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'Stony the Road' review: Henry Louis Gates Jr. explores white supremacy, black resistance in American history

A man drinks at a "Colored" water cooler

A man drinks at a "Colored" water cooler in the Oklahoma City bus terminal in 1939. Racial segregation laws made blacks less than full citizens for decades after slavery ended. Photo Credit: UIG/ Getty Images/Universal History Archive

STONY THE ROAD: Reconstruction, White Supremacy, and the Rise of Jim Crow, by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. Penguin Press, 290 pp., $30.

"Stony the Road" poses at its outset a curious rhetorical question that connects present-day realities to the book's historical subject matter — the struggle of former slaves and their descendants for full American citizenship and respect after the Civil War.

“Who could have predicted,” writes Henry Louis Gates Jr., in this cogent, urgently felt account, “that the election of the first black president would become a focal point for triggering a dramatic rise in the public expression of some of the oldest, nastiest, and most vulgar white supremacist animus about black people?”

Gates’ question is a curious one: Any person of color who has lived through even a fraction of the perennially fraught history of black-white relations would find the present-day backlash not only predictable but sadly, maddeningly inevitable.

Some believe the struggle Gates is writing about was won half a century ago with the end of legally sanctioned racial segregation. Others insist that it hasn't ended — that it now appears to be getting worse after seeming to get better more than a decade ago when Barack Obama was elected president.

Gates, arguably the nation’s number one “go-to” black public intellectual, is likely using such past-is-prologue devices to pry open a wider perspective on the dismally cyclical pattern of American race relations. The title of "Stony the Road" comes from James Weldon Johnson's “Lift Every Voice and Sing,”  black America’s unofficial “anthem”, and perhaps the book's main insight is that as bad as things are today — think of 2017’s deadly “Unite the Right" rally” in Charlottesville, Virginia, and the 2015 slaughter of black churchgoers in Charleston, South Carolina, by an avowed white nationalist — things were much, much worse for black people a century ago.

Legally enforced segregation, commonly referred to under the rubric “Jim Crow” (the name inspired by a blackface act), is traced to the post-Civil War Reconstruction era, when federal troops occupying the vanquished South were charged with enforcing civil rights and greater suffrage for newly freed slaves. This short-lived, but in Gates’ words “monumental effort to create a biracial democracy out of the wreckage of the [Confederate] rebellion,” met violent resistance not just from die-hard Confederate loyalists but from President Andrew Johnson, a white southerner who opposed slavery but remained prejudiced against blacks. The ex-slave and abolitionist leader Frederick Douglass identified this contradiction well before the war when he wrote, “Opposing slavery and hating its victims has become a very common form of abolitionism.”

Once federal troops were withdrawn from the South after the 1876 election, Jim Crow was institutionalized through laws and customs that were rigidly and often violently enforced, making the descendants of slaves “as close as a person can be to being a slave without being legally defined as such.”

Such oppression was enabled by religious superstition (the “curse of Canaan” from Genesis used to endorse slavery) and pseudoscience (assertions that the shape of African skulls and other genetic attributes proved black intellectual inferiority). These holdovers from slavery days, Gates writes, were enhanced by a late-19th-century mass culture debasing black people as, at best, childlike, simple-minded and pathetically dysfunctional and, at worst, mindless sexual predators with unrestrained libidos. Widespread fear of blacks’ "'natural’ propensity to rape” justified any number of reactions, many of which are illustrated throughout the book in demeaning cartoons of blackface stereotypes and grisly photographs of racially motivated lynchings.

When Jim Crow reached its nadir 100 years ago — and it was clear that neither Congress nor the courts were going to intervene — black people pushed back. Gates characterizes this opposition using a term that emerged after the First World War: “The New Negro.” He calls this archetype “Black America’s first superhero,” a model for political action, artistic sophistication and racial pride collectively fashioned by black artists, intellectuals, labor leaders and black nationalists. Alain Locke, a black aesthete, critic and unofficial father of the 1920s Harlem Renaissance, used “The New Negro” as the title for a groundbreaking anthology of black artwork and writing seeking transformation of the black American image. Jim Crow wasn’t dead yet, but the New Negro threw the first telling blows against it.

Gates rousingly, persuasively contends that black resistance to racism embodied by the New Negro ideal remains as much a part of the cycle of race relations as white reaction to black progress. Still, one is left at the end wondering why this cycle exists at all — and what needs to be done to break it down and sweep away its wreckage for good.

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