Henry Louis Gates Jr. Points To Reconstruction As The Genesis Of White Supremacy

Apr 3, 2019
Originally published on April 9, 2019 2:29 pm


This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. The white nationalist movement of today has my guest, historian Henry Louis Gates, looking to the past for the roots of white supremacy. His new book is titled "Stony The Road: Reconstruction, White Supremacy And The Rise Of Jim Crow." It covers the period after the Civil War, when new amendments to the Constitution enshrined rights for African-Americans, and it covers the period that followed, known as Redemption, when white Southerners found ways to roll back those rights. He also writes about the cultural and artistic Black Renaissance of the early 20th century. Included in the book is a series of visual essays containing racist images of those periods - from ads, flyers, posters, playing cards, songbooks and more.

The book is his companion to the new two-part PBS series he hosts, "Reconstruction: America After The Civil War," which airs April 9 and 16. Gates also hosts the PBS genealogical series "Finding Your Roots" and is a professor at Harvard, where he directs the Hutchins Center for African and African-American Research.

Henry Louis Gates, welcome back to FRESH AIR. It's a pleasure to have you back on our show. Part of the reason why you wanted to do this book is that Reconstruction and Redemption, the period that rolled back the gains of Reconstruction, seem particularly relevant to you now. Why?

HENRY LOUIS GATES: Reconstruction was a period of 12 years of maximum black freedom followed by an "all-right" rollback. What's that sound like? What's that remind you of right now?


GATES: Dyllan McGee and I - my partner - had a list of three black history series that we wanted to do for PBS - one was on the black church, one was on the Great Migration, and one was on Reconstruction and Redemption, the official name of the rollback to reconstruction. And we had decided to start with the Great Migration, and then Donald Trump was elected president of the United States.

And I realized that what we were seeing, what we were witnessing, was Reconstruction redux - the period of black optimism and black hope, when we thought that - you know, even for a time, scholars fantasized that we were at the end of race and racism. You remember that, at the beginning of Barack Obama's presidency? All of that was followed by an "alt-right" rollback and the rise of white supremacy, and that's exactly what happened in the period immediately following the Civil War, between 1865 and 1877, when black people experienced more freedom and more rights than at any other time in American history.

Eighty percent of all the eligible black men in the former Confederate states registered to vote, and in 1868, 500,000 cast their votes overwhelmingly for Ulysses S. Grant. And the irony is Grant only won the popular election by just over 300,000 votes. So historians said, quite accurately, that black men actually elected a white man president of the United States - Ulysses S. Grant. This is three years after the end of slavery. And in South Carolina, which was a majority black state, they actually had a majority of black members of the South Carolina House of Representatives.

GROSS: And the South wouldn't stand for it (laughter).

GATES: No, the South wouldn't stand for it. In fact...

GROSS: That's where there was a rollback, yeah.

GATES: That was the rollback. And remember there was that pesky problem of who was going to pick all that cotton? Cotton remains the most profitable United States export all through the 19th century, well into the 20th century, through the 1930s. And slavery was based around the profitability of exploiting free labor. So if you had to get rid of slavery, if you had to abolish slaves, if you had to abolish such a large source of your profit, what are you going to do? You're going to reinstitute a form of neoslavery, and that's exactly what happened.

Redemption, the rollback to Reconstruction, unfolded on two planes - one was political, and that was disenfranchising black men who had been allowed to vote because of the Reconstruction Acts, initially in 1867 and then the 15th Amendment; and then secondly, instituting a system of peonage and sharecropping, which is as close to slavery as you can get without actually being slavery.

GROSS: Some of your book is told through some of the images and sheet music and books and posters from the Redemption era, when rights were being rolled back, when black people's rights were being rolled back. And I'm wondering, were a lot of those images from your personal collection?

GATES: I happen to be the - my day job is I'm a professor at Harvard (laughter), and one of my jobs at Harvard is to be the director of the Hutchins Center for African and African-American Research, which houses a big project called the Image of the Black in Western Art Project. And it's comprised of 26,000 images of black people in Western art, starting with the ancient Greeks and Romans.

But part of that collection is also these horrendous stereotypes. And these images proliferated in the 1890s, in advertisements, trade cards, postcards. And one of the favorite subjects was sambo - extremely black skin, exaggerated features, huge red lips and the whitest of eyes, and these images took every pernicious form that you could possibly imagine. And they were the visual counterpart of disenfranchisement.

GROSS: You have an image of Jim Crow in your book, and this is - you know, he's an African-American dancer...

GATES: Right.

GROSS: ...Who was portrayed by a white comedian named Thomas Dartmouth "Daddy" Rice.

GATES: Right, that's from the 1830s. So Jim Crow was born as a figure, a parody of black people, at the height of slavery in the 1830s. And somehow, that figure of Jim Crow came to be used metaphorically for the system of the separation of the races after Reconstruction.

GROSS: I was wondering, like, how this stereotypical image of this fictional character, Jim Crow, became the words that were used to define the segregated South and that were used to define the laws that officially segregated the South.

