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Stony the Road: Reconstruction, White Supremacy, and the Rise of Jim Crow

Review

Stony the Road: Reconstruction, White Supremacy, and the Rise of Jim Crow

Eminent scholar Henry Louis Gates, Jr. tackles two unforgivingly thorny issues that arose following the Civil War. For whites, it was how to keep the promise of emancipation without actually letting former slaves share in the American dream. For blacks, it was how to rise above stereotypes and claim the rewards of the dream that was being unfairly withheld.

Reconstruction, meant to subdue the recalcitrant southern rebels, offered a brief faint hope for blacks, some of whom were able to participate in local government, but it soon dissolved, leaving behind an even deeper racial divide. An 1896 Supreme Court verdict, Plessy vs. Ferguson, allowing for “separate but equal” racial accommodations in all areas of life, underpinned infamous Jim Crow laws. These included local ordinances and unwritten social boundaries that gave aid and comfort to such white supremacist movements as the Klan, the pseudo-scientific Eugenicists, and various artists who would depict the Negro as lascivious, larcenous and lost.

"The special feature of Gates’ new work is the book itself, a high-quality production with many pages of color imagery that remind us...of the many subtle and not-so-subtle racial stereotypes that came to be acceptable during the post-Reconstruction era..."

To counteract this, black artists and intellectuals began to reinvent themselves, creating an image of the “New Negro” with poetry, classical music forms, literature and philosophy. Such phenomena as the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s, though limited in scope, gave credence to this revamping and encouraged southern blacks to go north for more skilled employment and a less terrifying ambience than the lynch-prone former Confederacy.

But concomitant to these efforts on the part of such leading lights as W. E. B. Du Bois, Frederick Douglass and Langston Hughes (the latter noting that “Negroes were creating art as though their lives depended on it”) was the prevailing notion, encouraged by D.W. Griffith’s epic film, The Birth of a Nation and many white-authored “race” novels, that blacks were undeniably, innately inferior. The triumph, Gates believes, has been not only in the gradual gains in rights for black Americans, but also in the persistence of their hopes that could not be extinguished.

The special feature of Gates’ new work is the book itself, a high-quality production with many pages of color imagery that remind us, especially those born in mid-century and in the South, of the many subtle and not-so-subtle racial stereotypes that came to be acceptable during the post-Reconstruction era: Sambo, Aunt Jemima, Uncle Ben and Uncle Remus are the ironic best of it, with unsavory cartoons and execrable book covers clearly propagating Jim Crow’s lurid lies. Countering these is a grouping of elegant photographic portraits collected by Du Bois. These illustrations, combined with Gates’ erudition delivered in an enjoyable, readable lilt, should serve to make STONY THE ROAD a collector’s item.

Reviewed by Barbara Bamberger Scott on April 5, 2019

Stony the Road: Reconstruction, White Supremacy, and the Rise of Jim Crow
by Henry Louis Gates, Jr.

  • Publication Date: April 2, 2019
  • Genres: History, Nonfiction
  • Hardcover: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin Press
  • ISBN-10: 0525559531
  • ISBN-13: 9780525559535