Henry Louis Gates Jr. on why Jay-Z is wrong about racism dying off

Salon talks to Gates about American history and his new PBS doc "Reconstruction: America After the Civil War"

By Melanie McFarland

Senior Critic

Published April 9, 2019 3:00PM (EDT)

Henry Louis Gates, Jr.; Early African American homesteading family, standing outside home in Nicodemus Historic District, Kansas. (Courtesy of McGee Media/Courtesy of Library of Congress/Salon)
Henry Louis Gates, Jr.; Early African American homesteading family, standing outside home in Nicodemus Historic District, Kansas. (Courtesy of McGee Media/Courtesy of Library of Congress/Salon)

Reconstruction, the post-Civil War period between 1865 and 1877, tends to be glossed over in the typical elementary and high school history class lesson plans.

In that short span of time black Americans experienced more liberties and rights than in any other previous era. Black men who were former slaves had the right to vote in 1867 in the South, nationally by 1870. A number of them even held office.

Historians have called it America’s Second Founding.

For anyone desiring to understand the basis of the long-seething racial animosity dividing our nation in 2019, getting to know that time period is essential.

The four-hour documentary series “Reconstruction: America After the Civil War,” debuting its first two parts Tuesday at 9 p.m. on PBS member stations, is professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr.’s effort to correct that shameful omission, not merely out of a matter of pride, but with purpose.

At a time when at least one prominent cable TV pundit has declared that black people need to “get over” slavery, and the wealth gap between black and white Americans is alarmingly vast, a series "Reconstruction" goes a long way to explain just how the system has been rigged against descendants of slaves for more than 140 years.

A scant 20 years following the Civil War’s end, constitutional conventions throughout the Southern states would deprive black people of those same rights granted to them by Congress. Political, economic and cultural rollbacks were enacted by horrific violence, legalized racial discrimination and propagandist bunk dehumanizing black people, whether born free or former slaves.

In large part our limited knowledge of Reconstruction is immortalized in chilling black and white photos of lynched African Americans surrounded by grinning mobs of whites. 

But in the first half of the series, Gates and the team of experts assembled to discuss Reconstruction, including Columbia University professor Eric Foner, an expert on the period, also explore the political and social gains made by black Americans during this time in order to convey some comprehension of what was lost.

Salon recently sat down with Gates at a PBS press event held in support of “Reconstruction” to discuss why this deletion in our cultural education exists and how that missing knowledge about the facts of life during a century and half ago negatively affects our understanding of race relations and stratification today.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Why do you think it is that Reconstruction is barely touched upon in our American history education? Generally speaking, there’s this period after the Civil War called Reconstruction. Then: “Let's jump forward to the Great Depression.” It's almost as if there's a thought surrounding certain chapters of our history that dictates, “Well, if/when you go to college you can specialize in this, and you can study it more closely there.” This seems to be one of them.

I think there are a couple reasons. One is that it was so bloody, and violent, full of terrorism, and lynching was perfected as a form of vigilante injustice against black people. And those lynchings were often tied to claims of rape or attempted rape. So it's a very difficult thing to talk about, particularly to young students.

I had in a big lecture course, a couple years ago, one of my [teaching assistants] — an African American female, my chief TA — refused to put pictures of lynching postcards from my lecture, she refused to post them on our class website. She thought they were too horrendous. This is for Harvard students, you know . . . and I overruled her, and we posted them on the website. But that astonished me. And if it was too much for her, an African American woman who was a graduate student at Harvard, think about school teachers for kids in high school. OK, so that's one reason.

Secondly, I think it’s because of “Birth of a Nation,” and members of what's called the Dunning School, the historians who defined what we think about Reconstruction before W.E.B. Du Bois published "Black Reconstruction" in 1935.  Eric Foner is basically Du Bois's grandson, in terms of all those books that he's writing.

But it was Du Bois who took them on and said that they were racists, and that they were telling lies about what black men did and did not achieve in state legislatures as elected officials . . . I think that there is a deep suspicion, even among some liberal people, that black men didn't really do a good job when they were running the lower house of the South Carolina legislature, because we've been hypnotized into thinking that those images, at least subliminally, from “Birth of a Nation” were true.