GATES: I have never read a simple explanation that connected the figure of Jim Crow to the concept of Jim Crow segregation. So I don't know. Maybe some scholar knows why in the world some white supremacist used this as a metaphor, but that's the metaphor that was used.

GROSS: So, you know, the performer who did the character of Jim Crow performed it in blackface. It was a white performer performing in blackface. So I couldn't help but wonder what you made of the whole, like, Virginia scandal where we learned that Governor Ralph Northam posed in blackface for his medical school yearbook photo, or at least he included a photo of him in blackface. And then the attorney general of the state, Mark Herring, admitted he'd been in blackface. Did you know that this kind of thing was still going on, even though it might be in a different form than it was in the 1800s and early 1900s?

GATES: After I graduated from Yale, I went to graduate school in England at the University of Cambridge. And there was - this is 1973. And still then, there were, quote-unquote, blackface minstrels performing on campus in student groups, and there were blackface minstrels performing on stages in London. And I was shocked. So if you could imagine, if I was shocked in 1973, how I felt realizing that they were - even later, even today, that there are forms of minstrelsy being performed. Why would someone who's a medical student feel compelled to put black coloring on his face and pose with a Ku Klux Klan figure at a costume party? I mean, it's racism, pure and simple.

GROSS: So when Jim Crow segregation becomes the law of the land in the South, you need arguments to justify it. And we know one of the arguments that was used to justify segregation was that, well, you know, black people are subhuman. In fact, I mean, they're not even human. They're from a different species altogether. So among the, like, pseudoscientific arguments that are made for the supremacy of white people and the subhuman characteristics of black people is studying their foreheads, studying their skulls, and having these...

GATES: (Laughter).

GROSS: ...You know, these pseudoscientific explanations for how skull size correlate with intelligence or lack of intelligence. Can you talk a little bit about that pseudoscience and how it figures into our American history?

GATES: Well, it's called craniology. And it was thought that the size and shape of a skull reflected the degree of intelligence within. But that science starts in the late 18th century and early 19th century, and it's taken quite seriously, but now no one would take it seriously. And out of that developed race science, bad race science, that has a long and tortured history in the West and particularly in the United States.

And it was drawn upon, at any given point, to say that Africans were, by nature, fundamentally different and created to be slaves because either they weren't descended from common ancestors like Adam and Eve - if you want to go with the biblical interpretation - or in terms of slaves because either they weren't descended from common ancestors like Adam and Eve, if you want to go with the biblical interpretation, or in terms of human evolution - that we weren't all descended monogenetically, that we were descended polygenetically (ph), that basically there was a black Adam and Eve and there was an Asian Adam and Eve and there was a European Adam and Eve. And on the great chain of being, Europeans were always on the top shelf, and Asians were on the second shelf. And people from the subcontinent Indians were on the third shelf, and the fourth shelf would be Native Americans. Who was always at the bottom? Africans. And what kind of being was under the Africans on the great chain of being? Apes.

So this discourse was designed to show that Africans were separate from Europeans and indeed the rest of the human community. More related to the animal kingdom. And you find metaphors of animalism being used to describe people of African descent all through the 18th and 19th century. But I can't stress enough that this discourse has an economic basis, that it didn't just come out of the air. It was used as a justification for the slave trade. It was used so that the people who shipped 12.5 million Africans across the Atlantic Ocean between 1514 and 1866 could sleep at night.

GROSS: Let me reintroduce you. If you're just joining us, my guest is Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates, who also hosts the PBS genealogy series "Finding Your Roots." There's a new series that's coming up on reconstruction and redemption. He has a new book called "Stony The Road: Reconstruction, White Supremacy, And The Rise Of Jim Crow." So we're going to take a short break, and then we'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Henry Louis Gates. He has a new book called "Stony The Road: Reconstruction, White Supremacy, And The Rise Of Jim Crow," and he wrote this book in conjunction with a PBS series that he hosts. It's a two-part series starting on April 9, and that's called "Reconstruction: America After The Civil War."

You have some lynching postcards in your book. And lynchings had been, like, public spectacles where people, like, picnicked and watched and bought souvenir postcards of lynchings. In the archive that you oversee at Harvard, is there a big collection of these?

GATES: The biggest collection of racist memorabilia in the United States is at Ferris State University. And some of the images of - when you look at the credit, some of the images we use in the book come from that archive. Some are from my own personal collection, and some are from the collection that we have at Harvard. But many people collect these images. Between 1889, I think, and the late 1930s, officially, there were 3,724 lynchings, and many of them were photographed. And some were used for commercial purposes so that you could actually go into a drugstore and buy a lynching postcard and say you're having a good time down here in Galveston, Texas. It's disgusting. It - I had difficult decisions to make when I had to decide which images to include and which not to include. I remember...

GROSS: Because they were just too horrible to include.

