The noted African-American literary scholar and critic examines the tangled, troubled years between the end of the Civil War and the beginning of the modern civil rights movement.
From the outset, writes Gates (African and African-American Research/Harvard Univ.; 100 Amazing Facts About the Negro, 2017, etc.), there was, among whites, a profound difference between being opposed to slavery and advocating equality for emancipated black people. Alexis de Tocqueville, he notes, warned of the latter that since "they cannot become the equals of the whites, they will speedily show themselves as enemies." Meanwhile, countless enemies emerged among the white population, from unreconstructed Southerners to the architects of Jim Crow laws. Gates argues, with Frederick Douglass, that freedom without the vote is meaningless, and those laws did all that they could to suppress suffrage. Meanwhile, there was the hope that a "New Negro" would emerge to change affairs once and for all—a trope, Gates notes, that emerged anew with the election of Barack Obama, a metaphor "first coined as a complex defensive mechanism that black people employed to fight back against racial segregation." Other mechanisms were born of necessity even as white culture found endless ways to appropriate from black culture while never accepting its authors. In a highly timely moment, Gates discusses the history of blackface, which was put to work in depictions of lascivious, predatory black men advancing the "thought that the ultimate fantasy of black males was to rape white women"—a thought that soon became an "obsession." Reconstruction failed for many reasons, and the ethos that followed it was no improvement: The period under consideration, as the author recounts, marked the rise of "scientific" racism, of "Sambo" images that were "intended to naturalize the visual image of the black person as subhuman," reinforcing the separate-and-unequal premises of Jim Crow itself. Gates suggests that it's possible to consider the entire history of America after the Civil War as "a long Reconstruction locked in combat with an equally long Redemption," one that's playing out even today.
A provocative, lucid, and urgent contribution to the study of race in America.
“Stony the Road presents a bracing alternative to Trump-era white nationalism. . . . In our current politics we recognize African-American history — the spot under our country’s rug where the terrorism and injustices of white supremacy are habitually swept. Stony the Road lifts the rug. . . . essential . . . a history that very much needs telling and hearing in these times.” —Nell Irvin Painter, New York Times Book Review
“[A] luminous history of Reconstruction, and the savage white backlash that derailed it. . . . Few authors approach such difficult history with the unblinking clarity of Gates, the esteemed Harvard professor, historian, and scholar . . . If anyone wants to understand how the groundbreaking election of Barack Obama as this nation’s first black president was answered with Donald Trump’s feral white nationalism, Gates has provided a road map.” —The Boston Globe
“Concise, powerful . . . an important addition to America’s evolving view of its own history.” –The Economist
“A necessary--and disturbingly relevant—read.” —People magazine
"The academics study the tides of history, while the popular historians go out fishing to find (and tag) the big fish that presumably make the ocean worth watching. The tidalists have the tenure, but the fishermen sell all the books. Gates, who is expert at both, catching fish while seeing tides, leaves us with a simple, implicit moral: a long fight for freedom, with too many losses along the way, can be sustained only by a rich and complicated culture. Resilience and resistance are the same activity, seen at different moments in the struggle. It’s a good thought to hold on to now." —Adam Gopnik, The New Yorker
“Lively . . . A compressed, yet surprisingly comprehensive narrative sweep . . . With a dazzling selection of cartoon stereotypes, the author shows that in the white-supremacist reaction ‘all along, the issue had been about the fabrication of hateful imagery in order to justify robbing black people of their constitutional rights and their economic potential.’” —The Washington Post
“Gates' book is a fascinating social and intellectual history of the time between Reconstruction and the rise of the Jim Crow period of American history. It's an absorbing and necessary look at an era in which the hard-fought gains of African-Americans were rolled back by embittered Southern whites — an era that, in some ways, has never really ended. . . . Gates' analysis is predictably brilliant, but he's also just a joy to read.” —NPR
“Harrowing but necessary.” —Time
"A timely chronicle of the battle to define blackness that raged from the Civil War through civil rights . . . Gates, whose own portrait hangs in the Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery, writes not only as a scholar of this culture war but as an influential participant." —Julian Lucas, Harper’s
