An Unreconstructed Nation: On Henry Louis Gates Jr.’s “Stony the Road”

By Robert D. BlandMay 10, 2019

An Unreconstructed Nation: On Henry Louis Gates Jr.’s “Stony the Road”

Stony the Road by Henry Louis Gates Jr.

JOHN ROY LYNCH had once been at the vanguard of a revolution that changed the United States. Born into slavery, Lynch gained his freedom in 1863 by escaping to the Union-occupied city of Natchez, Mississippi. After the war, he quickly rose through the ranks of the state’s Republican Party. In January 1872, he became the first African-American to serve as the speaker of the Mississippi state house; later that same year, he was elected to the US Congress at age 26. Propelled by black men’s newfound access to the franchise, Lynch and other Reconstruction-era leaders established the region’s first public schools, eliminated racial discrimination on public transportation, strengthened the bargaining power for agricultural workers, created a more equitable system of taxation, and placed the South on the road to becoming truly democratic.

Within three years, however, white vigilantes — in league with the state’s Democratic Party — had mobbed and murdered their way back into office. By 1890, Mississippi had taken the lead in a counterrevolution that sought to dramatically shrink the Southern electorate. In just one generation, John Lynch had seen all that he had fought for erased by white supremacist forces. More treacherously, the opponents of Reconstruction had inscribed a series of antiblack narratives across the cultural landscape.

“The assertation that the colored vote is dangerous and is a menace to good government is the reverse of true,” Lynch asserted in 1900. “On the contrary,” he continued, “they are among the most conservative and reliable voters in the country. They are always on the side of law and order. They are opposed to mob law and violence. They are on the side of the business interests of the country. They are in favor of a good government and an honest administration.”

Hamstrung by a hypersensitivity to the connections white Americans made between black political power and outrageous visions of “Negro domination,” Lynch offered a sanitized version of Reconstruction that would neither convince white readers to accept black citizenship nor inspire black audiences to maintain radical dreams of freedom.

In Stony the Road: Reconstruction, White Supremacy, and the Rise of Jim Crow, Henry Louis Gates Jr. explores the late 19th-century world that produced the racist images that John Roy Lynch sought to dispel. Gates offers an innovative reinterpretation of a “long Reconstruction” and a “war of imagery” that produced the nation’s most odious and enduring antiblack images but also created a well of resistance.

Gates draws his title from the second verse of James Weldon Johnson’s 1900 song “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” and he uses the song to frame the world of culture as the long Reconstruction’s primary theater of struggle. Here, the Negro National Anthem can be understood to be operating at two levels: as a bracing narrative of the post-Emancipation black experience that acknowledges the perils of deep-seated antiblack racism, but also as part of high-minded Jim Crow–era African-American practices that Imani Perry calls “black formalism” intended to exhibit grace and dignity in contraposition to the unceasing attacks on African-American humanity during that time.

Acts of black formalism like “Lift Every Voice and Sing” were both products of the black institutions founded in the post–Civil War South and performances that established the rules and internal logic of the black world that remained hidden just behind the veil of segregation. More than a “lesson in black history,” Gates argues that the second verse of “Life Every Voice and Sing” also served as “a meditation on the history of the Negro from Reconstruction through Redemption, to the birth of a New Negro at the turn of the century.”

Stony the Road begins with the story of Reconstruction as America’s “unfinished revolution.” Attuned to the historiography of African-American life during the post–Civil War era, Gates uses the books first chapter, “Antislavery/Antislave,” to highlight the deep and unceasing white supremacist backlash that the effort to establish biracial democracy faced from its inception. Gates notes:

The Civil War ended slavery, but it didn’t end antiblack racism. Proslavery rhetoric and white supremacist ideology had naturally marched arm in arm. But when the South lost the Civil War — at a staggering cost in blood and treasure — white supremacist ideologies continued, unbridled and disengaged from the institution of slavery.

For Gates, the struggle to defeat Reconstruction went well beyond the literal battles in Colfax, Louisiana; Edgefield, South Carolina; and Wilmington, North Carolina. The full defeat of the ideas that underpinned Reconstruction’s radical egalitarianism required a “culture war.” In this way, the central project of the Jim Crow era was the creation of a new antiblack racism that would crystallize white opposition against any form of equality for black Americans. In his second chapter, Gates shows how Ivy League academics, moonlight-and-magnolias novelists, and Southern folklorists “would breathe life into the concept of the degraded, degenerate ‘Old Negro’ in their works.” Science and high culture had been used to defend slavery; they were weaponized once more to defend segregation.

Gates sees the battle over the black image in the white imagination to be the central cultural project of the post-Reconstruction era. The book’s third chapter “Framing Blackness: Sambo Art and the Visual Rhetoric of White Supremacy” deftly captures the logic of mass-producing antiblack images.

