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Reconstructing Our Understanding of Reconstruction.

Eric Foner is the DeWitt Clinton Professor of History at Columbia University. He has published numerous works on the American Reconstruction after the civil war, a period whose problems with promoting racial and economic justice in a diverse country remain relevant to America today. Foner's new book "America's Reconstruction: People and Politics after the Civil War" (Louisiana State University Press) was published in conjunction with an exhibition on the Reconstruction at the Valentine Museum in Richmond, Virginia which opened in 1995 and is still touring the country.


Other segments from the episode on July 15, 1997

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, July 15, 1997: Interview with Eric Foner; Review of Wu Tang's album "Wu Tang Forever."


Date: JULY 15, 1997
Time: 12:00
Tran: 071501np.217
Head: Eric Foner
Sect: News; Domestic
Time: 12:06

TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

While President Clinton considers offering an apology for slavery, a new exhibition is reexamining what happened in the period just after slavery was abolished. This period, known as Reconstruction, is very relevant today.

It's when our nation first started dealing with questions we're still trying to resolve, like: what is the role of the federal government in protecting civil rights and in ensuring equality for people who were historically denied it?

Eric Foner is co-curator of the exhibit "America's Reconstruction: People and Politics After the Civil War" which is at the Schonberg (ph) Center for Research in Black Culture in Manhattan through November 1. Foner is the author of several books about the Civil War and Reconstruction. He's a professor of History at Columbia University.

I asked him to describe the period that has become known as Reconstruction.

ERIC FONER, DEWITT CLINTON PROFESSOR OF HISTORY, COLUMBIA UNIVERSITY, AUTHOR, "AMERICA'S RECONSTRUCTION: PEOPLE AND POLITICS: AFTER THE CIVIL WAR": Well, Reconstruction as a time period began during the Civil War. I date it with the Emancipation Proclamation of January 1, 1863 because that made the abolition of slavery a war aim of the Union government.

It meant that if the Union won the war, there would have to be a reconstruction of southern society -- the old order simply couldn't be brought back in.

And then, Reconstruction is usually thought to end in 1877, when the last federal troops were withdrawn from taking part in politics in the South, and the whole South was handed back over to white supremacist Democratic Party rule.

However, as a historical process, which we mentioned before -- the process of the nation, north and South and black and white, coming to terms with the destruction of slavery, Reconstruction lasted a lot longer than that, and some might say is still going on.

GROSS: In this new show and in the writings that you've done on Reconstruction, you are challenging some of the popular ideas about the period and its meaning. Let's take a look at an idea that you challenge. You know, frame one for us...

FONER: OK, well...

GROSS: ... that you think is important to re-defining the period.

FONER: Right. Well for a long, long time, historians and the popular media -- films like "Birth of a Nation," "Gone With The Wind," many others one could mention -- portrayed Reconstruction, the period after the Civil War, as a time of sort of rampant mis-government; when ignorant blacks were sort of put into positions of power that they really weren't prepared for. They were joined by corrupt carpetbaggers from the North and scalawags, who were Southern whites.

And what followed was a sort of period of corruption and misrule, which eventually was overthrown by the Ku Klux Klan and other groups, and what was called "home rule" was restored to the South.

Now, I'm not the first to challenge that. A generation or more of historians have been undermining the premises of that interpretation. But it still holds a great sway on public views of the period, as I discover whenever I speak to someone and say I'm doing this museum show on Reconstruction. They say: "oh, well, isn't that when all those carpetbaggers were kind of running amuck and ruining everything?"

My view, and I think this is now the dominant view of scholars, although it takes a long time for scholarship to work its way into public consciousness, is that Reconstruction was a time of immense promise and immense progress for black Americans and for white Americans. It was a very turbulent period, but -- and it was a failure in the end -- but as W.E.B. DuBois said long ago, "it was a splendid failure."

What he meant was that the former slaves, far from being ignorant and unprepared, actually stepped up to the responsibilities of freedom; took part in government in a responsible, intelligent, forward-looking manner. And what alarmed white supremacists was not the problems of Reconstruction, but the successes of Reconstruction. And that is what led to the violent campaign to overthrow it.

So today, we see Reconstruction as a period of great change, great promise, great achievement for particularly the former slaves. And the problem, I would say, is not that Reconstruction was attempted, but that it did not go far enough, especially in the failure to distribute land to the former slaves, which would have given some kind of economic underpinning to the political and civil rights that they acquired.

