Henry Louis Gates Jr.: 2019 National Book Festival

Henry Louis Gates Jr.: 2019 National Book Festival


>>Peggy McGlone: Hello. I’m Peggy McGlone and I
cover arts and culture for the “Washington Post”. Our guest this afternoon
is Henry Louis Gates, Jr. Dr. Gates is the Alphonse
Fletcher University Professor and Director of the
Hutchins Center for African and African American Research
at Harvard University. A giant of American scholarship, Professor Gates is also a
filmmaker, a journalist, and a cultural critic. He is the author or
co-author of 22 books and the creator of
eighteen films. He is an Emmy, Peabody, and
NAACP Image Award winner, and he is one of the
original MacArthur Genius Grant recipients. He might be best known
for his PBS series, “Finding Your Roots”,
a show that allows us to watch celebrities explore
their family histories and to learn about our
collective identity. His recent books focus on
the Reconstruction era. The “New York Times” called
“Stony the Road: Reconstruction, White Supremacy, and the Rise of
Jim Crow” an indispensable guide to the making of our times. His first work for young adults,
“Dark Sky Rising: Reconstruction and the Dawn of Jim Crow”,
written with Tonya Bolden, has been praised for its
depiction of the promise of Reconstruction and the
tragedy of its systemic erosion. Dr. Gates will be signing books
at 4:30 and he will participate in a panel discussion on
race in America at 6:45. Ladies and gentlemen, it is
my pleasure and privilege to give you Henry
Louis Gates, Jr. [ Applause ]>>Henry Louis Gates,
Jr.: Thank you. [ Applause ] Thank you so much for
that kind introduction. And thanks to all
of you for coming. I want to show you a clip
— it’s about two minutes — of our Reconstruction
series which is one of our most popular
history series on PBS. And it’s really an analogy. People said, “Why would you
turn to Reconstruction?” I’m going to tell you what
Reconstruction is [laughs] in a minute. “Why would you turn
to Reconstruction?” Because Reconstruction
was twelve years of Black freedom followed
by an alt-right rollback. Twelve years of Black
freedom followed by an alt-right rollback. Does that sound familiar, like
anything that’s happening today? All right. Let’s play the clip. This is from our series.>>Most of us know that our
country fought a civil war in the 1860s. But less is known about
that came afterward. The chaotic, exhilarating, and ultimately devastating
period known as Reconstruction.>>Did you ever study
Reconstruction in school?>>No. A paragraph or two. We never really studied it.>>I didn’t learn anything
about Reconstruction. [ Music ]>>Reconstruction was
our shining moment to the second founding
of our country.>>Overnight people
who had been defined as property take leadership
positions in the South. And this is an incredibly
heady moment. Kind of like Barack
Obama becoming President.>>But those Black
folks had no idea of the cliff they
were heading towards. [ Music ]>>Reconstruction produced
a violent backlash, a racist backlash.>>I want us to tell the
truth about our history, not to punish America;
I want to liberate us. But we can’t get to liberation if we don’t acknowledge
what we’ve done. [ Inaudible ]>>Do you believe
that we, as a nation, are still undergoing the
process of Reconstruction?>>You might almost
say it never ended. We are still trying to come
to terms with the consequences of the end of slavery
in this country.>>This is a chapter of our history that’s
been misrepresented and misunderstood. It’s time that we
acknowledge the true story and complete the work of
Reconstructing America. [ Music ]>>Henry Louis Gates,
Jr.: That’s it. That’s what I’m talking about. [ Applause ] So why, of all the things
I could make a film about, why Reconstruction, and why now, why write my first children’s
book with Tonya Bolden, and why the simultaneous
adult book? Because it is a lost
chapter in American history. Reconstruction was a period
following the Civil War between 1865 and 1877. As I said, when Black people
experienced more freedom than at any other
time in our history of our ancestors
on this continent. It’s what Abraham
Lincoln referred in his second inaugural as,
“The new birth of freedom” that the Civil War represented. Historians call it
America’s second founding. But most schools don’t
teach about Reconstruction. They skip from Lee’s surrender
at Appomattox, to Rosa Parks, Dr. King and the Civil Rights
Movement, leaving a lot of students wondering why,
if Lincoln freed the slaves, why did we need a
Civil Rights Movement? So after celebrating the
triumphs that Black people made under Reconstruction, we ask how
could Black men in the South, former slaves, be given
the right to vote in 1867 in the South, and
1870 nationally through the Fifteenth Amendment, and then be systematically
deprived of the vote 20 years later by state constitutional
conventions throughout the South? How could America fight our
costliest war of all our wars to end slavery and to
save the Union at the cost of 750,000 lives, yet see Jim
Crow established as the law of the land by the Supreme Court
of the United States in 1896? W.E.B. Du Bois, my hero, and
