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1988 BOOK PRIZE WINNER: HISTORY : The Killing of 'Birth of a Nation'

October 16, 1988|GARY NASH | Nash, a professor of history at UCLA, is the author of "Forging Freedom: The Formation of Philadelphia's Black Community, 1720-1840" (Harvard University Press). and

Eric Foner's long, brilliant and stylish book, "Reconstruction: America's Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877," is of signal importance, not only to understanding one of the most controversial periods in American history but to comprehending the course of race relations in this country during the last century.

In the subtitle, Foner foreshadows one of his main themes--that the biracial democracy that some intended in reconstructing the South after the Civil War was tragically sidetracked, leaving in the hands of the generations that followed the most important unfinished business this nation has known. But before going further, let us drop back to the early 20th Century, when the malignant ideas about Reconstruction that Foner demolishes in this book took shape.

In February, 1915, while World War I was devastating Europe, there opened in Los Angeles and San Francisco perhaps the most famous movie ever produced in this country--the epic melodrama "Birth of a Nation" by David Wark Griffith, acknowledged as a genius of the silent film. Just a few days after its opening, the film was shown to President Woodrow Wilson, members of his Cabinet and their families in the White House. Wilson applauded the film, which was based in part on the novel of a Southern preacher and professional Negrophobe, Thomas Dixon, who had been a student of Wilson's when the President had taught at Johns Hopkins.

In "Birth of a Nation," Griffith portrayed Reconstruction in the South following the Civil War as the vicious, vindictive work of Northern carpetbaggers in league with their puppets--stupendously corrupt and ignorant black politicians. In one scene viewers witnessed barefoot, unkempt black legislators rollicking in the aisles of a state capitol and leering at white women in the galleries of the legislative chamber.

In other scenes, beastlike black men lusted after the pure, frail, young daughters of respectable white families, causing one such belle (fetchingly played by Lillian Gish) to hurl herself from a cliff rather than be violated by an advancing black man. In the film, only the formation of the Ku Klux Klan, launched by respectable men determined to preserve family and community, halts this rape of the South.

A blockbluster of the silent film era, "Birth of a Nation" played before 200 million Americans by 1946. Griffith no doubt exaggerated in believing that "every man" who saw the film "is a Southern partisan for life"; but there is little doubt that this son of a Confederate soldier influenced much of the country regarding Reconstruction.

For Americans who learned about Reconstruction from history books rather than the silver screen a less melodramatic but essentially consonant view of Reconstruction emerged in the early 20th Century.

Led by John W. Burgess and William A. Dunning, two Southerners teaching at Columbia University, historians began to depict misguided Northern leaders imposing on the South a disgraceful rule of illiterate and politically untutored freed men who were entirely unprepared for the responsibilities thrust upon them. Rampant misgovernment was, unsurprisingly, the result.

The central idea of corrupt "Negro rule" in the South had a tenacious hold on the historical profession for many years. As late as 1947, one of the most eminent historians of the South was writing about Reconstruction as a "diabolical" era "to be remembered, shuddered at, and execrated."

Even before Dunning had published his account of Reconstruction in 1907, Woodrow Wilson had dismissed Northern attempts to reform the South as little more than "a host of dusky children untimely put out of school." More surprising perhaps was the willingness of giants of the profession such as Frederick Jackson Turner and Charles A. Beard to perpetuate such interpretations in textbooks that became the staple diet of several generations of American schoolchildren.

When the black historian W. E. B. DuBois examined the historical literature in order to write his own book, "Black Reconstruction," in the early 1930s, he was shocked at what he encountered. "I stand at the end of this writing, literally aghast at what American historians have done to this field. . . . (It is) one of the most stupendous efforts the world ever saw to discredit human beings. . . ."

Thinking about this deep historical bias, DuBois wrote that "one fact and one alone explains the attitude of most recent writers toward Reconstruction; they cannot conceive of Negroes as men."

Eric Foner is not the first historian to dismantle the profoundly racist interpretation of Reconstruction that held reign for so long. That process of deconstruction has been going on for several decades. But his book is the most comprehensive and convincing account of the effort to build a racially democratic and just society from the fiery ruins of slavery.

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