Back to the Present: Revisiting Reconstruction…Without the Shameless Plug
Earlier this week, I wrote that we need to revisit Reconstruction. That blog turned into a prequel. Today, I am posting the follow-up. I do not own the copyright to the video posted below, and I am not seeking to make money by its posting. I am using it as part of the commentary.
Well, Reader, I promised that I would do a follow-up, and here it is without a shameless plug for my latest publication. As stated in https://latoyarjeffersonjames.medium.com/why-we-need-to-revisit-reconstruction-and-a-second-shameless-plug-36572a6164db, we need to revisit Reconstruction. Why? It contains some of the kernel of our present-day racial and gender relations in the United States. Maybe I shouldn’t say kernel. Maybe I should say rotten apples. The worst of who we are as Americans were seedlings nourished immediately before and after Reconstruction. The seedlings are now full-blown trees with deep roots and a dense arbor that touch all facets of contemporary American life.
Racism, sexism, classism, nativism and plain old greed American capitalist style were watered and nurtured during Reconstruction. Officially speaking, Reconstruction ended in 1877 with the withdrawal of U.S. troops from the war-ravaged South. However, the lingering effects of Reconstruction can be felt and seen even today. Let me discuss just a few.
- ) “No Negro Domination.” Let’s be clear about the importance of certain Reconstruction-era amendments. I know that this summary won’t do them justice, but it is needed to gain a clear understanding of the times. The 13th Amendment abolished slavery, the 14th Amendment granted citizenship (and by extension, humanity), and the 15th Amendment gave Black men (not women) the right to vote. In the South, and by extension in the North with its silent consent, there was a vitriolic reaction to the 15th Amendment and African Americans’ participation in democracy. This became loudest when some African American men were voted to public office. Both Hiram Revels and Blanche K. Bruce were elected to national public office and they were both representatives of Mississippi. Hiram Revels became the first Black senator and Blanche K. Bruce (Mississippi) became the second. There were many, many other African Americans who entered public politics and won during the Reconstruction era.
African American women, though not granted the right to vote, also participated in democracy indirectly. Many women “advised” their husbands on how to vote. One of the most beautiful pictures that I have ever seen is one of Memphis women in the Church Auditorium. They were all decked out, waiting to hear a Republican politician speak and ready to advise.
Upon seeing the gains that African Americans made legislatively, the rallying cry for white supremacy became “No Negro Domination.” Some of the worst riots that occurred during this tense time happened on voting day. In her pamphlet on lynching, A Red Record, Ida B. Wells-Barnett lists voting as a major cause of lynching in the South. Now, Bruce and Revels were elected to the Senate in the 1870s. It would take almost 100 years for another African American to be elected to the Senate again. Edward Brooke, of Massachusetts, became the first African American since Blanche K. Bruce to be elected to the Senate in 1967. In 2013, Tim Scott of South Carolina became the first African American after Reconstruction to represent a Southern state. And he was appointed (much to the chagrin Black America, but that’s another posting), not elected.
2.) Negative media portrayals of African Americans. With the rallying cry of “No Negro Domination,” this era saw a proliferation of negative media portrays of African Americans. This is especially true of Black men, who were portrayed as inept criminals, defunct and would-be academics and politicians, and rapists. D. W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation is the story of America’s Reconstruction. In one pivotal scene, the white actors who painted their faces Black for a caricatured on-screen representation of Black men, “Black” legislatures take over a Congress (I am not sure if this is supposed to be a state or national house), drink alcohol, throw chicken bones at one another, and prop their bare feet on the furniture.
Of course, in this movie, the Black men gawk at the white women in the gallery and pass an interracial marriage bill as their first order of “business.” Most extra-legal killing or punishment of Black men was aimed at repressing the vote and not controlling criminals as Southern journalists and leading men would have the world think. After Reconstruction, with the legal installation of Jim Crow throughout the American South, Black people were solidly disenfranchised and the legislative gains they made during Reconstruction were retrenched state-by-state.
In addition to the negative portrayals of African Americans in Griffith’s “technological breakthrough,” the Reconstruction era saw a rise in minstrelsy. As a matter of fact, the only original culture produced by white Americans in America’s early days was the disparaging portrayals of Black people. Minstrelsy was an artform in which white actors applied black shoe polish or cork to their faces and ostracized Black speech, Black attempts to gain education, Black work ethic, Black music, Black agricultural life, and Black physical features.
Minstrelsy served a three-fold function: it reconciled America’s South with the North (everybody loved a good minstrel show, and one of the most popular minstrel actors was from New York), mocked African American intelligence and Africanoid physical features, and it permanently associated “Black” with “poor.” Negative media portrayals of African Americans still persist when they exist. There have been several Fall preview seasons when absolutely no Black faces were seen in America’s primetime entertainment.
