'But This Latter Person, I Am Not Trying To Convince'

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

One of the best parts of the old blogging system, here, was the ability to talk about what I was reading at the time. I think I’m going to try to bring some of that back.

I’ve read a lot over the past year or so (though less than previous years) and there’s a lot I want to talk about: Yaa Gyasi’s Homecoming (inspiring in its generational ambition), Laurent DuBois’s Avengers of the New World (history of the Haitian Revolution, an idea some 200 years ahead of its time), John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War (conservative and romantic in every way that I love), Mark Waid and Chris Samnee’s Black Widow (so intense, and this story never lets you take a break—oddly reminiscent of Mad Max: Fury Road), William Doyle’s Oxford History of the French Revolution (great primer for anyone starting—as I was—with just the barest knowledge of the French Revolution.)

But those are things I’ve already read, or, in the case of Black Widow, ongoing things which I’m in the process of reading. Right now my eye is trained on a book that my historian friends have been demanding I read for the past few years—W.E.B. Du Bois’s Black Reconstruction In America. I just started yesterday, and already I can see why the book has so many fans in the academy.

Over the past 40 years or so, there’s been a movement among some American historians to put white supremacy at the center of their field of study. Much of my own work, and my current understanding of American history, pulls from these historians—Edmund Morgan, Beryl Satter, Ed Baptist, Thomas Sugrue, Arnold Hirsch, Eric Foner, Barbara and Karen Fields.

I don’t know how intentional, or how conscious this movement is, and I do not want to paper over the (many) disagreements and nuances you find among these historians. But I do think that it’s safe to say that, collectively, they represent a shift away from viewing racism in general, and anti-black racism in particular, as incidental to the American past.

The ur-text for this reconsideration is W.E.B. Du Bois’s Black Reconstruction In America. Written in 1935, when the Dunning School still held sway, and slavery was considered benign if regrettable, and Reconstruction was viewed as plunder perpetrated by carpet-baggers and ignorant blacks, Du Bois’s text veered left and offered a different picture—one that, according to Foner, regarded Reconstruction ...

...as an idealistic effort to construct a democratic interracial political order from the ashes of slavery as well as a phase in a prolonged struggle between capital and labor for control of the South’s economic resources...In many ways Black Reconstruction anticipated the findings of modern scholarship. At the time, however, it was largely ignored.

I think Du Bois was well aware of Black Reconstruction’s likely, immediate fate. Here is the last paragraph of Du Bois’s note to the reader:

It would be only fair to the reader to say frankly in advance that the attitude of any person toward this story will be distinctly influenced by his theories of the Negro race. If he believes that the Negro in America and in general is an average and ordinary human being, who under given environment develops like other human beings, then he will read this story and judge it by the facts adduced. If, however, he regards the Negro as a distinctly inferior creation, who can never successfully take part in modern civilization and whose emancipation and enfranchisement were gestures against nature, then he will need something more than the sort of facts that I have set down.

But this latter person, I am not trying to convince. I am simply pointing out these two points of view, so obvious to Americans, and then without further ado, I am assuming the truth of the first. In fine, I am going to tell this story as though Negroes were ordinary human beings, realizing that this attitude will from the first seriously curtail my audience.

This note deeply moved me. So often I am asked—as all black writers are asked—how their message might be packaged to appeal to those who have no appetite for what we are saying. The interlocutor is usually a person of good faith, who is in agreement, but the question is always a trap. Any writer who takes as their starting place any doubt as to their own humanity, or the humanity of their subject, has already lost. The real questions, the questions in that writer’s heart, are never explored. And instead they are stuck answering the same set of questions that they’ve, long ago, resolved. For black writers, this is a formula for never evolving, for writing the same thing over and over. For black writers the danger is having their work devolve into workshop on racial sensitivity.

Du Bois rejected that approach. He wrote knowing full well that what he said was neither palatable nor negotiable, that a large portion of the country would not be swayed, and that the truth, in and of itself, must be enough. It is often said that this space lacks for hope. Here is your bone for the day: In the academy, Du Bois was victorious. He did not live to see that victory, but it is his view on the centrality of white supremacy that now carries the day.

More tomorrow.