The difference between the circulation of racist images of black people before and after the war, especially after Reconstruction, is the jaw-dropping extent of its sheer numbers, its remarkable reproducibility. Repetition of a range of offensive character types — ostensibly of “Negroes” — was an attempt to fabricate and stabilize a single black image, “the Negro,” to reduce the complexity of actual black human beings and funnel it into fixed, unchangeable signifiers of blackness that even black people would see when they saw themselves reflected in America’s social mirrors.

Put another way, the rise of mass culture is unthinkable without mass racism. From Aunt Jemima and Uncle Ben, to perhaps the apotheosis of anti-Reconstruction imagery, D. W. Griffith’s 1915 film The Birth of a Nation, racist images became a pervasive part of the cultural landscape at the very moment that such a national consumer audience was finally becoming possible.

Each chapter is followed by a collection of images. While some of these visual artifacts, especially in the first and final section, portray dignified and sentimental portraits of African-American leaders, the vast majority are cornerstones of the nation’s racist visual language: eugenicist medical drawings, popular animated cartoons, minstrel show flyers, lynching bee postcards, children’s books, and other assorted racist paraphernalia.

Designed to accompany an upcoming PBS documentary on the Reconstruction era, Stony the Road follows a larger movement in public history that seeks to plumb the depths of white supremacy. The Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia at Ferris State University and the Equal Justice Initiative’s Legacy Museum in Birmingham, Alabama, most closely approximate the pace and tone of Gate’s work.

Like the Legacy Museum, Stony the Road faces a narrative dilemma in how it frames black resistance to white supremacy. To what extent should the destructive nature of white supremacy be centered and what emphasis should be placed on the courageous but Sisyphean efforts of African Americans to challenge the Jim Crow regime?

The book’s final chapter, “The New Negro: Redeeming the Race from the Redeemers,” explores how African-American leaders established new tropes to challenge the racist images that circulated throughout American society. In particular, Gates traces the roots of the New Negro movement, which is most closely associated with post–World War I black cultural life, to the late 19th century. “We can think of the metaphor of the New Negro,” Gates claims,

though coined at the height of Jim Crow, as the trope of black Reconstruction almost two decades after the Reconstruction era had ended, as Negroes fought to take back their image from the choking grasp of white supremacy in another kind of civil war, […] a war of representation, at times fought through culture and aesthetics.

The new generation of black leaders stood at the helm of this war of culture and aesthetics and optimistically believed that antiracist images that could dispel myths of black inferiority and signpost a pathway to a higher racial destiny.

In creating a rival archive that emphasized dignity and racial progress, New Negro leaders reproduced an elitism that was still harmful to black people. Shying away from the spirituals, rural life, and other aspects of black culture that could be associated with slavery, New Negro leaders presented a whiggish vision of racial progress. In recent years, scholars of African-American life have been more pessimistic toward the racial uplift project led by Jim Crow–era black elites. In a magisterial survey of antiblack racism, Ibram Kendi argued that the record of fighting racism with respectability was mixed, at best. “Even if these racial reformers managed to one day replace all ‘negative’ portrayals with ‘positive’ portrayals in the mainstream media, then, like addicts, racists would then turn to other suppliers.”

Gates offers a nod to the disagreements within the Harlem Renaissance over questions of class, education, respectability, and gender. Sterling A. Brown and Anna Julia Cooper make brief appearances to encourage their Talented Tenth peers to remember the genius of the black working class. Stony the Road fails to take the next step in fully painting the world of the black cultural workers who attempted to muddy the distinction between highbrow and lowbrow art. In the literature and folklore of Zora Neale Hurston, the artwork of Aaron Douglas, and the vernacular archive of the late 19th century found in the lyrics of early blues singers like Lead Belly, Ma Rainey, and Bessie Smith, a fuller — albeit unwieldy — vision of the long Reconstruction becomes visible.

Stony the Road provides a rich cultural history of the Reconstruction and its afterlife. Painfully aware of the parallels between first and second Reconstruction, as well as the “third reconstruction” of the Obama era and the subsequent third redemption that sees a resurgent white nationalist movement, Gates frames his book as a moral tale on how history can go backward. Most Americans have demonstrated little appetite to fully understand Reconstruction and its horrific incompletion. While Confederate monuments begin to fall, and a National Park Service site dedicated to Reconstruction prepares to open its doors, antiblack racism continues to be a palpable force in American life. From blackface scandals to the endless stream of videos of black men and women being killed by the police that circulate on social media, the visual legacy of Reconstruction’s collapse remains as poignant now as it was during the early 20th century. The promise of James Weldon Johnson’s dream still hangs in the far-off distance.


Robert D. Bland is an assistant professor of history at St. John’s University. He is currently working on a book about the legacy of Reconstruction in African-American memory.

LARB Contributor

Robert D. Bland is an assistant professor of history at St. John’s University. He is currently working on a book about the legacy of Reconstruction in African-American memory.


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