Copyright © 2019 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved
At 9 p.m. yesterday I watched the remaining two hours of Henry Louis Gates, Jr.’s PBS mini-series Reconstruction: America After the Civil War. The first two hours, shown last week, dealt with the Reconstruction period itself (1865-1877), when for much of the time the South was literally occupied by the U.S. military and, under the rule of a Republican Congress whose leaders took the rights of African-Americans seriously and used federal troops to enforce them, Black Americans became landowners, businesspeople and even elected officials.
Alas, the brave dream of achieving racial equality in America as an aftermath of the Civil War faded quickly under the lash of Southern terror — the Ku Klux Klan and similar organizations were founded, often by former Confederate Army officers, and their purpose was to destroy Black-owned property and intimidate Black people into abandoning their dreams of equality and accepting a perpetual state of servitude almost indistinguishable from slavery — and Northern war-weariness.
By the 1890’s Blacks had been driven from power and fortune through a series of increasingly restrictive measures, including voter suppression through poll taxes, literacy tests and bizarre qualifications (dramatized in the opening scene of the movie Selma in which a would-be Black voter, played in a cameo by Oprah Winfrey, is obliged to guess correctly how many jellybeans are in a large jar of them) that had the side effect of disenfranchising a lot of poor white people as well, along with outright terror — including an infamous massacre of Black officeholders and their supporters in Wilmington, North Carolina (the last redoubt of Black political power in the South at the end of the 19th century) that left 600 people dead and the Cape Fear River literally running red with blood.
Gates makes powerful points about the persistence and unscrupulousness of white supremacists in the South and how they’re still operating today — including the violence in Charlottesville, Virginia two years ago in which gangs of neo-Nazi and neo-Klan activists tried to defend a statue of Robert E. Lee against the efforts of a multiracial city government to have it taken down. Gates also discusses the history of these Confederate monuments in the first place, saying that they were part of a Southern propaganda campaign to rewrite the history of the Civil War as a noble “Lost Cause” in what paternal whites enslaved Blacks with deep kindness and humility and for their own good because these people simply weren’t as good as us. (Barf.)
The combination of racist propaganda, spread throughout the country via books, plays, posters, cartoons, and ultimately movies — including D. W. Griffith’s 1915 masterpiece The Birth of a Nation, both a landmark in the history of cinema as an art form and a bizarre piece of racist propaganda (Gates shows the infamous scene in which Mae Marsh, as the film’s second white female lead, jumps off a cliff to her death rather than allow herself the Fate Worse than Death of being raped by a Black man — played by a white actor in preposterously unconvincing blackface; for once Griffith’s racism overpowered his filmmaking acumen) which won the endorsement of President Woodrow Wilson and became the most popular movie of the entire silent era.
The racist propaganda campaign also extended into the halls of academe; not only did history departments rewrite the history of Reconstruction according to the Southern propaganda blueprint (as I’ve noted before, if anyone in 1915 had seen The Birth of a Nation or read about the controversy surrounding it and gone to a library to research whether the film was historically accurate, the books they would have found would have said it was), biologists and anthropologists published elaborate racial typographies to indicate that Blacks were a lower order of humanity, not fully human but simply intermediate stages on our evolution from apes. (I remember being startled, though not really surprised, to read reports at a recent Right-wing convention that they were presenting speakers denouncing the early 20th-century anthropologist Franz Boas, the first scientist to take on the scientific racists and debunk their ridiculous theories.)
Fortunately, Gates’s Reconstruction is not all gloom and doom; he also dramatizes the people in the Black community who fought back, including journalist Ida B. Wells, who traveled the country collecting stories of lynchings and wrote for a Black paper, the New York Age, after she was driven out of Memphis, Tennessee, her home town (I encountered her in an earlier PBS documentary on the Black press and said her story would make a great feature film — I even named Halle Berry as the actress who should play her) and W. E. B. Du Bois, a professor of such giant intellect it’s hard to categorize him into any one discipline, who published sociological studies of Black communities in Northern cities and “made his bones” in 1903 with a collection of essays called The Souls of Black Folk that directly challenged the leading African-American leader of his time, Booker T. Washington.
