parks was not a tired old lady. But there are other periods, one’s that I don’t study, but are no less important, that I’m at a loss for. One of those is Reconstruction. So I solicited suggestions on twitter and Facebook and from friends studying the period. Here is what they have come up with.

The most suggested reading was Foner’s Short History of Reconstruction. Maybe this shouldn’t surprise me, but it did. Not that it’s a bad book ­– it’s a book I have very much enjoyed. But it is also a bit dated at this point and I was surprised to hear that it is still very much the standard for the period – at least for undergraduate study,. At the same time, Du Bois’ Black Reconstruction, often cited as the first non-Lost Cause analysis of the period, was only referenced once. I’m wondering if it’s because of age, because of the density of prose, or something else? I am still thinking about assigning a few chapters from it.

A few people suggested Race and Reunion by David Blight. Blight’s work was my first introduction to historical memory as a sophomore in college (although I first read a short article by him at a Johns Hopkins summer course when I was 15) I love this book. But it’s huge. Should the only reading about Reconstruction deal with memory? I wanted something starker than that.

I got suggestions for To Joy My Freedom, which is actually next on my comps list and Stephen Hahn’s book A Nation Under Our Feet, which I am wary about assigning to undergrads because of length (Although many seem to have done it to great success!).

But a few of my friends suggested Terror in the Heart of Freedom by Hannah Rosen, a book I read for a reading seminar a few years back. I want gender and violence at the center of my class’s discussion of Reconstruction. I’m going to assign it alongside a few chapters from Black Reconstruction, so my students know Du Bois wrote about these issues long before more recent historians have. And I will assign a short essay on historical memory by David Blight. The ways in which the memory of the Civil War is memorialized are still relevant; just look at the recent historic sites designated by Barack Obama.

So, what do you assign to your students on reconstruction? Do you use Dubois? Do you use a textbook? What has worked?

3 Thoughts on this Post

  1. I too feel like Foner’s short Reconstruction is not ideal for the pedagogical purposes you describe. My inclination would be to use Black Reconstruction as much as possible. I can think of 2 texts I would want to assign that might not be obvious: Scott Reynolds Nelson’s Iron Confederacies (an absolute masterpiece of historical writing and very pertinent to contemporary antagonisms) and James Weldon Johnson’s volume of memoirs, Along This Way, which captures the eerieness of the slow and then rapid replacement of rough egalitarianism by Jim Crow over a series of travels from South to North and back again.

  2. I really like Nicholas Lemann’s “Redemption: The Last Battle of the Civil War,” which I think could be very engaging for students. It’s relatively short and very compelling–and enraging in a good way.

  3. I’ve used Foner’s Short History quite successfully, but since you dislike it, consider his “Nothing But Freedom,” 3 terrific lectures on “emancipation and its legacy.”

    Du Bois’ Black Reconstruction is the most important book ever written on any aspect of US history. But its huge, disorganized in chapters, and mixes great prose with pages of dull writing. Maybe assign first 1 or 2 chapters, and the last.

    A lively oral history, “All God’s Dangers,” is beloved by students when I assign it; a remarkable text. Long, but students who read still love it.

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