GROSS: This is a period of firsts for African-Americans. It's the period of the first black churches; the first black colleges; the first African-American schools. Why -- I guess the answer is obvious -- to why it's a period of firsts. These things weren't legal before (Unintelligible). Slaves weren't allowed to go to...

FONER: But, but...

GROSS: ... school. Slaves weren't allowed to run their own churches.

FONER: Right. There had been some institutions in the black community among free blacks. Before the Civil War, about 10 percent of the black population in the country were free -- half of them in the North and half in the South. And they had their own churches and they had their own schools in some places. But these were very small institutions.

Reconstruction does lay the foundation for the modern black community. The institutional church becomes a major force in -- as the center of black life, which it remains all the way down to the present. The first public school systems for whites or blacks were established in the South during Reconstruction. You know, there weren't any public schools for whites either before the Civil War in nearly all the Southern states.

And of course, it was the first time that black men had the right to vote in the South. And in fact, in most Northern states, they couldn't vote before the Civil War. It was the first time black men in significant numbers held office, ranging from Congress down to state offices, justices of the peace, sheriffs, et cetera.

It was the first time that Congress or the states passed civil rights laws. The first civil rights law in our history is the civil rights law of 1866, which establishes the principle of equal rights before the law for all Americans. That principle didn't exist before the Civil War. Blacks were treated unequally in every state, whether North or South.

So really, Reconstruction puts all these things on the national agenda and it changed not only black life, but the whole nature of our political and constitutional system for everybody in this country.

GROSS: White Southerners tried to undermine the new freedom of African-Americans and in the mid-1860s started passing "black codes" limiting the rights of African-Americans and trying to force them to work on plantations. Would you describe what these codes were like?

FONER: What happened was that in 1865 when the Civil War ended and, of course, President Lincoln was assassinated just at that time. He was succeeded by Andrew Johnson, who became president.

And Johnson was a Southerner who had been loyal to the Union, but was very racist in his attitudes and also strongly believed in states rights. He didn't think that the federal government had a right to tell the states what to do in any way.

And so, he basically turned government in the South back to the old white groups who had run things before the Civil War. And he thought that blacks had no role to play whatsoever in the political processes. These new governments passed what you said were the black codes, which basically were laws trying to restrict the scope of the freedom that blacks now enjoyed.

The central elements were laws like vagrancy laws, which said that any black person who didn't sign a labor contract to go to work for a year for a white person would be considered a vagrant, and they could be arrested and fined. And if they couldn't pay the fine, they would be auctioned off to work for someone who could.

Now, you had people arrested in the South for vagrancy who owned their own land. They weren't working for a white, so therefore they were vagrants, even though they were supporting their family on their own land.

They passed -- Mississippi passed a law making it illegal for any black person to own land. They passed very high taxes or license fees on various occupations, other than working on a plantation.

In other words, the whole emphasis was to use the power of the government to force these former slaves back to work in the cotton fields in a situation not that dissimilar from what they had been as slaves.

GROSS: Well, president -- the president allowed the states to do this. What did Congress have to say?

FONER: Well, many in Congress -- the Republican majority in Congress -- felt that these laws were basically making a mockery of emancipation. The Civil War, as you know, did not begin as a struggle to emancipate the slaves, but it became that. And by the end of the war, the abolition of slavery was -- sort of justified the immense, you know, the death and destruction that the war had produced.

And now, when Congress assembled in December, 1865, and -- six months after the end of the war -- so suddenly, it seems like slavery's being reinstituted in a new legalized form. And Congress felt that this was definitely unacceptable, and this was what spurred them to pass laws like the civil rights law that I just mentioned.

The civil rights law says you can't have one set of laws for blacks and one set of laws for whites. You can't have black codes that make something a crime for a black person, but not for a white person. All the laws have to apply equally to all Americans. And as I said, that's really the birth of the concept of civil rights in this country.

GROSS: Yeah, I think Reconstruction also set certain voting patterns for Democrats and Republicans in the South. What did the Democratic and the Republican Party stand for in the South at the time of Reconstruction?

FONER: Well, of course, the voting patterns then were quite reversed from what we associate -- what we think of today. The vast majority of black voters, when they did get the right to vote in 1867, voted for the Republican Party, the reason being, of course, the Republicans were the party of Lincoln; the party of emancipation; and the party that had given them their rights after the Civil War.

