The elusive concept of 'freedom' differed substantially in the United States from its counterpart in societies accustomed to fixed social classes and historically defined gradations of civil and political rights.
Eric Foner, Reconstruction
May we never forget all those who suffered and died because they asserted their basic human right to be free.
Equal Justice Initiative
I came to the study of Reconstruction (1865-1876) after I completed my doctorate degree. It's a period academia overlooked, intentionally or unintentionally. My study of literature and culture between 1900 and 1945 could have benefited from an understanding of the significance of this era when African Americans own property, businesses, when African Americans represented themselves in local districts and even in Washington D. C. Reconstruction shows what happens to a people who insist on their right to be freefree of the tyranny of that murderous ideology of white supremacy.
It was only until I read Charles Chesnutt's novel, The Marrow of Tradition , a fictional accounting of the massacre of Black citizens in Wilmington, North Carolina, the writer's hometown that I recognized the period as an era of determination by a people who begin a journey toward freedom without so much as that promised mule and 40 acres. But it was also a cauldron of boiling anger on the part of white Southerners enslaved to an illusion of their racial superiority and the inferiority of Black people.
I picked up Chesnutt's book not knowing what to expect, except I knew I had a window of time to read books not required for my doctorate. I had never read or even heard about the Wilmington Massacre of 1898. Unfortunately, then in the 1990s, I wasn't alone. Ida B Wells, writing in her autobiography, Crusade for Justice, of a President McKinley who fails to mention in his Message to Congress the tragic Wilmington insurrection in which all the Black politicians, newspaper editor were chased out of town, effectively ending Black political representation in politics and in the Black-owned press. Black homeowners too lost their property to fire as many ran out of town to escape death. Any where from 60 to 300 African American citizens of Wilmington were not so lucky. We'll never know for sure the number of Black lives lost in this one town to white terrorism.
The Reconstruction Era was that time just after the Civil War when African Americans were "freed" from the systemic brutality accompanying the Transatlantic Slave Trade and the forced labor of Blacks deemed property for the amassing of national wealth on predominantly Southern plantations.
The KKK crafting its narrative, defers self-reflection for a pogrom of terror against its perceived enemy. As Chesnutt's narrator points out, "the higher law, which imperiously demanded that the purity and prestige of the white race be preserved at any cost, had intervened at this point."
In the late 1970s and throughout the 1980s, if you were Black and spoke about race, racism, Black people, certainly if you called attention to the disappearance of Black men of my generation lost to the Vietnam War, dead or alive, or lost to prison cells where their outrage against the system could no longer be heard or lost to a silencing bullet. If you defended the right to pursue freedom from all this evidence of injustice, you were ostracized and mocked for being someone still an idealist, if not a militant old head.
African Americans had to work their way up the ladder like every other racial group. The analogy of "bootstraps" is still in play despite Dr. Martin L. King's admonishment of such a cruel demand over fifty years ago. In the wake of King's assassination, Black Americans were silenced for condemning white America for the deficiencies of the race. If Blacks were incapable of lifting themselves by their collective bootstraps, then that was evidence of an inherent inferiority. Don't blame the indifference of white Americans, Christians, working the biblical narrative once again to justify locking up "criminals." "Welfare Queens" raising (alone!) "predators."
What was the problem with African Americans? It was the question white America posed and expected the victims of the systemic practice of white supremacy to answer, preferably in a sound bite. Just bad blood! Bad blood, Master.
Sometime after I returned from teaching in Ethiopia, I was given a hardback copy of historian Eric Foner's Reconstruction, and I'm reading this book not long after the shock and awe of war in Iraq. Along with other Americans of color, I witnessed the lifting of the American frontiersmen, calling for America to drape the red, white, and blue around itself and bomb the hell out of Muslim "terrorists." Forward on! Manifest Destiny is alive and well in the oil fields in the Middle East.
Bad blood there, too!
Never a time is self-reflection a consideration, rather, Americans are urged to look outside its image of itself as exceptional to the anti-Americans, the enemy of "America, the Invincible." What happens inside the borders shouldn't surprise wartime photographers capturing images of bombed out homes where little Iraqis and Afghani children slept unaware of the firestorms that swept through African American towns and communities, killing Americans and destroying American homes during the Reconstruction era.
(Note: You can view every article as one long page if you sign up as an Advocate Member, or higher).