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The abolition of slavery following America’s civil war and the civil rights movement that followed the second world war are well-known history. The century in between is less well understood: why did it take so long for African-Americans to enjoy the most basic civil rights following Emancipation? The famed scholar, film-maker, journalist and cultural critic Henry Louis Gates Jr tells a gripping story of African-Americans’ struggle for equality after the civil war, and the violent counter-movement against it.
Gates refers to the years between 1877 and 1915 as the Redemption period. While the Southern states recognized the illegality of slavery, there was no recognition that African Americans were equal to whites, and, as Gates illustrates, a combination of religion, science, literature, and racist propaganda, made ubiquitous through the emerging technology of the lithograph, portrayed Negroes as genetically inferior, morally debased, lazy, childlike, and bestial, with devastating effect. The imposition of black codes, rigid Jim Crow segregation, and a surge of lynchings happened in this period. In 1915, President Woodrow Wilson screened D.W. Griffith’s film The Birth of a Nation — a blistering attack on Reconstruction — in the White House.
Treating African-American history as American history in the interest of Vergangenheitsbewältigung, “Stony the Road” explains how the politics of 2017 belong squarely within our trajectory as a nation, another phase in the cycle of Reconstruction (expanded democracy), Redemption (democracy defeated) and the New Negro (black culture’s creation of a counternarrative to white supremacy). It is a history that very much needs telling and hearing in these times.