Washington (a name he chose for himself; the “T.” stood for the name of his former slavemaster, Taliaferro, pronounced “Tolliver”) had become a media superstar in 1895 through a speech he’d made at the Atlanta Cotton Exposition in which he basically said that Blacks should be content to be farmers and manual laborers, and Black schools should train them for these sorts of jobs and to be teachers in Black-only schools, and forget about voting or political power or building businesses or pursuing intellectual careers. Nuts to that, said Du Bois; he thought the Black community should not only aspire to anything whites could do, but should develop what he called a “Talented Tenth” — an intellectual elite who would not only lead the struggle for racial equality but would serve, by their own examples, as a response to the racist arguments about what Blacks were and weren’t capable of doing.
Du Bois also wrote the first major book by a qualified historian challenging the Southern white-supremacist version of Reconstruction, Black Reconstruction in America (1935) — a quarter-century before white historians like Erle McKitrick, Kenneth Stampp and Eric Foner (the last of whom is still alive and was interviewed for this program, one of the few white people Gates and the filmmakers cited as a source — in using mostly Black experts for his talking heads Gates was clearly doing a little Talented Tenthing of his own) — though by then he had become a member of the Communist Party, U.S.A. and he had adopted a Marxist analysis of Reconstruction for which Adam Gopnik, reviewing the Reconstruction film and Gates’s book Stony the Road, published in conjunction with the documentary, for the New Yorker (https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2019/04/08/how-the-south-won-the-civil-war), rather oddly faults him:
Du Bois tries strenuously to fit the story of the end of Reconstruction into a Marxist framework: the Southern capitalists were forcing serfdom upon their agricultural laborers in parallel to the way that the Northern ones were forcing it on their industrial workers. His effort is still echoed in some contemporary scholarship. But an agricultural class reduced to serfdom is exactly the kind of stagnant arrangement that capitalism chafes against. Sharecropping is not shareholding.
Not surprisingly, I think Du Bois got it right and Gopnik got it wrong. The Northern industrialists, financiers and other capitalists who dominated the Republican Party in the last third of the 19th century wanted the South as a largely dispossessed area, a sort of American latifundia that would produce cheap cotton to feed the North’s highly developed textile industry and would also provide a source of cheap industrial labor in case Northern white workers got too uppity and started demanding things like decent wages, limited hours, health and safety regulations and the right to form unions. That’s why there were huge steel mills in Birmingham, Alabama (actually in Bessemer, a suburb created especially to house them and named after one of the inventors of modern steel-making) by the end of the 19th century.
Nothing sums up the change in the attitudes of Northern Republicans like the two statements by Ohio Congressmember John Bingham, the principal author of the Fourteenth Amendment, who in 1871 said he had definitively intended the Amendment to protect the rights of African-Americans — and in 1881 said equally definitively that he had intended it to protect the rights of corporations. In the last fourth of the 19th Century the U.S. Supreme Court swung hard Right on both economic and racial issues: it was in 1886 that the Court declared that corporations were “persons” and therefore protected by the equal protection and due process clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment — a doctrine that for the next 50 years would be used as a cudgel to strike down virtually any attempt to regulate giant corporations to protect workers, consumers or the environment.
It led to a concept called “substantive due process” which took the idea of “due process” beyond its surface meaning — that if you are going to be prosecuted or regulated, it has to be done within a legal process with certain safeguards to make it fair — and which ruled entire areas of potential government action, including minimum-wage legislation, health and safety regulation, and limits on the development and industrial exploitation of public lands, presumptively unconstitutional as a violation of the “substantive due process” rights of corporate “persons” under the Fourteenth Amendment.
It was also in 1883 that the Supreme Court, in a series of consolidated actions called the Civil Rights Cases, ruled that the 1875 Civil Rights Act, passed by a lame-duck Republican Congress after Democrats swept the 1874 midterms and which was virtually identical to the landmark bill of the same title passed in 1964, was unconstitutional because government had no business telling private business owners whom they may or may not serve. This argument is still heard today; Senator Rand Paul, R-Kentucky, said during his campaign that if he’d been in Congress he would have voted against the 1964 Civil Rights Act for that reason.
