Review: Stony the Road by Henry Louis Gates Jr.

tony the Road: Reconstruction, White Supremacy, and the Rise of Jim Crow by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. tells the story of the rise of white supremacy after the Civil War and Black America’s response to it. His book covers the eras of Reconstruction, Redemption, and the New Negro Movement.

Gates (Peabody Awards)

Gates chronicles the resurgence of antiblack racism immediately at the end of the Civil War when newly freed blacks were given citizenship rights and black men were given the right to vote. White supremacists during this time wanted power taken away from Black Americans and began to do so by first demeaning them through “racial science, journalism, political rhetoric, and finally fiction and folklore”.

White supremacists falsely asserted that blacks were not even humans or that they descended from apes. They even used the Bible to justify why, in their words, blacks were cursed by God. They practiced other forms of pseudoscience where they compared the skulls of white, black, and monkey skeletons to falsely make the point that black people were inferior.

This racism was also clear in the literature written by white authors (Joel Chandler Harris and others) who put white supremacists thoughts and words in the mouths of their black characters (i.e. Uncle Remus). Films like The Birth of a Nation, peddled the false narrative that blacks were the reason Reconstruction failed. Finally, Sambo art was also used to solidify the ludicrous idea that blacks were infantile and lacked humanity.

Gates tells this story in three chapters but also effectively uses three visual essays between each chapter which shows a host of racist pictures and images from the time period. The visual essays were very depressing to see as a black person, especially the third essay. At one point the pictures were actually affecting my mood. My hope is that these sections of the book will be a learning experience to white readers who are not aware of the racist images.

The book closes with a more uplifting chapter and visual essay on the New Negro Movement, which was a response by upper middle class black elites to the Redemption racist caricature of the Old Negro. I had heard of the movement prior to reading this book but was not intimately familiar with it. Gates does a good job of exposing the class dynamic in the movement. This dynamic consisted of the leaders of the movement looking down dismissively on working class blacks, which continues in a different form in the present day.

Gates’ book gives a good preview for the reader to further their study on these various topics. I started reading this book thinking it would be solely focused on Reconstruction but it has ultimately exposed me to the other lingering legacies of the era. Reconstruction did not completely end in 1877, we are still living with some of the negative effects today especially as it relates to racist imagery and sterotypes. Gates’ book ties those threads to our current moment.

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