Deconstructing the Reconstruction

February 5th, 2007

As I vaguely recall from my high-school social-studies class, Reconstruction was the period in American history, following the Civil War, in which African-Americans in the South made the transition from bondage to freedom. Even at the time, I suspected that it wasn't that simple: seeing how much racism still existed in 20th-century America, it was hard to imagine that blacks in the 1860s and '70s would have been allowed a smooth transition to equal citizenship.

LalitaBut it wasn't till recently, when I read Lalita Tademy's latest historical novel, Red River, that I began to understand just how harrowing their experiences were, and how many sacrifices that generation made so their descendants might actually have a chance to experience freedom. Tademy, my guest on tonight's show (at 7:30; repeated on Friday night at 10:30), is one of those descendants -- and she has done her ancestors, and us, a great service by fictionally re-creating their struggles.

Her first novel, the New York Times bestseller Cane River, traced her mother's lineage; Red River now does the same for her father's side. What Tademy has uncovered in her latest researches -- centering on a racial massacre in which three of her forebears suffered -- makes for harrowing reading.

I guess it would be a lot easier just to stick with the simpler narrative I learned in school: you know, Lincoln freed the slaves and everything was just fine. But I suspect that unless we face the ugliness in our past -- as well as celebrate the everyday courage of those who have fought injustice, often at great personal cost -- we won't have any hope of healing the bitter rifts that still divide us today. By making an imaginative leap into the minds and hearts of those whom history has long ignored, Tademy has performed a valuable reconstruction of her own.

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  • 1. Will  |  February 8th, 2007 at 6:28 pm

    Wow, it’s great knowing that a difference can be made with much effort. Great choice for a guest, Josh! I recently found myself in an argument with my father. My father is an obsessed Civil War redneck, so he’s basically on the other side. He brought up a quote from Lincoln to my attention: “If I could win this war and free no one, I would.” The quote was obviously misused, so I asked him, “If the South would have won, would slavery still exist?” After that, I won the argument.

    Your entry made me think of that (In the sense of there always being more to discover). Keep up the great work!

    – Will

  • 2. Josh Kornbluth  |  February 12th, 2007 at 8:03 pm

    Hey, Will — thank you for your wonderful comment! You were really brave to go toe-to-toe with your dad — I salute you!

  • 3. P R Morgan, PhD  |  July 29th, 2007 at 11:55 pm

    I watched your interview late Sunday night with Lalita Tademy and decided to check out your website. Much of what she discussed was history mostly suppressed in this country. The most important thing perhaps about these race massacres over voting during the reconstruction and post-reconstruction periods was the fact the 15th Amendment mandated that Congress would protect, by force if necessary, the rights of African Americans to vote. Congress illegally and willfully refused to meet this constitutional obligation repeatedly. All of this was in view of the fact that during the Reconstruction period of the 1870s, at least seven of the southern states in the US were Black states (with African American majorities) including Louisiana. It seems quite evident that all levels of government, including Washington, were supporters of the terrorism to suppress the Black vote at this time. Lousiana was merely the second or third most populous Black state behind South Carolina and Mississippi. The latter two states carried African American majorities well into the middle of the 20th century. It is no surprise that the worst race massacres and crimes occurred in these states.
    On a related matter, I noticed how some other comments on the program, as well as your own, lauded Abraham Lincoln as some kind of savior of the African American race. He was anything but that. Although not a genocidal racist, he was a racist indeed. There were many well known white politicians and other public figures of his time who supported the human rights of African Americans–so the period of Lincoln’s presidency does not excuse him–the list of whites who fought for and put their lives and fortunes on the line for African American human and civil rights during Lincoln’s time is quite a long one. We need to put this Lincoln-as-standard-bearer-of-human-rights myth to rest, once and for all. Lincoln did not free the slaves, the 13th Amendment did in December of 1865, and not before then. The great men in Congress who proposed, drafted and shepherded this great advance for the human race are unknown today and have no mention in America’s history books at any level.

  • 4. Gloria  |  July 30th, 2007 at 4:15 pm

    Wow, I love this show. When are the new segments coming??
    I’ve miss Josh’s sense of humor, his compassion for his guest and his excitement he brings every week!! I hope he is coming back next season. I will truly miss him!
    A regular viewer,

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