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.
But 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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