the first Black man to get a PhD in any field from Harvard
in 1895, wrote a book about Reconstruction trying to
set the record straight in 1935. And this is how he
summarized Reconstruction. It’s such a brilliant sentence. He says, “The slave went free,
stood a brief moment in the sun, and then moved back
again towards slavery”. And Martin Luther King, a month
before he was assassinated, and most scholars, kids
don’t even know this, Martin Luther King made a
speech about the significance of W.E.B. Du Bois’
book on Reconstruction. And he said, “To
understand why his study of Reconstruction was a
monumental achievement, it’s necessary to
see it in context. White historians had for a century crudely
distorted the Negro’s role in Reconstruction. It was a conscious and
deliberate manipulation of history,” he said,
“And the stakes were high. Reconstruction,” Dr. King
continued, “Was a period in which Black men had a small
measure of freedom of action. If, as White historians tell it,
Negroes wallowed in corruption, opportunism, displayed
spectacular stupidity, were wanton, evil, and ignorant,
then their case was made. They would have proven
that freedom was dangerous in the hands of inferior beings. One generation after another of Americans were assiduously
taught these falsehoods, and the collective mind
of America became poisoned with racism and stunted
with myths.” So understanding Reconstruction
and its rollback is pivotal to understanding the history of race relations in
our country today. Even Black people don’t know
that much about Reconstruction. Many of you have
watched my series, “Finding Your Roots”,
which I love to do. I did Chris Rock. Chris Rock, and I showed him that his great-great grandfather
was elected to the House of Representatives in
South Carolina in 1872, and Chris Rock broke
down and cried. And he broke down and
cried because he said — first of all, he had no idea. And he went to his mother when
he was twelve and said he wanted to grow up and be a
politician and his mother said that America wouldn’t
allow Black men to grow up to be a politician. But in his own family tree he
had a great-great grandfather who had been elected to
the South Carolina House of Representative
during Reconstruction. And Congressman John Lewis, who as far as I’m concerned
is a living secular saint, Congressman — . Give it up for John Lewis. [ Applause ] I showed John Lewis his
great-great grandfather’s voter registration record from the
summer of 1867 and he was so shocked that his head
just fell and hit the desk and he wept like a baby. Why? Because he spent
his whole career trying to get Black people
the right to vote. And he and I figured out that because of Jim Crow segregation
no one in his family voted between his great-great
grandfather in 1867 and John Lewis because
of the Voting Rights Act. That’s how important
the Black vote was. So Reconstruction has
been lost to history. And I turn to my colleagues,
particularly Eric Foner, and ask him to help me bring
it back to the curriculum. Here is a highlight of the — here’s the summary of the
highlights of Reconstruction. The Thirteenth, and Fourteenth,
and Fifteenth Amendments. The Thirteenth Amendment
ended slavery. You know how you learned in
school Lincoln freed the slaves? He didn’t free the slaves. The Emancipation Proclamation
did not free the slaves. What ended slavery
was the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment
on December sixth, 1865. The Fourteenth Amendment
was ratified in 1868. That is what established
birthright citizenship in the United States. America’s only one of 33
countries in the world that has birthright citizenship. And you know what that means. You could be from anywhere,
you go to a national airport or Dulles on a airplane
trip, you have a baby, the baby is an American. And certain people in
this country are trying to take that away. And we’re not going to
let them take that away. No way. [ Applause ] And the Fifteenth Amendment gave
Black men the right to vote. Now you know that even
in the free states of the North Black men
could only vote in five of the six New England
states, and in New York state if they had $250.00
worth of property. Isn’t that amazing? Black men in the free North
whose family had been freed for generations only got
the right to vote in 1870 because of the Fifteenth
Amendment. But if you were a freed
slave in the South like John Lewis’ great-great
grandfather, you got the right to vote in 1867 because of
the Reconstruction Acts. And the Reconstruction Acts
divided the former Confederacy into five military districts and
it made all Black men citizens and gave them all
the right to vote. And so the first freedom
summer was the summer of 1867. And, ladies and gentlemen,
80% of the former male slaves in what was the Confederacy
registered to vote, 80%. If 80% of the Black people had
voted in the last election, we’d be talking about Hillary
Clinton as the President of the United States [laughs]. [ Applause ] Sorry. She’s a friend of mine. I had to get that
little editorial in there, you understand. [ Laughter ] And guess what? Ninety-nine percent of these