And in fact, the large majority of blacks voted Republican down into the 1930s. It was in 1934, 1936 that the wholesale shift to the Democratic Party took place because blacks were benefiting very much from the New Deal programs of President Roosevelt. And now, of course, down to the present day, 85, 90 percent of the black vote is Democratic.

The Republican Party at that time had been born as an anti-slavery party. It didn't exist in the South before the Civil War. Lincoln didn't get a single vote in most of the Southern states when he ran for president in 1860.

And so, it was the Democratic Party in the South and nationally, which was the party of white supremacy and of states rights, and which fought tooth and nail against Republican Reconstruction and to restore white dominance of the political and social and economic spheres.

GROSS: You describe the Ku Klux Klan as starting out as the military arm of the Democratic Party.

FONER: Oh, that's a sort of figure of speech or a metaphor. The Ku Klux Klan began as a sort of social club of veterans of the Confederate Army in 1866, but very quickly it turned into what I would -- using a modern word -- it became a terrorist organization. It worked very closely with the Democratic Party because its aims were the same -- that is, to overturn Reconstruction and restore white supremacy.

And it spread into many parts of the South. And, you know, in films like Birth of a Nation, even Gone With The Wind, the Klan is sort of romanticized. You know: "well, maybe they got a little out of hand, but really they were just trying to frighten superstitious blacks. You know, they got dressed up as ghosts in white robes and people got scared and ran away."

The Klan was not just frightening people. The Klan was committing some of the most heinous acts of violent terrorism in American history. They murdered their opponents. They beat them. They burned their houses. They tried to drive them out of their homes.

They targeted local black officials. They assaulted blacks who tried to vote. They went after blacks who owned their own land. They went into a house and burned it because black -- because the black owner had books. They didn't want black people to learn anything.

This was a group of very vicious criminals, who ought not to be romanticized in the slightest, but who unfortunately turned out to be somewhat effective in creating a reign of terror in considerable parts of the South during Reconstruction.

GROSS: My guest is Historian Eric Foner, cu-curator of the exhibition America's Reconstruction, People and Politics After the Civil War, which is at the Schonberg Center for Research in Black Culture in Manhattan. We'll talk more after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.

Back with Historian Eric Foner, co-curator of an exhibition reexamining the Reconstruction era.

What happens at the end of Reconstruction? How do the states regain so-called states' rights?

FONER: Well, during what we call Radical or Congressional Reconstruction, there were these governments in power in the South based on democracy for the first time, that is, with both blacks and whites voting and electing people to office.

One by one, these governments were overturned, sometimes by voting, sometimes by violence, until in 1876, there were only three Reconstruction governments left in the South, in South Carolina, Louisiana, and Florida.

And in the election, the presidential election of 1876 going over to '77, there result was disputed between President -- between Hayes, the Republican candidate, and Tilden, the Democrat.

And to make a long story short, a deal -- "The Bargain of 1877" was finally agreed to by the national parties, which said, Hayes, the Republican, would become president, but in exchange, the Democrat would be fundamentally given a free hand in the South, that these remaining three states would be given over to the Democrats, and that -- the Republican Party promised to intervene no more in Southern political affairs.

So, you had Republican rule at the national level, and Democratic rule in the South, which meant white supremacy now back in force in -- all of the Southern states.

GROSS: So Reconstruction ends and segregation becomes the law of the land in the South.

FONER: Well, a generation -- it takes another generation for the full new racial system to come into play after 1877. Segregation is not really put into law until the 1890s in most Southern states.

Around the turn of the century, laws are passed taking the right to vote away from most Southern blacks. The educational system for blacks deteriorates markedly. In the 1890s, you have the rise of lynching, which is a -- you know, extralegal way of keeping black people in their place through murder.

And, as I say, it's not like in 1877, everything changes all at once. Blacks continue to vote in many places down into the 1890s. Some few continue to get elected to office -- it's not until about 1900 you can say, a whole new system is in place based on segregation, share cropping, disenfranchisement of black voters, lynching.

And that pretty much stays in place for another half a century, into the 1950s, when the civil rights movement arises, which really is some times called, "The Second Reconstruction," that is, the second effort to live up to the promise of equality, which Reconstruction had put into the laws in the Constitution.

GROSS: You know, the Reconstruction period is so fundamental to understanding politics and race relations in the United States, and yet, I can say that when I was in high school, and we were learning this in history classes here, it was really boring.

FONER: Well, I'm sorry...

