This book helps to provide historical proof from the 1930s when Du Bois published the book that it was happening then, and that it was happening soon after the Civil War. Ta-Nehisi Coates titles his collected essays from the end of the Obama years “We were eight years in power” borrowed from a Black elected official who gained office during reconstruction. It’s a perfect title for where we currently are, and it was a perfect thing to say in 1875 or so when that official said. We’re divided in a specific way now, but a look to the past, as this book provides us in two ways, shows that we’ve been here before.
Ostensibly this is a history of the lead up to the Civil War, the Civil War, and Reconstruction through a few key lenses. One, we get he longview of history some 60 years after. Two, we get a sociological and political lens as a way to understand not only the history itself, but the ways in which the history was constructed in order to further the Lost Cause narrative that the Civil War was always fight against the incivility of the North, to preserve a Southern way of life, and of course to protect the rest of the country from the unwashed masses of freed slaves. Du Bois attacks and challenges those ideas leading up to the war repeatedly by showing how the way history has been told has always been in order to serve this argument. After the war, once Reconstruction is enacted, he makes sure to note the ways that it was consistently and persistently undermined and attacked at all time, always through a white grievance narrative, and how the criticisms of Freed Black and “carpetbagger” governments were always the very least greatly exaggerated if not entirely invented. It’s interesting me already since, having read Grant’s memoirs, they knew at the time that this was happening.
The book catalogs all of this, and it serves as a reminder that we’re seeing the exact same thing right now. There’s a lot of talk on how we’re at the precipice of Civil War, and I think that’s wrong. If there’s going to be violence, I think we’re more looking at the rise of Fascism ala Nazi Germany, but I more think we’re looking at the end of Reconstruction. We’ve spent the last 30 years trying to improve the lives of POC and LGBTQ people as well as establish more social equality for women. (I don’t have any confidence in what we’ve done economically, except make the rich richer). We’re about to enter into (well, we’ve entered) the era of turning back all progress. So good news everyone! It’s probably more like Gilead after all!