It was also the argument Barry Goldwater made when he did vote against the 1964 Civil Rights Act, a key step in the historic “flip” of America’s two main political parties on civil rights that started in the ’teens but became final in the 1960’s. The Democrats, the party of slavery, segregation and the Klan, became the party of equal rights for African-Americans and, later, other oppressed groups; while the Republicans became the party of white supremacy and racism, still calling themselves the “Party of Lincoln” but losing all connection to what Lincoln and the other Republican Unionists had actually been fighting for in the Civil War and ending up on the other side.
Why Jazz Was Born in New Orleans
The famous test case of Plessy v. Ferguson followed 13 years later and basically enshrined racial segregation into American law. What Gates deserves credit for pointing out in the program is that Plessy v. Ferguson was actually a test case, initiated in 1892 to challenge a law in Louisiana that required separate railroad cars for white and Black passengers. The significance of the case originating in Louisiana and the plaintiff, Homer Adolph Plessy, having a French-sounding last name is that Plessy wasn’t visibly Black at all: he was one of the mixed-race New Orleans Creoles who, like the mixed-race “Coloreds” in South Africa during apartheid, had an ambiguous social position, lower than whites but higher than Blacks.
As the only part of the United States that had originally been settled by the French, who had at least a somewhat gentler attitude towards racial mixing and interracial people than the Anglos who had settled the first 13 colonies that formed the United States, Louisiana had given birth to a class of Creoles that identified with white Western culture, specifically French culture, and regarded France, not Africa, as their true homeland.
Plessy was selected for the test case, brought by the railroads who didn’t want the extra expense of having to maintain segregated cars, because he was a New Orleans Creole who was only one-sixteenth Black, and in order to get himself arrested so he could start the test case he had to cross over from a Black to a white car and announce to a train steward that he was Black and was refusing to leave the white car, so the steward would have him arrested. Plessy v. Ferguson was decided in 1896 and ruled that the equal protection clause did not bar segregation as long as the facilities were “separate but equal” — which, not surprisingly, they never were; the film contains plenty of photographs of separate white and Black facilities that show, better than any narration or talking-heads could, how decidedly unequal the Black facilities were to the white ones.
Gates doesn’t mention the cultural dynamics created by the segregation laws, especially in Louisiana — though his book (albeit not the show itself) argues that, instead of the elaborate literary and scholarly books published by African-American intellectuals in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, but popular music in general and jazz in particular: “There was, in fact, a genuine renaissance occurring during the Harlem literary renaissance, but it wasn’t among the writers. The renaissance was occurring among those great geniuses of Black vernacular culture, the musicians who created the world’s greatest art form in the twentieth century—jazz.”
What this ignores is that the creation of jazz was itself a direct result of racial segregation, and in particular its imposition in Louisiana, where the proud Creoles were thrown down from their perch midway up the racial hierarchy from Blacks to whites and forced into the same category as the Blacks. That, I’ve long believed, is why jazz was born when (the 1890’s) and where (New Orleans) it was: the Creoles brought their European conservatory training and command of the Western musical instruments to the mix, while the Blacks brought their folk traditions and in particular the spirit of gospel music and the blues.
Had segregation not jammed the Creoles and the Blacks of New Orleans into the same bands and the same venues, I suspect African-American popular music would have bifurcated into the sophisticated ragtime of Scott Joplin and his contemporaries on one hand, and the rough-hewn folk blues of the Black working class on the other — just as white American pop music split between the relative sophistication of Tin Pan Alley and the Broadway (and, later, Hollywood) musical scores that have become known as the “Great American Songbook” on one hand, and the folk traditions of bluegrass, hillbilly and Western music that became the basis of country music on the other.
Tbe extent to which the origin of jazz came from a fusion between the Creole and Black cultures of New Orleans is illustrated by the personnel listings of early jazz bands, which are full of both Anglo (Black) and French (Creole) names. One can hear the tension between the great Creole genius Sidney Bechet and the great Black genius Louis Armstrong on the records they made together with Clarence Williams’ Blue Five and the Red Onion Jazz Babies in 1924.