GROSS: I mean, I'm not sure were ever get -- got to any of the real implications of the period. And I have a feeling that's pretty typical. And I wonder if you think that most Americans don't really grasp the importance of what happened then.

FONER: Well unfortunately, we have a penchant in this country for historical amnesia. It doesn't only apply to Reconstruction. History education, unfortunately, often is boring. I don't mean to single out your teacher, but too often it is just the facts and dates and memorization, et cetera.

But also, this is a period which raises very fundamental questions about the nature of our society, questions which some people find very uncomfortable. The museum exhibition that I put together with my co-curator, Olivia Mahoney (ph), which is being shown at the Schonberg library now, Schonberg Center, is the first museum exhibition in American history devoted to the Reconstruction period.

There never has been one at any museum in this country. This is not just an accident. It's not that they forgot about that or overlooked it. It's that it's a very touchy and difficult period for many people to deal with, although, our experience actually has been that people who've gone to this show, and it is already -- it's a travelling show, it's already been in Virginia and South Carolina, most people who go are quite pleased with it.

They say -- they sign these visitor's books, they generally say, you know, really I didn't know much of this, I learned something, and that's what that the purpose is of a show, to teach something they didn't already know. And so, I think it's successful, but we have a long way to go in making people aware of the significance of that time period of history.

GROSS: Why have you focused on this period in your work?

FONER: Well, I guess for the reasons we've said about its relevance, you know, historians -- the answers that historians find to their questions are -- one hopes, grounded in research and documentation. But the questions you ask come out of the time you're living in.

My interest in African-American history, in slavery, abolition, the aftermath of slavery, came out of the 1960s, when I was in college, and when the civil rights movement was at its height, and you know, the -- it made it very clear that this was a deep-seated in American history, and those of us, many of us studying history, becoming historians, wanted to trace down the roots of how our society got into the fix it then was in.

So, most of my scholarship has been around the civil war period, the pre-civil war period, the anti-slavery movement, and then the aftermath of slavery and Reconstruction, and it's -- as I said, the questions are posed by the times in which we live today.

And, you know, as long as race is a troubled and troublesome problem for American society, people are still gonna be studying slavery and Reconstruction.

GROSS: What do you find to be some of the most interesting artifacts from the period in the current exhibition?

FONER: Well, it's -- putting this exhibition together was very interesting -- interesting experience, because many of the things we're trying to show are concepts, you know. It's not like a civil war exhibit where you can put a lot of guns and uniforms up and it's very dramatic and people like it, and it's -- it's pretty clear, what you're saying.

How do you show civil rights, as a -- you know, through artifacts? It's not so simple. But the one -- some of the artifacts that I like best, actually, there's -- are the portraits of black political officials from this time, we put in a lot of those -- partly because they're juxtaposed against extremely racist iconography of blacks at the same time.

The degree of overt racism in politics at that time is something that, really, one could not believe. Today, people use code words, Willie Horton, you know, law and order.

Back then, they went right to the point. They were -- they were -- there's a broad side in our show called "The Black Vomit," which is a -- an attack on Reconstruction legislators. There's a --- there's a cartoon by the Democratic Party showing a black person and a gorilla trying to vote.

So, in other words, these things are pretty outrageous, but then at the other -- you know, on the other point, we try to show pictures of actual black people, some of those are very rare photos, lithographs, some of the people who served in Congress and state legislatures, who you know, obviously are fairly well off and fairly well educated and dignif -- more to the point, they're dignified people.

They're not these, you know, they don't -- it's not a -- the other views is a sort of charade for racist purposes.

Probably the item in our show which strikes most visitors is a Ku Klux Klan robe -- a full-length robe and hood used by a member of the Klan back in Reconstruction. It's somewhat frightening, really, when you know what the Klan did.

It's not white. We tend to think of the Klan as wearing white robes. That came in the 1920s, when they -- the Klan was revived. Back in Reconstruction, they wore anything they could get their hands on. You know, the South was poor. You couldn't -- you just had to have something to wear and disguise yourself.

This particular one is brown. But somehow knowing what the Klan did -- to see this full-length on a mannequin -- Klan robe and hood -- is a pretty frightening -- it's like seeing something in a Nazi uniform, you know. It brings a lot of associations and I think it shocks a lot of visitors.

And then in that very same part of the exhibit, we have an audio tape running which simply is an actor reading testimony from the Ku Klux Klan hearings. Congress had an investigation of the Klan, and victims came and just testified about what had happened to them.