men were illiterate because, as all the school children
here know, each of you knows that it was illegal to
teach an enslaved man or woman to read or write. Yet two years after the
end of the Civil War, 80% of the eligible Black men, because women didn’t
have the right to vote, as you know, registered to vote. And guess what? In the general election
of 1868 they voted. Ulysses S. Grant
won the presidency. He won overwhelmingly in
the electoral college, but he only won the popular
vote by 300,000 votes. Five hundred thousand Black
men voted for Ulysses S. Grant. They elected him president. Former slaves, Black men,
had elected a President of the United States, and they
did the same thing in 1872. Think about that. That was the miracle
of Reconstruction, the miracle of democracy
in action. And the, in South Carolina the
Secretary of State was Black, the Treasurer was Black. I got ten minutes. And I’m still Black
so I’m going to keep. I’m going to keep
on wrapping this up. [ Laughter ] We forget, there were
three majority Black states in the United States. South Carolina, Louisiana,
Mississippi were majority Black. Georgia, Alabama, and Florida
were almost majority Black. So this was like a mini Black
republic in the United States. And the prospect of all of
those Black people voting and controlling those states
scared people in the South and scared people in the North. There were, between 1870 and
1877, sixteen Black men elected to the Congress including
two to the Senate. And overall there were 2,000
Black men elected to office. And this led to an
alt-right rollback. I said that the Thirteenth
Amendment was ratified in December 1865, guess when
the Ku Klux Klan was formed? December 1865. Between 1866 and 1876, there were eight major
massacres of Black people. Memphis, New Orleans, Camilla,
Meridian, Colfax, Coushatta, Vicksburg, and Hamburg. And 3,724 Black men were
lynched between 1889 and 1930, eighty percent of them Black. Why? Slavery had ended but cotton remained the leading
export in the United States through the 1930s and somebody
had to pick all that cotton. So they needed cheap labor. They invented sharecropping,
peonage, vagrancy acts. They could, if the police saw
three Black men on the street, they could just arrest them
and put them on chain gangs and the prison would lease out
their labor to go back and pick that cotton that the
formerly enslaved had done. And then the Supreme Court,
you want to know the dangers of a conservative Supreme Court? A conservative Supreme Court
effectively wiped out the power of the Thirteenth,
the Fourteenth, and the Fifteenth
Amendment with three cases, the Slaughterhouse Cases in
1873, Cruikshank in 1876, and the Civil Rights
Cases in 1883 that struck down the Civil Rights
Act of 1875 which gave Black people equal
access to public accommodations. And then the worst thing
of all, starting in 1890, each of the former
Confederate states had their own constitutional convention
and they figured out brilliantly how they could
snatch away the right to vote for Black men through poll
taxes, literacy tests, and comprehension test. And it started in Mississippi
in 1890, and it spread by 1910 through every former
Confederate state. You want to know
how dramatic it was? Louisiana had their state
constitution convention in 1898. The day before that constitution
convention 130,000 black men were registered to
vote in Louisiana. By the time that constitution’s
new regulations were implemented by 1904, that number, ladies
and gentlemen, had been reduced to precisely 1,324 from 130,000. And then the United Daughters of the Confederacy
decided they were going to build those Confederate
monuments for what they called
the “lost cause” which was celebrating their
victory over Black rule in Reconstruction and
their historian general, a woman named Mildred Lewis
Rutherford, wrote a textbook and I made my students at
Harvard read this textbook — it was called “The
Measuring Rod” — in my graduate seminar
last February. And it sent 20 principals out
to every librarian in American and everyone teaching
American history and I want to read you two or three
things that this book said. It said, “Reject the book that says the South fought the
Civil War to hold her slaves. Reject the book that
speaks of the slave holder of the South as cruel
and unjust. Reject the book that
glorifies Abraham Lincoln”. Her common core was
the lost cause and the lost cause
was the belief that the South had
a noble way of life and that slavery was
benign and benevolent. And the worst thing that had
happened was the Civil War which ended their
great way of life. The rollback of Reconstruction
has lasted far longer than Reconstruction itself
and it continues to this day. Today’s rollback is part of
the reaction to the election of Barack Obama as our
first Black president. His eight years in the
White House stirred up massive racial
resentment as we saw with Donald Trump’s
campaign and its presidency which capitalized on
White racial fear. This is why Reconstruction
matters to us today, ladies and gentlemen,
because the problems that emerged during
Reconstruction have never been resolved in our society. Brian Stevenson,