Subliminally, that has become our memory of black achievement in Reconstruction. So I think those are the two reasons. One, because it was so bloody, nasty, violent. Black people were murdered, lynched, raped, intimidated from voting before those state conventions, and secondly, I think there's a common belief that black people screwed it up. And both things are wrong.

I wanted to actually go back to something you said — and granted, I was fortunate enough to get a supplementary education on this topic thanks to my mother insistence's on my reading about it. So I actually recall more about seeing those pictures of lynchings, the cruelty of slavery, the cruelty of segregation, Jim Crow laws, and the violence around that, than I did hearing about the fact that there black men who served as representatives in state legislatures after the Civil War.

Oh, interesting.

At least in my memory, the violence was always part of that narrative of black history, and then you heard about George Washington Carver and Ida B. Wells. We’re made aware of these great heroes, but then there's all this violence going on as the backdrop.

You got the rollback without the gains.

Right. That's what is so interesting about this series, in that it does break down all of those elements of the gains and losses.

You know, Eric only writes about Reconstruction. Our joke is that if we were . . . we'd be Fred and Ginger. He's Reconstruction, I'm Redemption. I'm fascinated, because I've been writing so long about Sambo imagery and the new Negro, the myth of the new Negro. Why would black people [in the North] wanted to distinguish themselves from the old Negroes, the freed people? And they did, too. They wrote some bad stuff. I mean our people, about their own people. And they said, “Boss, we’re not like them old Negroes. We are the new Negroes.”

Well, there was . . . I was born in 1950, so I'm a lot older than you are, and part of watching the Civil Rights Movement unfold was watching them getting beaten up on CBS News, right? John Lewis on Edmund Pettus Bridge, et cetera, et cetera.

When we were seeing John Lewis getting beaten up, and Dr. [Martin Luther King Jr.] being thrown into prison and tortured, it was tied to stories about [getting] lynched in the South.

I'll give you an even better example —              

Emmett Till?

Yes. So, I'm five when Emmett Till's on the cover of Jet magazine. I'm seven when all those people were chanting “Two, four, six, eight. We don't want to integrate,” when those black kids are trying to integrate Central High School in Arkansas.

So around me — I'm talking about the barber shop, my living room, wherever we were, the family gatherings — they were always talking about black men being lynched in the South, about the Ku Klux Klan.

The terror became part of the mythology of black America, for good reason. You wanted to prepare your children. You didn't want them to be Emmett Till. You don't want them to make a mistake socially. You knew that you couldn't say certain things in front of white people without it having severe consequences.

It's a horrible way to live. It's a horrible way to have to prepare a child, but the only way that you can prepare them, to protect them, is to keep alive the stories of lynching, of burning crosses, rape, and intimidation. So that part had a life of its own, even in the black community. Or especially in the black community.

There are a lot of flaws with regard to our education around black history. On a wider level, every February we’re allotted 28 days to kind of jam in that history lesson. And I don't necessarily mean just in schools. I think that’s embraced in the media, too — I’m talking about personal, familial education.

The coldest, shortest, darkest month. Right.  And the goal of an educator like me and my colleagues is to make every day black history month, meaning the story of black women and men has to be integrated into the larger story of American history every day.

Well, it's foundational to all parts of American history.

Right. The history of America is the history of race and economics, and their intertwining, from slavery to freedom, through Reconstruction, and then Redemption, the rollback. Then through the Great Migration and the modern Civil Rights Movement. It's all there. It's continuous.

Another filmmaker might've made four hours just on Reconstruction, which would've been fine. We weren't even going to do this series in this order. Once Trump was elected, I said, “We do the black church later and Great Migration. We have to do Reconstruction, because of its allegorical implications for race relations and politics today.” Kimberlé Crenshaw [Professor of Law at UCLA and Columbia Law School] kept coming back to the fact that our rights are exposed and vulnerable, because of the Supreme Court. They're going to dismantle the same affirmative action that got me into Yale. What's that sound? Tick, tick, tick, tick, tick, tick, tick. It's cold, man. And they don't play around.

The thing that really strikes me is that there's been a lot of conversation about how this era economically mimics the Gilded Age right before the Great Depression, which has everybody afraid. But there's also so much about when we're looking at studies of just how many gains and losses we made in terms of racial parity, and in terms of economic parity, there's no question that when we look back at Reconstruction, all the things we gained and lost still resonate today. This whole idea of not owning land had an economic impact in terms of wealth building even now.