Minstrelsy and Ethnic Humor in General
Gates’s discussion of Blacks in popular culture in the early 20th century is the one that’s become typical, presenting the whole minstrelsy tradition as racist propaganda and denying that the vaudeville and revue stages of the first 20 years of the 20th century contained equally insulting and stereotypical presentations of white ethnics. As I wrote in my article on Virginia Governor Ralph Northam and the demands by fellow Democrats for his resignation because he had posed in blackface during his college years:
One of the key elements of the Left-wing McCarthyist attack on Ralph Northam is an hysterical, ahistorical condemnation of the whole idea of blackface. Northam’s critics are speaking and acting as if Northam actually joined the Ku Klux Klan or led a lynch mob. To understand what blackface really means you have to look at it in historical context. It was part of a wide variety of ethnic stereotypes comedians and entertainers in the U.S. trafficked in from the mid-19th to the mid-20th centuries. Look at the products of classic Hollywood and you will see comedians who specialized in playing stereotyped Germans, stereotyped Swedes, stereotyped Irishmen, stereotyped Jews and stereotyped Blacks.
The Marx Brothers began their careers playing ethnic stereotypes: Groucho was the “comic Jew,” Chico the “comic Italian” and Harpo, until he gradually got fewer and fewer lines of dialogue until he stopped speaking on stage at all, was “Patsy Brannigan,” the “comic Irishman.” Since the Marx Brothers actually were Jewish, modern audiences watching their movies tend to regard Groucho as the most “authentic” of them — but the people who went to their vaudeville appearances, their Broadway musicals and the initial releases of their movies saw Groucho as just another ethnic comedian playing a Jew.
There’s evidence that at least some blackface performers regarded their work as a genuine, heartfelt tribute to authentic Black music and culture. One of the most interesting documents of this is the 1934 film Wonder Bar, in which Al Jolson — whose star power and status as the first person who played the lead in a successful sound film kept blackface and the minstrel-show tradition it sprang out of going for about two generations after it would have otherwise died out — has two large production numbers.
On his whiteface number, “Vive la France” (the film is set in Paris and casts Jolson as an American entertainer who owns a nightclub there), Jolson sings in a high, rather whiny tenor with a fast, irritating vibrato. On his blackface number, “Going to Heaven on a Mule,” he drops his register, sings from the chest instead of the throat, slows his vibrato and achieves a sound surprisingly like that of the genuinely African-American concert singers and Broadway performers of the time. The number itself, directed by Busby Berkeley, is a conglomeration of just about every racist stereotype you can imagine (which probably kept this film from being revived in the early 1970’s with Berkeley’s other major films), but Jolson’s sincerity and soul transcend the minstrelsy conventions and are genuinely moving.
Indeed, one of the most annoying aspects of the critique of blackface as ipso facto racism is it ignores the fact that many of the most prominent blackface performers, as well as the songwriters who supplied them material, were themselves members of a persecuted minority: they were Jews. That includes not only performers like Jolson, Eddie Cantor and Sophie Tucker (whose star-making hit, “Some of These Days,” was written by Black songwriter Shelton Brooks and who, though she didn’t perform in blackface, was advertised as a “coon shouter” — i.e., a white singer who could sound Black) but songwriters like Irving Berlin and George Gershwin, as well as producers like Florenz Ziegfeld.
When PBS ran the three-part series Broadway: The American Musical I argued that the entire Broadway musical tradition was a fusion of Black and Jewish culture, to the point where Broadway show creators who weren’t either Black or Jewish consciously tried to emulate those who were. Cole Porter once said that the reason he became a successful songwriter in the late 1920’s after a decade of disappointments was “I learned to write Jewish,” and Jerome Kern’s biggest hit was the faux-spiritual “Ol’ Man River.”
