Review of “Forever Free: The Story of Emancipation & Reconstruction” by Eric Foner

Eric Foner begins this excellent short elaboration of his earlier book (Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877) with the observation that, in spite of the biblical proportions of the transformation of four million slaves from bondage to citizenship, “this critical moment in our nation’s history has failed to establish itself in the national memory, at least with any accuracy or full depth of understanding.” Because of this omission, he charges, problems with race remain that have never been fully addressed.

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Foner observes that the legacy of the Civil War developed into “a fascination with the valor of combat,” a war of “noble tragedy pitting brother against brother.” Black Americans are relegated to a minor role. This characterization dominates the history, memorialization and discussion of the Civil War and post-Civil War period. Largely obliterated is the service of some 200,000 African Americans in the Union army and navy; the vast exodus of southern slaves to northern lines as the Union came through; the excitement over freedom by African Americans; their desire to work, own land, engage in civic activities, vote, and above all, to get educated; and the violent suppression of those aspirations.

Most school children come to understand Reconstruction as a period of scalawags, carpetbaggers, and ignorant, easily-manipulated freed blacks. It was widely believed that blacks were lazy and would not work, and prone to committing crimes. But the truth is much more complex. Freed slaves were denied their own land as they had been promised (“40 acres and a mule”) and were forced to sign punitive contracts that obligated them and their families to work from sun-up to sunset for whites who might or might not pay them. Only after this labor could they work their own little plot of land to feed their families. Naturally they had more interest in working on the latter than the former. Black men also did not want their women working in white houses, given the history of white sexual exploitation of black women. These attitudes on the part of blacks were translated for public consumption as “lazy.”

Additionally, laws were enacted in the South such as Mississippi’s infamous “pig law” defining the theft of a farm animal as grand larceny. Black men once free soon found themselves imprisoned for minor offenses – often the hapless victims of false accusations – and on chain gangs. Thus with such techniques did whites manage to return the South to a system of cheap, forced labor done by disempowered blacks.

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And still, with all that, blacks tried to make better lives for themselves, to run for office, to protest conditions, and improve their education. There was one final recourse for Southerners, and that was violence. The Ku Klux Klan, formed in 1866, and other ad hoc groups, did not even feel the need for disguises when they began their reign of terror. In the first half of 1871, the KKK destroyed 26 schools in one county in Mississippi alone. There were some three thousand victims of lynchings carried out between 1882 and 1930, 88 percent of which were African American men, most of whom charged with offenses such as self-defense, effrontery, or sexual offenses against white women (generally found to be false or so harmless as to be ludicrous). Others who were lynched included white shopkeepers or schoolteachers thought to be treating Negroes “fairly” or speaking up for their civil rights.

Harper's Weekly 1872

Harper’s Weekly 1872

Foner stresses that the North was complicitous in these crimes: “they could not have taken place “without the full acquiescence of the North.” Labor unrest by immigrants in the North made Northerners nervous about setting a “bad precedent” by giving more rights to black workers. Moreover, by the late 1800s, racism was acquiring the “scientific” imprimatur of social Darwinism, phrenology, and other dubious, later-discredited disciplines. Political compromises sealed the South’s fate. (Republican Rutherford B. Hayes was declared the winner of a disputed election in 1876 after agreeing to restore full local autonomy to the South.)

“Jim Crow” laws taking rights away from blacks were enacted in one state of the South after another. The Klan was given free reign to exercise police powers over blacks without fear of reprisal. Schools and other public services for blacks were defunded. History textbooks used in southern schools were designed to teach white superiority and black backwardness, so that children imbibed these ideas from the earliest age.

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These practices helped structure the commemorative patterns that came to inform the dominant narratives of our history, and which thus kept alive the negative stereotypes of Reconstruction. Combined with pictures, statuary, and movies, Southerners have been determinative in structuring a mix of affect and information that reinforces the view they chose to promulgate of the Civil War and its aftermath. These images and narrative constructs in turn legitimated discriminatory political policies and practices. That blacks have had so many fewer opportunities to accumulate wealth and property over the generations, that they have suffered generations of economic disempowerment and educational disadvantage, that their family structures continue to be assaulted by disparate imprisonment standards, are conveniently forgotten. Rather, the popular narrative of self-responsibility and pulling oneself up by one’s bootstraps dominates the discussion of the persistent disparities between black and white.

Five generations of an African American family in South Carolina, ca. 1862. (Gilder Lehrman Collection)

Five generations of an African American family in South Carolina, ca. 1862. (Gilder Lehrman Collection)

Foner bemoans the fact that “At the dawn of the twenty-first century, what is remarkable is both how much America’s racial situation has changed, and how much it remains the same.” For example, school segregation is once again on the rise, now because of housing patterns and the divide between urban and suburban school districts rather than laws. The black prison population is eight times higher than that for whites, in part because of sentencing disparities that favor white patterns of drug use over black. And as Foner explains, twenty-nine states deny the right to vote to those on probation and those who have ever served in prison for a felony, disenfranchising an estimated one-seventh of the black male population.

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Foner implores us to reexamine Reconstruction and its effects, to help challenge the dominant narratives that successfully keep traditionally oppressed groups from receiving equal opportunity. He asks us to cease effacing the stories of black achievement during Reconstruction, and to recognize the ideological components of memory. Only then can we make good on the promises that were made to blacks so long ago that they too could be part of the American dream.

Rating: 5/5

Published by Knopf, 2005

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