who just started that brilliant new museum
toward lynching in Montgomery, said recently, and I quote,
“I think that the great evil of American slavery wasn’t
involuntary servitude and forced labor. The true evil of American
slavery was the narrative we created to justify it. They made up this
ideology of White supremacy that cannot be reconciled
with our constitution, that cannot be reconciled with
the commitment to fair treatment and just treatment
of all people. They made it up so they could
feel comfortable while enslaving other people. Slavery,” he concluded, “didn’t
end in 1865; it just evolved. The North won the Civil War but the South won
the narrative war”. So now it’s time,
ladies and gentlemen, for us to change the narrative. We made this series and I
wrote these books to show that if we could get through
the nightmare of the rollback of Reconstruction
through the imposition of Jim Crow segregation,
the low point or the nadir in American race
relations, then we can get through this new surge of
White Supremacists rhetoric. We can get through birtherism. We can get through the
attack on Affirmative Action in the courts, gerrymandering,
voter suppression, xenophobia, Islamophobia, and anti-immigrant
feelings that lead some people to believe that this
is not the country where we tear walls down, but the country where
we build walls. They have it exactly
upside down. This is the new nadir in
American race relations that we are experiencing today. History may, as the
saying goes, repeat itself, but only if we let it. Thank you. Thank you very much. [ Applause and Cheering ] Thank you. [ Applause ] Thank you. [ Applause ] Thank you. You know, the, this very nice
lady said we had two minutes. I guess that’s time
for one question. But this morning I woke up on
Martha’s Vineyard where I’d been on vacation and when I
looked at my alarm clock at 8:00 a.m., I said, “Hmm. I could go to the beach at
Martha’s Vineyard or come down here and do
this book signing”. [ Laughter ] I think I’m developing
the flu and maybe I need to stay home [laughs]. But thank you for that warm,
thank you for that warm welcome. It means so much to me. We have time for one question. Yes. [ Inaudible ] You got to get to the mic. But don’t step on
anybody [laughs].>>Thank you. [ Inaudible ] Thank you very much
for the presentation. I appreciate it and think
a lot of us here did. Couple of questions. I know some people have
drawn a distinction between Reconstruction and
Radical Reconstruction.>>Henry Louis Gates,
Jr.: Mm-hmm.>>If you could talk about
what distinctions might exist, if any. And then if you could
also talk a little bit about the Readjuster
Party in Virginia, just what your thoughts are
about the Readjuster Party and what it tried to
do during its time.>>Henry Louis Gates, Jr.: She just told me I could
answer your first question but not your second
one [laughs]. The Radical Reconstruction,
as it was called, Andrew Johnson became
President of the United States when Abraham Lincoln
was assassinated, right. And he wanted to
forgive the Confederacy and basically reinstitute
slavery by another name. And as Radical Republicans were
able, when they were elected and came back into
office, were able then to institute what became the
three Reconstruction Amendments: The Thirteenth Amendment,
which finally ended slavery; then the Fourteenth Amendment:
and the Fifteenth Amendment. So the laws on the books, if
they’d only been enforced, if the Supreme Court had
not made its decisions which limited their
applicability to an individual, it limited their applicability to what was called social
equality, meaning my right to go to a hotel with you, or my
right to marry whoever I wanted, or your right, or
the right to eat in a restaurant, et
cetera, et cetera. All that led to this
massive rollback. Because one of the lessons of
this book, of both of our books, is that you could
be anti-slavery but also be an anti-Black
racist. You could be against slavery
as an economic institution and still think Black people
were fundamentally inferior, different on the great chain
of being in the history of evolution from White
people, people of White descent, and there a lot of people
who still think that now. There are a lot of
people who think that Black people are inherently
intellectually inferior and we know that that’s a lie. One of the reasons that I love
doing “Finding Your Roots” and I love its popularity
is that it has two messages. One is that we’re
all immigrants. We are all immigrants. The Native Americans came
here 16,000 years ago. The Black people, my
Black ancestors were willing immigrants. They were unwilling immigrants. But they were immigrant. We were all immigrants and that’s what made
this country great. And the second thing
when I do people’s DNA, it shows us no matter how
different each of you, and I’m looking at the rainbow
coalition among the students, no matter how differently
phenotypically you all look, you’re 99.99% the
same in your genome. We’re all God’s children
and we got to fight to make America great again
in my opinion [laughs]. Thank you very much. Thank you.

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