You know, "I was dragged out of my house and beaten" or "my husband was taken and murdered." And very matter-of-fact -- and we just run this tape so that people can kind of realize what the people who wore those uniforms actually did.

GROSS: Eric Foner is co-curator of the exhibition America's Reconstruction: People and Politics After the Civil War which is at the Schonberg Center for Research in Black Culture in Manhattan through November 1.

The exhibition will travel to Florida, South Carolina, Louisiana, and Illinois. Eric Foner will be back in the second half of our show.

I'm Terry Gross and this is FRESH AIR.

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

Back with historian Eric Foner. He co-curated an exhibition on the Reconstruction Era, which is currently at the Schonberg Center for Research in Black Culture in Manhattan.

Foner co-authored the exhibition catalogue which has been published by the Louisiana State University Press. He's also the author of several books on the Civil War and Reconstruction and he's a professor of history at Columbia University.

The Reconstruction exhibition not only looks at the politics of the time, it examines day-to-day life in the South for newly-freed African-Americans. For example, many African-Americans got married as soon as slavery was abolished. Slaves had not been allowed to marry.

FONER: We do have a lot about social life, both among whites and blacks in the South, because obviously the aftermath of slavery was not simply a political issue, but every aspect of life was affected. Some of the most poignant things are newspaper ads of black people seeking their relatives. Under slavery, people lived in families, but they didn't have any legal status. They weren't married legally. They could easily be and were sold away at any time.

And you had all these ads of people trying to find their relatives. You know, "I'm -- does anyone know the whereabouts of so and so, my sister, my brother, my child -- who was auctioned off at Richmond in 1856, you know, and I think was sent to Tennessee" or something like that.

We have desks from a school, a black school, and the quest for education was a critical part of what blacks thought freedom was all about. We have a pulpit from a black church, which again goes back to this point that the -- that religion was a central part of the black community.

We also have things from the white aftermath -- mourning attire worn by women whose husbands, loved ones had been killed fighting for the Confederacy. One of my favorites is just a little carving by a Southerner -- a little statuette which has on one side Robert E. Lee and then next to it Jesus Christ, which sort of symbolizes this myth of the lost cause; this nostalgia for the old days of the Confederacy which became very pervasive among white Southerners after the war.

Many people found it easier to look back than to look forward and accept the changes that really were going on in society at that time.

GROSS: Meanwhile, President Clinton is considering offering a formal apology to African-Americans for slavery. What are your thoughts about a formal apology?

FONER: I have mixed feelings, I guess I would have to say. If President Clinton or Congress wants to apologize, I'm not going to say no, but I think -- my misgivings stem from the following. One, it takes the current generations off the hook in terms of the problems of black America.

Slavery was a terrible institution, and its legacy is still with us. But the inequalities in our society are not simply the result of slavery. Slavery was followed after Reconstruction by a century of segregation, disenfranchisement, economic injustice, poor education, housing segregation.

These were the products of federal policy, state policy, private employers, unions, banks et cetera. They should apologize also. In other words, it's not -- this is not just something of ancient history. The inequalities that have been meted out to black people are living history up to the recent past, and perhaps even going on today.

So that my fear is that apologizing for slavery makes it seem that after slavery, everybody was treated fairly, which is certainly not the case.

Second of all, in this country, I fear, our politicians seem to think that apologies are doing something. I would be much happier if this apology were linked with some substantive program to try to remedy the long-standing results of slavery and segregation.

I remember that in the 1980s, President Reagan, when the Iran-Contra scandal was coming out, President Reagan held a press conference and said: "I accept full responsibility for his." He didn't say "I'm sorry," but he said "I accept full responsibility." And that was the end of it. Then he -- then he acted as if, well "OK, now that's it. The thing's over. I've said I accept full responsibility."

Normally, when you apologize for an injustice, then some remedial action has to be taken. And unfortunately, this apology does not come with any remedial action to deal with the injustice that you're apologizing for.

So, my fear is that people will think that they have actually accomplished something by apologizing and it will make them less likely to actually take more substantive action.

GROSS: Is there remedial action you'd particularly like to see?

FONER: Well, I'll answer that by telling you a story of a conference that was held in Italy in 1979, I think, when the Italian economy and society was in big trouble, and the prime minister brought a group of intellectuals together and said: "the country is in a crisis. I'm looking to you to help us solve it."

