[This week marks the 150th anniversary of the horrific Colfax Massacre, one of many such Reconstruction sesquicentennials over the next decade. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy five Reconstruction histories we need to better remember, leading up to a special weekend post on a vital new scholarly book.]
On three reasons why Kidada Williams’ I Saw Death Coming: A History of Terror and Survival in the War against Reconstruction (2023) is a must-read.
1) The Author: I’ve written about Dr. Kidada Williams a couple prior times on the blog: reflecting on our Southern Historical Association panel together here; and highlighting her work on the psychological and emotional effects of racial violence and terrorism (the topic on which she presented on that SHA panel) in this post on Beloved. Her work on that particular, crucial historical (and of course all too contemporary) topic is quite simply the best I’ve ever encountered on those fraught and definingly American themes, and would be more than enough to make me beyond excited for any new project of hers. But that’s just one portion of her work, which also includes the excellent Seizing Freedom podcast; a podcast that begins quite specifically with Reconstruction and which made me particularly stoked for Williams’ new book on that period.
2) The Premise: As its subtitle suggests, that new book certainly extends and deepens Williams’ analyses of racial terrorism and its effects, bringing that lens to bear on Reconstruction in important new ways. But I think her central premise is more straightforward yet even more groundbreaking than that: a history of Reconstruction that focuses not on political figures and debates, nor activists for civil rights, nor white supremacist forces, but instead on the everyday African American experience. Williams has found and analyzes a ton of vital first-person voices and accounts, but also reads more familiar documents and materials anew through this emphasis on the collective African American experience of the era, opening Reconstruction and its histories and stories up in ways that even Du Bois didn’t manage (understandably, given the limitations of research and travel in his era; but I’m just saying, this book takes things a significant step further).
3) This Book Talk: Still not convinced? Well there’s no one better to convince you of this book’s importance than Williams herself, and that early February book talk is a great way to hear more of the book as well as her purposes and perspective. Check it out, then get your hands on I Saw Death Coming pronto!
Next series starts Monday,
PS. What do you think? Other books on Reconstruction (new or not) you’d highlight?