Our first week deals with the theme of Governance, Democracy, and Revolution – and what better way to start than introducing the book we’ll be reading this month, WEB Du Bois’ “Black Reconstruction in America”? The era of Reconstruction covers a little over a decade immediately following the Civil War, during which the United States attempted to rebuild. During these tumultuous years, competing ideas for the new union battled it out – often violently. White supremacy dug in, championed not only by extremist paramilitaries like the Ku Klux Klan, but also by moderates who were content to reunite the country without pressing for full rights for Black people. During this time, the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments were passed by Congress (over a veto by President Johnson), warring factions within political parties fractured governance, and white violence was widespread throughout the south. While historians nearly universally agree that Reconstruction was ultimately a failure, for many years, white scholars blamed that failure on newly emancipated Black people. In “Black Reconstruction,” Du Bois countered this racist viewpoint by demonstrating Black contributions to Reconstruction.
While his text was widely read and widely unacknowledged at the time, his treatment of the era was later taken up by scholars in the 1960s.
As the four of us read the book, we will meet and discuss what we are taking from it. We’ll highlight things that are resonating and start a dialogue. We hope you can join us in reading and thinking together. To get into the flow of this, we all start by discussing why we want to read the book.
Lucianne: I’ve been wanting to read Du Bois’ Black Reconstruction in America since this past December. Around the Christmas holiday I took a solo road trip in California, which left me a lot of time to listen to something. I decided on the audiobook of Angela Davis’ “Freedom Is A Constant Struggle”, wherein Davis herself reads a number of her essays, speeches, and interviews from the past several years.
It felt like I had an opportunity to be at those talks, and though I knew about her work from decades ago, hadn’t heard her insights on more recent events (such as Ferguson, the movement for Black Lives, etc). First off, it was great, and everyone should read that book too! But also, Davis repeatedly makes the point that Reconstruction, the 12 year period immediately following the Civil War, is one of the least understood and most critical times in US history, of which WEB Du Bois authored the seminal text. The full title of Du Bois’ essay spells out its treatment of the essential role of Black people in American democracy: “Black Reconstruction in America: An Essay Toward a History of the Part Which Black Folk Played in the Attempt to Reconstruct Democracy in America, 1860–1880.” Admittedly, history was never my strong suit, and memories of my high school US history class are marred by me being at constant loggerheads with the truculent nun who taught it – but I’m very excited to dig into this book and learn about this pivotal time in our history. By the way, I had no idea this book was some 700 pages long until it arrived in what I first thought was a shipping box, but turned out to be the actual size of the book itself. I figure if white hipsters can lug around copies of Infinite Jest, I can definitely make it through 700 pages.
Lauren: I’m jazzed that Lucianne recommended we read “Black Reconstruction in America.” For one, I get a chance to shore up my rocky knowledge of Reconstruction, and with one of the greatest scribes in Black literature as my guide. I think the intro by David Levering Lewis in my copy sums it up pretty well: “The book represents one of those genuine paradigm shifts periodically experienced in a field of knowledge, one that sunders regnant interpretations into the before-and-after of its sudden, disorienting emergence.” Excellent (and timeless) writing from a pivotal figure about a crucial moment in American and Black history – I should have read it ages ago. In fact, the excerpts from “The Souls of Black Folks” that are included in this intro to “Black Reconstruction” are so moving and important, I feel like I should be reading both books simultaneously, but that’s a recipe for not finishing either one by the end of February. At least I have my March reading sorted out.
Brian: I’m Black. I’m White. I was born in the United States. On the one hand, understanding color, my identity in the context of color, and deciding who I am amidst the forces of race in this country is a lifelong work. On the other hand, I’m me, unapologetically—the haters of “miscegenation” be damned. The earliest memory of my personal education in racism and white supremacy is from when I was four years old. Since then, I’ve slowly grown to recognize the foundational role my people have played in this country. Not only did We construct this country, which I say without hyperbole and with the original intent of the word, “literal,” we worked (and still work) to reconstruct it. When Blacks built their first coalition in Congress in the 1870’s, my ancestors had survived generations of darkness, but they knew it was a time to forge ahead, not rest. Almost a hundred years since a revolution (from “foreign oppression”) and less than a decade out from a “revelation” (of freedom and humanity), they sought to bring about a true reparation. They were revolutionaries, they were leaders — an insurgency that continues to inspire and inform. I look back across the decades and see them looking back at me. As I occasionally dream about future generations, I think it likely they dreamt of me, of us. And, really, as I dream about a sci-fi, asymptotically utopian future in which justice is equitably served by humans who see themselves in each other, I dare think they had such fantasies as well. It’s time I knew more about them. I’m eager to read this account of their contributions to learn more about my origins, my revolutionary heritage. I’m also eager to access, reflect on, and convey truthful historical narrative (with evidence) to combat the distorted, self-indulgent rhetoric of white supremacy that rings loud, despite its cowardice, despite its unabashed mendacity. History is a mirror and it’s lessons are a preamble. We are still re-constructing. We are still constructing.
Renée: It would be an understatement to say that his has been a tough year. Of course as a white South African woman currently living in Canada that may seem disingenuous, but I lived in the United States for four years, and feel a deep affinity with the country. Even watching from far away, the dialogue has been one of erasing history, denying truth, shifting goal posts. One of the things that gets me so excited about reading Black Reconstruction in America is that it represented speaking truth to power in a time when the US was still scarred by the Civil War. It was an academic essay rebutting what had become an academic response to the rebuilding of America, but one that was steeped in racism. This essay provided a history of the Reconstruction period, but one that highlighted the role of African Americans, and that addressed some of the racism head on. So much of this speaks to me as a parallel for the current time. I want to read of the brave voices that spoke out in 1930s America, that tell of brave African Americans in the late 19th century. I want to remind myself that history matters. I want to hear of the history of that time and remind myself of the time W. E. B. Du Bois would have been writing. Of the bravery W. E. B. Du Bois had to write this at all, let alone to present such a detailed and careful account. I want to remember that one of the best ways to arm yourself for a resistance to racism and oppression is knowing history and reading.