And the writer Umberto Eco got up and said: "Prime minister, the job of intellectuals is not to solve crises. The job is to make crises."


In other words, I'm not a politician. I'm not a policy man. I'm not a congressional, you know, Member of Congress. But the first thing that has to be done is for there to be a national recognition that this problem exists, and there I commend President Clinton for at least publicly putting this on the agenda.

But I do think that what is needed is some effort to address the economic inequalities which are the living legacy of slavery and segregation. The first Reconstruction was a political revolution, but not an economic revolution. The blacks did not get land. They remained desperately poor. They had no economic alternative but to go back to work for the whites.

The second Reconstruction, the civil rights movement, achieved much more and more permanently, and of course, a considerable black middle class has developed as a result of that. But the gap between blacks and whites in income, in wealth, in education is still very, very wide, and that needs to be addressed.

Whether it's addressed through specific, targeted programs of blacks or through more general policies to improve employment and to improve education, I don't know. But at the moment, we seem to be going back the other way, where the general tenor of things seems to be: "well, government can't do anything about anything, so let's just stop thinking about it."

GROSS: My guest is historian Eric Foner. We'll talk more after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: Eric Foner is my guest, and he's one of the two people who organized the show America's Reconstruction: People and Politics After the Civil War. That show is now on exhibit at the Schonberg Center for Research in Black Culture in Manhattan. Eric Foner is also professor of history at Columbia University.

Eric, I wanted to mention that I was a great admirer of your uncle Phil Foner, who was a...


GROSS: ... labor historian who passed away I guess a couple of years ago.

FONER: Two years ago, yeah.

GROSS: And he lived in Philadelphia, where I live, and when the show was local, he was a frequent guest on the program.

I'm wondering what impact it had on you to grow up with a historian in the family -- someone who could always tell really good anecdotes about the past?

FONER: I grew -- well, my father, who is Philip Foner's brother, is also a historian. He's still alive. So, really, there were two historians in the family. My father has not been as prolific as my uncle Phil was.

He actually has written books on military history. But history was a living presence in my family, that's certainly true. And I suppose it was over-determined, as they say, that I would end up being a historian.

But what I think is interesting is growing in the suburbs of New York City in the 1950s, I learned a very different history at home than one taught -- than was taught in the schools. In my home, Frederick Douglass, for example, was a household name.

You never heard about Frederick Douglass in textbooks back then. Today, there can't be a textbook in American history which doesn't mention Frederick Douglass, but the only black you ever heard of in school was Booker -- not Booker T. Washington -- George Washington Carver.

GROSS: Right.

FONER: And his amazing feats with peanuts.

GROSS: That's right.

FONER: That's it. You never heard about Douglass or anybody else -- DuBois, Robeson et cetera -- they were non-people. The labor movement -- as you said, my uncle wrote a great deal about the history of labor. We never heard about labor in -- I remember my high school history class.

I'm not talking about the deep South or something. This is the liberal suburbs of New York City. My teacher never mentioned the labor movement in the entire course, except to say that Walter Reuther was the most dangerous person in the United States -- the head of the auto workers union.

Why? Because he wanted to be president. Well, this -- I always found that odd, since she had also said that the great thing about America is that anybody could want to be president, so why did that make Walter Reuther so dangerous? But -- so that the idea that labor was a constituent element in American history was unknown in the teaching of history at that time, but I learned it at home as second nature.

People like Tom Paine; like Eugene V. Debs; like Thaddeus Stephens (ph); John Brown -- these were people that -- I learned, in other words, an alternative history at home to the history that was being taught in school, which was sanitized, expurgated, and -- the basic premise in school was: America began perfect and has been getting better ever since.

In fact, I once ran into -- I have a friend, Gabor Boret (ph) who teaches Civil War history out at Gettysburg College. He's an immigrant from Hungary, I think, and he told me one day, he said: "you know, I grew up in a country where they told me at home that most of what I learned in school was not true." And I said: "that's funny -- I grew up in that country also."

GROSS: Right. Right. Well, you see, another difference, I think, between you and just about everybody else was that history was interesting when you were learning it from your family. Whereas, unfortunately, I think history was too often and perhaps still is too often taught in a really boring way, where things are just kind of reduced to a bunch of facts out of context.

FONER: Well, let me give you a frightening fact about the teaching of history in this country. About half of those who teach high school history in the United States are athletic coaches.

GROSS: Wow, is that true?

FONER: Yeah, so in other words...

GROSS: Does that mean that...

