Who Writes Our History?

Henry Louis Gates Jr.’s ‘Reconstruction,’ on PBS

Even in this age of super-diffuse media content, watching PBS still feels like eating your fiber and vegetables. ‘Reconstruction,’ a new four-hour documentary series from Henry Louis Gates, Jr., is the year’s most intellectually nutritious offering. Part straight history, part polemic, it reframes the history of black life in America, and American life in general, through an angry but also hopeful lens.

Gates, last prominently seen sharing a beer at the Obama White House with the Massachusetts cop who arrested him while he was trying to break into his own house, prepared this series as a sort-of companion piece to his book Stony The Road, released this month. At times, the show feels like a bit of a side hustle. The show includes far too many elegiac shots of Gates walking among the palmettos with his stylish cane. You can imagine that he shot all his voiceovers in two afternoons of work.

The first two hours of Reconstruction, which chronicle the years immediately following the Civil War, play more or less as straight history. It covers the struggles between President Andrew Johnson, Lincoln’s straight-up racist successor, and his more progressive Congress. Ulysses S. Grant, who normally gets written off as a corrupt drunk, receives a surprisingly sympathetic portrayal as a supporter of black freedom and political agency.

The 1870s represented an early apex of black political power in America. Gates interviews descendants of early black elected officials. He discusses, with great pride, a brief time in American history where it seemed like equality might establish itself. But he doesn’t shy away from the maudlin self-pity that bubbles up in the Southern white elite. The exceedingly bizarre reaction to the death of Robert E. Lee gets a lot of play, the church bells telling ominously for the fate of free blacks. Violent white-supremacist racism always lurks near the surface.

Weird

The show’s second half spans from the 1880s up into the early 20th Century. Lynch mobs appear, minstrel shows dominate the culture, race riots kill dozens, and Jim Crow laws descend. Yet Gates doesn’t tell this story as a hopeless march to nowhere. He focuses on the stories of black heroes like Ida B. Wells, W.E.B. DuBois, and Bert Williams, the black comedian who turned the concept of the blackface “Coon Song” inside out and made it his own. Frederick Douglass’s image appears onscreen about as often as Gates’s does.

Reconstruction is less a straight history and more a call to black intellectual arms. But other than a segment about the controversy over Confederate monuments, it has a hard time connecting its historical dots to the present. It hints at modern attempts to suppress the black vote, but fails to draw exact lines. Snippets of police violence against black people fail to land, especially compared with the historical atrocities detailed in the show. Though Gates mentions the prison-industrial complex early on, he retreats, maybe leaving that territory to Ava DuVernay.

A typically riveting moment from “Reconstruction.”

And despite some excellent and revelatory materials, let’s face it, Reconstruction is a bit of a snooze at times. It relies heavily on historian talking heads. They all say intelligent and pertinent things, but don’t exactly rivet the attention. A segment where Gates interviews fellow Harvard professor Cornel West comes off as ridiculous and self-indulgent, especially considering the somber tone of the rest of the show.

But Reconstruction is still a valuable, if somewhat staid, document. It had me thinking hard about who gets to tell our stories. Just like he did with his Dictionary Of Global Culture nearly 25 years ago, Gates has taken the narrative into his own hands. White supremacy is still out there, he argues, it has deep roots, and we have to face it head-on, with intelligence and evidence.

Reconstructing The Narrative

This show is part of a broader and ongoing rethinking of American history, coming from multiple angles. I’ve been slogging through New Yorker writer Jill LePore’s gee-whiz single-volume American civics lesson These Truths for months. She argues that American freedoms and American oppression have always existed side-by-side, that slave revolts inspired our slave-owning founding fathers to write the Constitution.

One of the more bizarre reads of recent years, for me, was Thaddeus Russell’s A Renegade History Of The United States. First, Russell shockingly declares that democracy, at its core, is anti-human freedom, that our forefathers established the government the way they did to keep our baser desires in check. Then, in a later chapter, he argues that white entertainers performed minstrel shows not because they were racist, but because they envied black people’s cultural freedom. He actually claims that slaves enjoyed slavery. I guess the First Amendment makes room for all arguments. But try taking that thesis to Skip Gates or Spike Lee. At least they all agree that Bert Williams was the great cultural hero of his time.

Bert Williams, a black man in blackface.

Gates makes no such outrageous statements. Most of the show is impossible to debate. He never says anything more controversial than: black people had it tough, but often maintained their dignity and advanced their culture despite great adversity. Spoiler alert. Gates isn’t  much of a storyteller. But at least he gets to tell the story.

Neal Pollack

Book and Film Globe Editor in Chief Neal Pollack is the author of ten semi-bestselling books of fiction and nonfiction, including the memoirs Alternadad and Stretch, the novels Repeat and Downward-Facing Death, and the cult classic The Neal Pollack Anthology of American Literature. He's written articles and humor for every English-language publication except The New Yorker. Neal lives in Austin, Texas, and is a three-time Jeopardy! champion.

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