“Insightfully demonstrates how history repeats itself . . . This excellent text, augmented by a disturbing collection of late-19th- and early-20th-century racist images, is indispensable for understanding American history.” —Publishers Weekly, starred review
“A provocative, lucid, and urgent contribution to the study of race in America. “ —Kirkus Reviews, starred review
“In Stony the Road, Gates demonstrates his chops as a lyrical narrative historian. He surveys an era full of pain and loss but also human persistence and astonishing cultural renewal in African American life. Reconstruction and its long aftermath down to the 1920s was a series of revolutions and counter-revolutions and Gates's success here is in telling it as a moving and complex story about politics, science, art, and ideas all wrapped in one form after another of racism, managed and blunted by resistance. White supremacy triumphs in this long dark era; it left many casualties along the by-ways of America's worst sins. But this is a work that shows that good history can also rise up as a redemption song when we know the facts of what happened and why and how people endure, thrive and create their own new worlds.” —David W. Blight, Yale University, and author of Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom
“In this insightful, provocative book, Henry Louis Gates, Jr., reminds us how the hopes inspired by emancipation and Reconstruction were dashed by a racist backlash, and how a new system of inequality found cultural expression in Lost Cause mythology and degrading visual images of African Americans. With debate raging over how we should remember the Confederacy, and basic rights again under threat, this unflinching look at our history could not be more timely.” —Eric Foner, DeWitt Clinton Professor Emeritus of History, Columbia University, and author of Reconstruction: America's Unfinished Revolution and the forthcoming The Second Founding: How the Civil War and Reconstruction Remade the Constitution
“How does white supremacy work? What does it look like? In this piercing, haunting study, Henry Louis Gates, Jr., chronicles an American tragedy, the story of how white supremacy and Jim Crow became the South’s—and white America’s—brutal answer to Emancipation and Reconstruction. Who has best dismantled white supremacy, and how? Gates tells those powerful stories, too, from Frederick Douglass to Ida B. Wells to W. E. B. DuBois, through generations of New Negroes, and New, New Negroes, battling back, in struggles not yet ended.” —Jill Lepore, author of These Truths: A History of the United States
“Stony the Road, a must-read post Reconstruction history from one of the foremost historians of our time, proves that the past can be prologue. It is the history we are doomed to repeat if we remain unwilling to build a democracy at peace with itself in America, a democracy that respects the dignity and worth of every human being.” —Rep. John Lewis
“Drawing on the finest current scholarship, Henry Louis Gates, Jr., offers a chilling account of Reconstruction's overthrow and the rise of American apartheid. His book then forcefully recasts the rise of the concept of the New Negro as a weapon in the war against a resurgent white racism and the phantasmagoria of Jim Crow popular culture that was all too real and all too pervasive. As elements of that culture persist, Stony the Road is all the more timely.” —Sean Wilentz, author of Bancroft Prize winner The Rise of American Democracy
“In [Gates’s] signature lucid and compelling approach to history . . . a fresh, much-needed inquiry into a misunderstood yet urgently relevant era.” — Booklist, starred review
Historian Gates (Alphonse Fletcher Univ. Professor, dir. the Hutchins Ctr. for African and African American Research, Harvard Univ.; Life Upon These Shores) has long been fascinated with the idea of the "New Negro," and how African Americans fought back against white supremacy during the Redemption and Jim Crow periods. In this work (its title a lyric from the song "Lift Every Voice and Sing"), the author asserts that this era is fundamental to understanding the current period of racist backlash following Barack Obama's presidency. Borrowing heavily from historians such as Eric Foner and David W. Blight, Gates covers the basics of Reconstruction, the pseudoscience of racism in the field of anthropology, lynching and racial violence across America, and widespread commercial use of stereotypes such as Sambo and Aunt Jemima, and how African Americans continually strived to disprove this onslaught of bigotry through education, literature, art, music, and political organizing. A large number of photographs and illustrations back up his argument of just how unrelenting white supremacy was in this period. VERDICT An excellent introduction to the Redemption period for new readers and a reminder to experts of why the era is still so crucial to American history.—Kate Stewart, Arizona Historical Soc., Tuscon