FONER: ... that's not because we're so athletic...

GROSS: ... right, OK.

FONER: ... that's not because I can shoot a great jump shot, it's because they figure anybody can do it, so let's let old Coach Smith do it, you know, when the basketball team's out of season, let Coach Smith teach history. You would say he could teach physics, you know, or teach math or French. But, you know, let him teach history.

And unfortunately -- now, you know, there are many excellent history teachers out there. I don't mean to suggest that there's -- you know, there's no good history. And I teach at the college level, and people come to Columbia University, which is a very fine school, and many of them have very good history backgrounds.

So -- but I also hear many students come into my classes and they come because I'm fairly well known and, you know, it's a popular course -- Civil War Reconstruction. But then they say, you know: "this is the first time I've ever found history interesting. In high school, it just was a total bore," as you've just said.

So this is most unfortunate and, you know, it helps account for what I called "historical amnesia" which is pretty rife in this country.

GROSS: I will say this in all fairness that the best teacher I ever had was a high school history teacher, so I did have one really good experience...

FONER: I'm glad to hear it.

GROSS: ... with history. Do you know how Reconstruction is being taught now in high schools around the country?

FONER: I think that the old view of Reconstruction is dead as far as high school textbooks are concerned. I see textbooks all the time, and I think they do reflect what I would consider an up-to-date and modern and accurate view.

There are two problems. One is that many high schools don't have the money to get new textbooks. They're still using textbooks that are 30 years old. And so, they're teaching out of date history on Reconstruction and on many other things as well.

And secondly, you have -- you know, many, many people who learned about Reconstruction a generation or so ago or more than that, and still hold what I would consider quite inaccurate views.

But in terms of teaching today, I think you would not find the racism and the hostility to civil rights and to black people in general that you would have found in textbooks like, well, the textbook that I learned from in the 1950s was totally racist in its view of slavery and Reconstruction, absolutely. And it was written by a professor at Columbia. It didn't come out of Mississippi.

GROSS: What did it say?

FONER: It said that most of the slaves were quite happy. Slavery was sort of, you know, regrettable; a mistake, obviously; a blemish on our national history, but really it wasn't that oppressive and the slaves were pretty well treated and happy.

And then, after the Civil War, they just really should have just gone back to work and not bothered anyone, but they were stirred up by agitators and got all these rights which were thrust upon them and which they had no way of understanding how to use.

The key point, really, is that black people in those books were completely passive. It's not simply that it was inaccurate -- the portrayal. It's that blacks were just seen as a problem for whites. Whites went to war because of slavery.

That's why blacks were important. But the notion that slaves themselves had some role as historical actors or that in Reconstruction, blacks might have had their own agenda, not just being manipulated by carpetbaggers -- that never occurred at all.

GROSS: I'm wondering, you know, this -- in the attempt to be relevant now in education, I'm not sure where history fits in, but I think it's often maybe perceived as not being as relevant or not speaking to people, unless it's directly ethnic history that speaks directly to who you see yourself as being.

FONER: Well, you know, I have a lot of skepticism about using history for psychological uplift. There is nothing wrong with a young person beginning their interest in history with trying to find -- learn about people who they somehow identify with; women students learning about women in history; or black students learning about black history. That's totally fine and normal.

And -- but if you stick with that; if that's all you learn, well, then you miss the real essence of history, which is the interaction of all these different people and the groups; and the evolution of things and change over time.

History is not relevant in the sense it tells us direct answers. You know, you can learn all that you want about immigration policy and how it has changed over the course of American history. That's not going to tell you what immigration policy should be today. That's a political question which people have to evaluate.

But if you don't know that history, it will make your understanding of the debates going on today about immigration -- illegal immigration et cetera et cetera -- almost incomprehensible to you.

GROSS: Have you ever felt that your studies as a historian should be at all defined or affected by the fact that you're white?

FONER: No, I absolutely don't. I believe that history, or African-American history -- and I have taught African-American history off and on ever since I began teaching over 20 years ago. These are academic, intellectual subjects, and it is no more right or fair or intellectually justifiable to tell me that I shouldn't deal with African-American history because I'm white, than to tell a black scholar that because he's black, he can only deal with black history.

Are we going to tell a black scholar he can't write about George Washington or Thomas Jefferson or Abraham Lincoln because he's black?

