Using the Simple to Teach the Profound     

Reflecting on what others have suggested may be a third major period of Reconstruction of America’s understanding of itself – the Reconstruction Era (1865-1877) being the first such episode, the Civil Rights Era of de-segregation (1948-1968) being the second – I was planning to finish reading and then write about the second of two books by David Blight, of Yale University, surely one of the foremost historians of his generation.

The first book, Race and Reunion: The Civil War and American Memory (Belknap, 2001) described the history trick the defeated South played on American Blacks, cutting their fates  out of a moving  story about North/South reconciliation that I had been taught as a boy – white soldiers on both sides sharing their common valor, glossing over the destruction of slavery as the central aim of the war, omitting altogether the re-subordination of African-American under Jim Crow laws.  Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom (Simon and Schuster, 2018) was the second, a gripping biography of a major American figure in American history who, somehow, I had also missed growing up.

That got me wondering how I had learned anything at all about the history of African-Americans in the United States. So I looked for material about the series of Landmark Books I had devoured as a third- and fourth-grader.  I was astonished by what I found – 122 titles and just one, number 38, about an identifiable Black: George Washington Carver: The Story of a Great American. It turns out that what I was imbibing so eagerly when I was eight and nine was a not-so-subtle racism-by-exclusion.

As an Old White Guy, secure in my reading of two books by another Old White Guy, smug about my discovery of the nature of the Landmark list, I thought I might write about how we need more accounts of African-American lives by African-American authors. When I mentioned as much to a young historian friend, she said I must be kidding! Of the list of books by prize-winning Black authors she rattled off, most of them university professors, the  one I chose to read last week was On Juneteenth, (Liveright, 2021), by Annette Gordon-Reed, of Harvard University.  It, too, opened my eyes, in more ways than one.

On Juneteenth turned out to be a semi-autobiographical love-story about her native Texas. Well, not exactly Texas itself (though, as she notes, only New York City and, perhaps, California, have achieved similar iconic status), but rather the different groups who had settled in that enormous landscape for a time: indigenous tribes and Hispanic explorers; frontier roughnecks and Mississippi planters; soldiers and sly politicians; cattle ranchers and oilmen; slaves and freed men and freed women: all of them immigrants.  Gordon-Reed puts herself in the shoes of a dazzling array of Others, and readers in shoes of her own, at all ages, at every turn.

The book is all the more striking for its modesty, though not, mind you, any lack of ambition. Gordon-Reed is a Texan, after all.  She is best known for The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family (Norton, 2008), which won both a Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award the next year. The new book On Juneteenth, in contrast, contains just six chapters and a sobering coda, 148 pages in all. It is a complicated book, sophisticated and profound, thought it doesn’t read that way. Anyone, from Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, Texas A&M cadets, to hipster pilgrims on their way to Marfa, can read and enjoy it. It will become an American classic in time, I expect.

Perhaps another development to emerge from this Third Reconstruction will be of a more prosaic nature. Author and home-schooler Cheryl Bastian is absolutely right when she enthuses about the virtues of using the simple to teach the profound. But we need a new and more variegated shelf of landmarks to set on elementary school library shelves.   The old series was launched by Random House publisher Bennett Cerf, one of the original Old White Men of his generation. A new venture would require a similarly talented and efficacious editor to put it in motion.

Such a series would avoid showboating, in order to focus on stories of lives already well-told by consensus-seeking historians.  Besides  Frederick Douglass ,Martin Luther King Jr., and Barack and Michelle Robinson Obama, some of the more obvious stories are those of  Harriet Tubman,  the heretofore anonymous Rose and Ashley,  the Tulsa massacre,  Ralph Ellison,  Harry Belafonte, Harper Lee, Malcolm X,  Muhammad Ali, and Bill Cosby. A separate list of the lives of interesting athletes is as long as your arm.

When that time comes, if it comes at all, I hope there will be room for a volume about the adventures of the Old White Guys of my generation who told stories of the institution of slavery: Stanley Elkins, Robert Fogel and Stanley Engerman, Philip Morgan, and, of course, David Blight. On this first observance of Juneteenth as a federal holiday, however, it is enough to think how much the economist Fogel would have enjoyed reading Gordon-Reed, a student of law, and surely one of the foremost historians of her generation.

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