3.) Black Americans were labeled as “more criminal” than white Americans. The terror of white supremacy ideology is for white men to be forced to compete equally with men of color. Immediately following the Civil War, American Southern men woke up and realized they would have to do just that. One way to control this new economic competition was homicide. Simply put: many African Americans were lynched for being economically industrious. For example, Ida B. Wells’ antilynching crusade was launched after her friends, Thomas Moss, Calvin McDowell, and Will Stewart were lynched in March 1892 in Memphis, Tennessee. Their crime? Being successful business owners. They had a grocery delivery service and owned the People’s Grocery Store.
A white proprietor was jealous of this store’s success. There is no academic way of saying it. It was racialized jealousy and the thought that Black people, who were constantly portrayed in academic halls as intellectually inferior, outperforming white business-owners led to murderous results. Now, even white supremacists felt the need to justify their actions. One of the excuses given for lynching and mass incarceration rates of African Americans is that Black people, specifically Black men, are more criminal than white people. To this day, Black people are seen as “more criminal,” extra-legally killed by police and citizens, and are more closely-monitored for criminality than other people. As a matter of fact, one of the ways that some criminals throw off investigative trials is to park the cars of their victims in Black neighborhoods or blame a random Black guy for acts they committed. For example: https://thespun.com/sec/tennessee/report-tennessee-tried-to-blame-black-player-for-peyton-manning-sexual-assault-allegation
The spectacle of Black-on-Black crime on the nightly news seem unending, when I know for CERTAIN that some crimes in some zip codes are never reported. Now, I’m not going to go as far as some of my colleagues and say that Black-on-Black crime does not exist. Unfortunately, most people are murdered by folk they know. However, I will say emphatically that Black folk are no more intrinsically criminal than any other population. We are carefully monitored as the discourse of white supremacy depends upon African American criminality to justify contemporary lynchings and to nullify African American workers and business owners as true economic competitors. Let’s look at how that reaches into today. In the early 1890s, Black people ran successful grocery deliveries. People simply sent the list to the clerk and the clerk pulled the grocery, hitched up the wagon, and delivered the grocery. They collected payment upon delivery. It has taken America 130 years and a pandemic in order for us to become comfortable with grocery delivery service again! What would have happened if these men had been left alone in order to quietly and productively run their business?
4.) Reconstruction saw the beginning of mass incarceration for African Americans. At this time, many Southern states began to enact laws that incarcerated African Americans, particularly men, for frivolous reasons. Southern states were notorious for “vagrancy” laws. These laws were enacted in response to a loophole included in the 14th Amendment. Read it. It was okay to enslave people if they were criminals. Hence, we have the invention of the convict-lease system. And since Black men were already portrayed by academicians, journalists, and theatre/movie producers as “more criminal” than other populations, there was no justification really needed. To this day, Black males are more closely monitored than others. https://civilrights.org/edfund/resource/nypds-infamous-stop-and-frisk-policy-found-unconstitutional/
Black males are locked up at higher rates and receive harsher penalties than their white criminal counterparts. And since these are Black males, very few in mainstream academia or journalism seek to research and explain the violation of rights here. Angela Y. Davis has been researching and working in this field for years. Recently, with the invention of critical race theory, more attention is being shined on it. For a book-length study on mass incarceration and Black men, please pick up this text.
5.) Black Americans were denied even small medical attention while simultaneously being used as medical experiments. Okay, this extends to times before Reconstruction. It was considered uncomfortable and unpleasant to deal with women’s reproductive organs, and almost no medical training existed for maladies that concerned women only. The “Father of Gynecology,” James Marion Sims, had little or no training in gynecology. He experimented on Black women slaves with no anesthesia or any kind of pain mitigation. It is said that the women screamed in pain, sometimes for hours, while he operated on them. Furthermore, due to the going “science” of the day, which declared that Black people were inferior because of their skull sizes, Sims performed experiments on African American babies. Following enslavement, African Americans were denied even the smallest medical attention in most established doctors’ offices and hospitals, while being used as scientific/medical experiments by some medical/scientific professionals. This explains Black folks’ reticence and distrust of the medical establishment today. Last, most “groundbreaking” research was done on men until well into the middle of the 20th century. Men’s physiognomies were taken as “standard” and could apply to both sexes. Here’s a tangible, horrific result of that: women’s heart disease and heart attack symptoms differ greatly from men, and many women died necessarily from heart disease and heart attacks simply because we did not know the signs of a heart attack in women.
Reader, there are more examples that I could give of how Reconstruction politics and policies continue to drive and influence our present. But I feel that this post has gone on long enough. Oddly, I could write a whole book on this, but Angela Y. Davis, Anita Hill, Michelle Alexander, Kimberle Crenshaw, and Patricia Williams possess expertise well beyond my abilities. If you want to learn more about this subject, I challenge you to pick up one of their publications. Please find each of them on Amazon.com.
This is from my interests as a student. Believe it or not, I want another Master’s degree, but I haven’t made up my mind about the subject. History? Education? Medical anthropology? Environmental Science? Industrial Organizational Psychology? It’s all good to me!