Friday, April 8, 2016
April 8, 2016: Remembering Reconstruction: DuBois’ Vital Revisionism
[This weekend marks the 150th anniversary of the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1866, one of many such Reconstruction sesquicentennials over the next decade. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy five Reconstruction histories, leading up to a special weekend post on the Civil Rights Act.]
On the book that revised Reconstruction historiography, redefined an entire profession, and then went even further.
The development of American historiography is a complex and multi-part story, and would certainly have to include mid-19th century pioneers such as Francis Parkman, the 1884 founding of the American Historical Association, and the turn-of-the-century popularization of scholarly history by figures such as Frederick Jackson Turner and Charles and Mary Beard, among many other moments and figures. So it’d be crazy of me to suggest that one historiographical book stands out as both the single most significant turning point in the profession and the best reflection upon its prior inadequacies, right? Well, then you’re going to have to call me crazy, because I would describe W.E.B. Du Bois’s Black Reconstruction in America (1935) as both of those things. Du Bois had published books in virtually every genre by the time of Black Reconstruction’s release, but interestingly none since his Harvard PhD dissertation (The Suppression of the African Slave Trade to the United States of America, 1638-1870) could quite be categorized as American historical scholarship. But when he returned fully to that genre, he not only produced one of his very best works, but a book that changed everything about both Reconstruction historiography and the discipline as a whole.
Even if we knew nothing of the half-century of American historical writing that preceded Du Bois’s book, its strengths and achievements would be clear and impressive. In an era when extended archival research was almost impossible for most scholars, especially those not supported by wealthy institutions (which Du Bois had not been for decades by the time he published Black Reconstruction, having worked primarily at Atlanta University), Du Bois produced a work of history that relied entirely on archival and primary documents, materials he used to develop original, thorough, and hugely sophisticated and convincing analyses of Reconstruction’s efforts, effects, successes, and shortcomings in every relevant state and community. Moreover, since that prior half-century of historical writing, at least on Reconstruction and related themes, had been almost entirely driven by established narratives and myths (ones that, frustratingly, have apparently endured into our own moment), Du Bois could not do what virtually every other historian since has done—build on the work done by his or her peers, add his or her voice to existing conversations. He had to invent that work and those conversations anew, and did so with nuance, care, and unequivocal brilliance.
That’d be more than enough to make Black Reconstruction a must-read, but in its final chapter, “The Propaganda of History,” Du Bois added two striking additional layers to the book. First and foremost, he called out that half-century of historiographical mythmaking, creating a devastatingly thorough and convincing critique of the historians and works that had combined to produce such a false and destructive narrative of Reconstruction (one echoed and extended by pop cultural works such as Thomas Dixon’s novels, The Birth of a Nation, Claude Bowers’ bestselling The Tragic Era, and, a year after Du Bois’s book, Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind). Yet at the same time, decades before Hayden White, Du Bois used the particular case of Reconstruction historiography to analyze the subjective and political contexts that inform even the best history writing, recognizing the limitations of the concept of “scientific” scholarship well before the profession as a whole was able or willing to do so. On every level, a book ahead of its time—and still vital to ours.
Special post this weekend,
PS. What do you think? Other Reconstruction histories you’d highlight?