GATES: They were too horrible. In the original formulation of the book, it took a long time for me to decide not to include it, but I included a visual essay on racist images of President Obama. And I thought about it, not - I mean - if you go to Ferris State University to the Jim Crow Museum, they have a whole wing dedicated to images - racist images of President Obama. But the point was that they are tying into themes and tropes that have a long, independent history. It didn't matter who the black person was. It could be Frederick Douglass. It could be Barack Obama. They would just substitute one black person for another.

And I woke up one night, and I thought, you know, this is just too much. These are too real. White supremacy is too vibrant, too vital. And they're people walking around today who really saw Barack Obama through those images, through those lenses and see other African-Americans through those lenses. And I'm not going to include that. And I decided to take it out because it disturbed me. But you can find these images all over the Internet. It's just that I didn't want to gather them in one place in this book.

GROSS: I think, also, a difference might be the images that are in your book are from, like, a hundred years ago. So...

GATES: Right.

GROSS: ...You can see them in a historical perspective, whereas Barack Obama is still very much alive. He's still being very much demonized, and it's dangerous for somebody to be demonized like that. So it's - it strikes me as a different kind of decision. In other words, I'm trying to basically say I really understand why you would put in racist images from the past in your book, but choose not to include racist images of Obama.

GATES: No, I'm glad that you agree. And it was the right decision. Now, you know, that the book is dedicated to the innocents who were martyred at Mother Emanuel Church under the leadership of Reverend Clementa Pinckney. And I did that because one, I did the last major interview with Clementa Pinckney for my film "Many Rivers To Cross," and two, because when I first heard about it, I thought, well, this guy was just deranged. But then when Roof's opinions about race were being reported, I thought, my God, you know, that - this guy was playing out these white supremacist fears and fantasies that had been hatched in the rollback to Reconstruction and those - which had been reformulated from things that Hume and Kant and Jefferson and Hegel had said in the Enlightenment in the early part of the 19th century.

That - I'm trying to say that I didn't know that the tenets of white supremacy were still in the cultural DNA of the United States to the degree that would lead a man to come into a church on a Wednesday night, pray and watch people pray for an hour and then systematically murder them in the name of these same tenets of white supremacy.

GROSS: The title of your book, "Stony The Road," comes from a line in the black national anthem, "Lift Every Voice And Sing."

GATES: I'm so old we call it the Negro national anthem.

GROSS: (Laughter).

GATES: And I still - I insist that's the name of it 'cause that's what my mama told me to call it.

GROSS: It's such a beautiful song. There was - one of the radio shows on the jazz station in New York when I was in high school used to use that as, I think, the closing theme of the show. So I used to tune in a lot of nights just to hear that (laughter).

GATES: Oh, you did?

GROSS: Oh, yeah.

GATES: It's a...

GROSS: It's just such a great - but anyways, I think most people know the first verse better than the verse that you take your title from. So do you want to quote that verse for us?

GATES: Now, you want me to sing it, or you want me to recite it?

GROSS: Would you sing it?

GATES: (Laughter) I don't know. I don't know if I'm in voice.

GROSS: That would be great if you sang it.

GATES: OK, it goes like this. (Singing) Stony the road we trod, bitter the chastening rod felt in the day that hope unborn had died. Yet with a steady beat have not our weary feet come to the place on which our fathers sighed.

GROSS: Well, thank you. That's more...

GATES: (Laughter).

GROSS: ...Way more than I hoped for.

GATES: (Laughter).

GROSS: Thank you for just actually singing that. What role has that song played in your life?

GATES: Well, this song was written to inspire young black children at a time when there was nothing on the horizon that was inspirational, nothing that would make black people think that the rights our people had been given by the amended Constitution in the 13th, the 14th, and 15th Amendments would ever come back because starting in 1890, those rights had been chipped away by the Redemption governments in the former Confederacy.

So that - the fact that our people never gave up hope, that we never stopped believing that a better day was coming and that if we worked hard enough and prayed hard enough and believed deeply enough, that one day the glories that we saw in Reconstruction would return. And hope against hope, that's what happened.

GROSS: Before we have to end, I'm wondering if you hear any other echoes of Reconstruction or of Redemption - the period of the rollback of rights for African-Americans - if you hear any echoes of that today.

GATES: The issues central to Reconstruction - and let's think about them - citizenship, voting rights, who has the right to vote, who has the right to be a citizen, terrorist violence, the relationship between economic and political democracy - those issues continue to roil our society and our politics right now. Understanding what happened to Reconstruction will help us understand how to keep the rights that we have accrued from being dismantled all over again by the evils of white supremacy.

GROSS: Henry Louis Gates, a pleasure to talk with you again. Thank you so much.

GATES: Thank you, Terry.

GROSS: Henry Louis Gates is the author of the new book "Stony The Road: Reconstruction, White Supremacy, And The Rise Of Jim Crow." It's his companion to the new PBS series he hosts called "Reconstruction: America After The Civil War," which airs April 9 and 16. Gates also has a new book for young adults called "Dark Sky Rising: Reconstruction And The Dawn Of Jim Crow."

After we take a short break, we'll hear from comic Rob Delaney, co-creator, co-writer and co-star of the comedy series "Catastrophe." I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

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