And I'm wondering how much you think,  looking at all these issues of Reconstruction that are kind of echoing through to the present, how much of these gains and losses are cyclical.

That's a good question.

I think that since April 4, 1968, when Martin Luther King was assassinated, the black middle class has doubled, the black upper middle class has quadrupled. Someone predicted — and I can never remember who — but there was a black political figure who predicted that the principle beneficiaries of affirmative action would be us, would be the black middle class, the people positioned to take advantage of the times when. . .like these doors were locked, and then they cracked them open. Some of us could sneak in.

Then they would be shut again.

Once you're in that system, —I don't want to be all mystical about it, but that the logic of the system says, “We gotta diversify. You gotta let some of them in here. We can't keep them all in neo-slavery.” So we went. I go to Yale, go to Cambridge. I teach at Harvard, et cetera, et cetera. It's going to be difficult to imagine our peers in the middle and upper middle classes within the black community not being there in the future, and their children not doing just as well. So, I don't think that that's reversible.

But I don't think that the size of the black middle class and the black upper class is going to go up. I think this is it. There are challenges to affirmative action now, and the ultimate challenge is the Harvard case. And if we lose that, then affirmative action is going to be dismantled, and at the schools most important for us to go to like Harvard and the great research universities in the United States.

That's a very dark assessment. Especially since there’s this whole hopeful notion that we’re going to survive this thorny patch in race relations and come out the other side with a more equitable system.

I don't know if you saw LeBron James’ “Shut Up & Dribble,” that multi-part series on Showtime.


One of the things that I remember at the end of the documentary was hearing Jay-Z declare that racism is breathing its dying breaths. I think he described it as like an old corpse letting out its last fart.


Or something like that.



That's because he’s worth $500 million.

And that is my point. When you're saying these things about the black middle class, there's part of me that wants to say that's not true. But then I see these statements like this, and when we go back to various figures in history who coin these phrases like “The Talented Tenth,” or “The New Negro,” now we have an equivalent: we have these very, very wealthy public figures who probably very much believe that because they're flying around the world, and they're among the most influential people on the planet, that their influence transcends race. Ergo, racism is nearly dead. Although, to be clear, the whole documentary was about LeBron James saying that's not true.


But how much are we going back to that whole idea of creating this new narrative, of telling the world we can do anything and don’t need affirmation action? Because you see, well, look at Jay-Z. Look at these very wealthy, public black figures who are proving that idea to be true.

I open my new book — it’s titled “Stony the Road,” which is from the Negro national anthem — by quoting Charles Johnson, who's a philosopher and a great novelist, talking about Barack and Michelle Obama as New Negroes, a new kind of black person that has been invented. I read this, and as a student of the New Negro, I go, what's wrong with him?

Remember that mania about that we're in a raceless society, that we were post-black, post-racial? People were crazy.

Or even the Boston Globe columnist recently saying like the dream of Martin Luther King has been realized: “Racism is all but gone!”

I mean, it's ridiculous.  And then we had, because of social media, Trayvon Martin, all the victims of police violence, or vigilante violence, which went viral.

So that was a counter narrative to the racelessness, and so we knew that that wasn't true. Also, you could just go out on the internet and see all these racist images of Barack Obama. I mean, Barack Obama's eight years in the White House fried a lot of people's minds, which is one of the reasons Donald Trump is president of the Untied States.

So, if say Kamala Harris or Cory Booker had succeeded Barack, then we might be able, in the White House, people might be able to, with a straight face, claim that we were in a new phase of racelessness, or the degree of racism had gone down. But when you combine black victims of police violence with the election of Donald Trump? His policies appeal to white supremacy. They appeal to the worst xenophobic fears in the subconscious of America . . . If he's not a racist personally, he certainly is manipulating the apparatus of a racist.

So, Jay-Z is wrong. As much as I love Jay-Z and Beyoncé's music, and I'm happy for their wealth, the Supreme Court is about to dismantle affirmative action. And I fear . . . this new court, it seems hell bent on rolling back many of the gains that, 20 years ago, we took for granted would never ever be rolled back, and that scares me.

By Melanie McFarland

Melanie McFarland is Salon's award-winning senior culture critic. Follow her on Twitter: @McTelevision

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