The Daily Heller: Documenting the Black Image in Post–Civil War America

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The scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr. presents an exceptional four-hour documentary series, which first aired on PBS in 2019, titled Reconstruction: America After the Civil War.

Rather than hold my recommendation back until the end of this post, I strongly urge watching the first two hours here.

One gift of being shuttered in during the pandemic is catching up on all that needs to be caught up with. This PBS series, which somehow caught me be surprise, explores the transformative years following the American Civil War, when the nation struggled to rebuild itself in the face of profound loss, massive destruction, and revolutionary social change. The 12 years that composed the post-war Reconstruction era (1865–1877), an historical wellspring that was never taught in my elementary school when we spent our one week in social studies on the Civil War, witnessed a seismic shift in the meaning and makeup of our democracy, with millions of former slaves and free Black men, women and children seeking for their rightful place as equal citizens under the Constitution and Bill of Rights..

Tragically short-lived, this democratic "experiment" was, in the words of W. E. B. Du Bois, a "brief moment in the sun" for African Americans, when they could advance and achieve, exercise their right to vote, and run for and win public office. The first two hours of the series center on this pivotal decade following the rebellion, charting Black progress and highlighting the accomplishments of the many political leaders who emerged to usher their Southern states, cities and communities into this new era of freedom.

The second half of the series looks beyond the "hopeful decade, when the arc of history bent backward." It was clear that, despite defeat, many Southern white citizens were never going to accept this new social order and that the federal government was not willing or able to provide African Americans with enduring protection. Thus emerged the heartbreaking unraveling of Reconstruction and the horrific rise of Jim Crow white supremacist legislation in the closing years of the 19th century and well into the twentieth.

The series addresses the ways in which Black people nonetheless continued to acquire land, build institutions and strengthen communities amidst increasingly unchecked violence and repression. Less than 30 years after Black men filled state legislatures, one by one, like falling dominoes, the Southern states drastically restricted Black suffrage, drawing the color line that continues to divide white and Black America. A generous segment is devoted to how African Americans were exploited, demeaned and humiliated through popular advertising, illustration and comic strips.

The series concludes with a focus on both the flowering of African American art, music, literature and culture as tools (and weapons) of resistance in the struggle against Jim Crow racism, and the surge of political activism that marked the launch of such civil rights organizations as the National Association of Colored Women, the Niagara Movement, and the NAACP, at a time when Black political power had been blunted and the dream of an interracial democracy seemed impossibly out of reach.

These books by Eric Foner and Henry Louis Gates Jr. fill in many gaps and omissions in the nation's collective knowledge of history—what was left out and what has been covered up. You might also be interested in this vintage PRINT article on ethnic and racial stereotypes, as well.

And be sure to read "Black Design in America" here.

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Posted inHistory The Daily Heller