The incident might have been comical if it weren’t for the disconcerting implications. The date was July 16, 2009. A respected Harvard professor had just returned to his home in Cambridge, Massachusetts, after a long trip back from a research sojourn in China. He found his front door jammed, so he solicited the aid of his driver in pushing the door ajar. A passerby observed this. Concerned that the men might be engaged in a robbery, she called police. Shortly a cop arrived. A heated exchange erupted between the professor — understandably irked after entering his domicile — and the officer, a sergeant. The encounter resulted in the professor’s arrest for disorderly conduct. Charges were dropped five days later.
The academic was Henry Louis Gates Jr., a prolific author of African and African American history and the host of the popular PBS genealogy program “Finding Your Roots.” Gates is Black. The arresting officer, Irish American James Crowley, is white. The imbroglio made headlines and had disturbing undertones of racial profiling. It prompted President Barack Obama to invite the two men to the White House to discuss what had transpired, hoping for a “teachable moment.” The informal meeting was dubbed the “Beer Summit.” The conversation was cordial. Maybe it helped to mitigate the contentious misunderstanding manifested the previous week in Cambridge, but many perceived the unfortunate affair as emblematic of persistent subtle and not-so-subtle racial and ethnic tensions that perfuse our society.
In his trenchant chronicle “Stony the Road,” Gates renders in flowing prose the promise of Reconstruction following our nation’s bloody Civil War. Deep, racist sentiments of a great many white citizens were not confined to states that had comprised the defeated Confederacy. Says Gates: “Reconstruction revealed a fact that had been true but not always acknowledged even before the Civil War: that it was entirely possible for many in the country, even some abolitionists, to detest slavery to the extent that they would be willing to die for its abolition, yet at the same time to detest the enslaved and the formerly enslaved with equal passion.” Regarding this bitter reality, he quotes Frederick Douglass: “Opposing slavery and hating its victims has become a very common form of abolitionism.”
Nonetheless, the period of Reconstruction witnessed the arrival of numerous formerly enslaved Black men — no women, Black or white, had yet been granted suffrage — into the ranks of franchised voters and enabled the election of Black politicians at various levels of government. The possibility of a more humane and equitable American society seemed to be gradually aborning. To quote Douglass again: “The curtain is now lifted. The dismal death-cloud of slavery has passed away. Today we are free American citizens. We have ourselves, we have a country, and we have a future in common with other men.”
Such inspired hope was extirpated by the “Compromise of 1877,” which spurred the withdrawal of federal troops from the South. Up until then, the presence of the United States military served to protect emancipated African Americans and their inchoate entry into civic and political life. The evacuation of the federals opened the floodgates of ferocious racial antagonisms rampant in Southern society. The reestablishment of white supremacy is described by Gates as a campaign that “used its weapons, in addition to lynching, mutilation, rape, beatings and mayhem, a surfeit of verbal and visual imagery to debase the popular image of the Negro in every way that it could.” The era of Jim Crow had begun. Known as “Redemption,” the recrudesce of bigoted white dominance was nurturing twin ideologies of a segregated “New South” and a romantic nostalgia for the noble “Lost Cause” of the vanquished secessionists.
Against this effort to replicate the old antebellum
order of white dominion, intrepid and determined African Americans created their own communities, or “a nation within a nation.” Schools, churches, businesses, community and fraternal organizations along with musicians, artists and writers continued to maintain a sense of identity, progress, pride and self-preservation. These manifestations of strength and affirmation became mighty weapons against all of the vile meanness and violence oozing from “the haunted house of the subconscious American racist imagination.” They proved vibrant and durable.
This book is replete with heroes and heroines of the African American ethos and their resplendent achievements. A pivotal figure is James Weldon Johnson, whose song “Lift Every Voice and Sing” gives Gates a phrase for the title of his book. Johnson’s poetry was put to music by his brother and is known today as the “Black National Anthem.” In 1922, Johnson wrote a powerful preface to his “Book of Negro American Poetry,” in which he avers that “the greatness of all peoples is the amount and standard of the literature and art they have produced. The world does not know that a people is great until that people produces great literature and art.” This was the spark that ignited the Harlem Renaissance, “the most famous cultural movement in African American history.”
It should be noted in this review that it was in 1922 when U.S. Rep. L.C. Dyer, R-Missouri, proposed an anti-lynching bill. If passed, that bill would have made lynching a federal crime. In many instances, brutal torture and barbaric lynching of Black persons went unpunished in localities or counties or states. That has finally changed.
As reported recently in The New York Times, as of Feb. 26, “a measure to add lynching to the U.S. criminal code has finally passed the House. The Senate passed a version of the bill last year.” The bills will be reconciled and, ironically, it will be President Donald Trump who will most likely sign the bill.
Regarding ironies of history, getting back to Professor Gates and Officer Crowley: They have become friends. Some of Gates’ personal ancestry is derived from Ireland. It has now been learned that Gates and Crowley share an ancient Irish ancestor, the Celtic warrior Niall of the Nine Hostages.
Like Genghis Khan, the prolific Niall got around and sired a multitude of children. Gates and Crowley and a great many others in the Irish diaspora share the old warrior’s DNA. Imagine that.
“Stony the Road” is a marvelous, richly illustrated book pulsating with history still unfolding around us. It can serve to bolster, in the words of Gates, “our own struggles against the abhorrent face of anti-black racism and white supremacy today.”
Read more in the Mar. 18 - 24, 2020 issue.