That’s why I got annoyed with the 2008 film Cadillac Records, in which Leonard Chess (Adrien Brody), real-life co-owner (with his brother) of a record label which marketed Black music to Black (and, later, white) audiences, is portrayed as so naïve about racism his Black artists have to explain it to him. Had I been writing the script, I would have had Chess respond, “Look, I know all about prejudice! I’m Jewish, and a lot of the people who don’t like you don’t like us, either!”
But then one of my problems with a lot of modern-day social criticism from African-Americans and their white supporters is they tend to lump everyone with fairer skin into an amorphous “white” category and ignore the often fierce ethnic and social prejudices between Euro-Americans depending on which part of Europe they came from. I was grimly amused when many of the white supremacists who protested in Charlottesville in 2017 had names that sounded Italian, Slavic or Celtic — i.e., they were people who wouldn’t have been considered “white” by previous generations of white supremacists in the 1890’s, the 1930’s or even the 1960’s.
One good thing Gates’s Reconstruction program did on the cultural front was mount a fairly long segment on the Black minstrel performer Bert Williams, who started out in a comedy team with George Walker and became a huge star on his own — he was the first Black performer featured in a Broadway musical and he joined the Ziegfeld Follies (where W. C. Fields met him and called him “the funniest man I’ve ever seen on stage — and the saddest man I’ve ever seen off stage”).
Gates argues that Williams was the pioneer of the “double act” a lot of Black performers trying to cross over to white audiences have done: played up to the stereotypes of the white audience while also giving his Black fans what Gates called “the wink,” the acknowledgment that he knew he was playing a stereotype that didn’t reflect what Blacks were really like, but he was also making fun of the stereotype and the whites who believed it was what Blacks were really like.
Williams took on the insulting designation of many Black performers, and characters in songs about Blacks, as “coons” and turned it on its head by advertising himself and Walker as “The Two Real Coons” — driving white minstrelsy performers up the wall with their bold claim that essentially said, “Don’t watch them pretending to be us. Watch the real deal!”
Gates compared them to the rap group N.W.A. (whose name stood for “Niggers with Attitude”), though I loathe rap — especially the so-called “gangsta rap” N.W.A. pioneered and personified, with its relentless glorification of murder, rape, crime in general and acquisition of material goods (including the horribly tasteless jewelry known as “bling”) — so much I get cold chills at any documentary that has anything nice to say about it. Still, the point is that Williams paved the way for a lot of Black performers (including Louis Armstrong, Cab Calloway and Richard Pryor) who built huge white followings by at once superficially depicting and actually lampooning racist stereotypes.
Reconstruction: The Sequel(s)
Gates races through the last parts of his story — perhaps someday he will be able to do a follow-up about African-American civil-rights activism in the first half of the 20th century, both the relatively sedate legal kind practiced by the NAACP (whose founding is depicted here as part of the segment on Du Bois, who moved from the Black-led Niagara Movement — so called because it had its inaugural convention at Niagara Falls — to the largely white-led National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, founded in 1909 and of which Du Bois was the only Black member of the founding board; instead of taking the group’s presidency he picked the role of what was essentially its information minister, editing and writing a great deal of its flagship magazine, The Crisis) and more upfront activism that led to the Brown v. Board of Education decision invalidating racial segregation in education in 1954 and creating what I’ve argued elsewhere was a sort of “hunting license” to the African-American community.
Brown didn’t grant civil rights immediately but did spark the most intensive decade of African-American activism in U.S. history — even though, as I said when I wrote about the first half of this program, we shouldn’t make the easy assumption that Martin Luther King, Jr. was right when he said, “The arc of history is long, but it bends towards justice.” One could read the reaction of America under President Trump and the resurgence of white supremacism and ethnic nationalism in general not only in this country but through much of the world as a temporary setback in the arc of history bending towards justice — or one could read the possibility that the gains of the 1960’s civil rights movement, which then and since has often been called “The Second Reconstruction,” will turn out to be as evanescent as the first, as the forces of white supremacism regain control of both America’s politics (which they’ve come close to achieving) and its culture (from which they’re a lot farther away) and make the idea that there ever was an African-American U.S. President as inconceivable as it was 100 years ago that there had ever been an African-American U.S. Senator.