The essence of the writing of history is to learn about people who are different from yourselves. The people in the colonial era -- white, black, brown, whatever -- are entirely different from ourselves. They didn't think like we do. Every historian has to make a leap of the imagination to go back and study how people lived in some different time period.

So you know, that's the essence of scholarship, and I don't think one's race should confine the subject that you're studying.

GROSS: Are you in the process now of puzzling through a new chapter in your historical studies?

FONER: Well, I'm working on a book. Maybe when it comes out, I can come back and talk to you about it. I'm almost finished with it, which is much more broad and perhaps one might even say amorphous than what I've written before. It's a -- the title is "The Story of American Freedom."

It's a book about the idea of freedom in American history, from the American Revolution down to the present, and what different people and different groups have thought freedom means and how they have argued about this and debated it and fought over it -- all the way down from the American Revolution to today.

I was sort of stimulated to do this by the recognition one day that nowadays, freedom has been sort of taken over by the conservative wing of our politics. You go up to the Internet and punch in "freedom" and you will come up to the websites of militia groups, Christian Right organizations, people who blow up federal buildings, Libertarians.

Liberals and the left don't talk about freedom anymore, but they used to. The civil rights movement was the "freedom" movement. When Roosevelt talked about the "Four Freedoms" and "freedom from want," freedom meant something with economic substance. Go back to the 19th century and the debates over what freedom meant for former slaves.

In other words, I'm trying to trace out how and why the idea of freedom changes and evolves in American history. It's very different from things I've written before 'cause it sweeps over all of American history, rather than dealing with one particular time period. But I'm finding it an interesting experience.

GROSS: Well, Eric Foner, a pleasure to talk with you. I want to thank you very much.

FONER: OK. My pleasure to talk to you.

GROSS: Eric Foner is co-curator of "America's Reconstruction: People and Politics After the Civil War" which is at the Schonberg Center for Research in Black Culture in Manhattan through November 1. He's a professor of history at Columbia University.

Dateline: Terry Gross, Philadelphia
Guest: Eric Foner
High: Eric Foner is the DeWitt Clinton Professor of History at Columbia University. He has published numerous works on the American Reconstruction after the Civil War, a period whose problems with promoting racial and economic justice in a diverse country remain relevant to America today. Foner's new book "America's Reconstruction: People and Politics after the Civil War" (Louisiana State University Press) was published in conjunction with an exhibition on the Reconstruction at the Valentine Museum in Richmond, Virginia which opened in 1995 and is still touring the country.
Spec: Books; Authors; History; The South; Civil War; Reconstruction
Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright (c) 1997 National Public Radio, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by Federal Document Clearing House, Inc. under license from National Public Radio, Inc. Formatting copyright (c) 1997 Federal Document Clearing House, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to National Public Radio, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission. For further information please contact NPR's Business Affairs at (202) 414-2954
End-Story: Eric Foner
Date: JULY 15, 1997
Time: 12:00
Tran: 071502NP.217
Head: Wu Tang Forever
Sect: Entertainment
Time: 12:55

TERRY GROSS, HOST: No hip-hop collection in recent memory was more eagerly anticipated than the Wu Tang Clan's new double CD "Wu Tang Forever." It's the second release from this nine-man group from Staten Island, New York.

They took hip-hop in a new direction on their 1993 debut, which combined gangster rap sternness with melodies of cinematic lushness.

Rock critic Ken Tucker has a review of "Wu Tang Forever."


My rap style swing like Willie Mays
My eyes purple haze
My solar rays are burned through shades
Rhyming A's make the airwaves
Cat this rap pays
I glide like pumper quests (ph)
On the Everglades
Bull master with the faster blades
Track slacks y'all
Manufacture bones to microphones bones fractures
Limited edition composition
Spark friction non-fiction
The car bomb keep you on distance
Zero tolerance
Dominant intelligence
More original
True colors stem from the melanin
The mosahs
They get close by
And overthrow
Ah but yo
With they hopes up high
I assume you like to stay, stain and vibrate
Beyond the richter
Flash just to flock when they spot the sly nigger
The crowds' that do some like it
Thrown down before I lose your
' Purple (Unintelligible)
In the eyes of Medusa
Top ten poly like Cochran
And Sharpton
Murder rap
Kill your soul
Like Roberta Flack
Words attack
Like a British bulldog, observe the stats.

KEN TUCKER, FRESH AIR COMMENTATOR: If you spin through the 27 cuts on Wu Tang Forever in one sitting, you emerge exhilarated, exhausted, enlightened and not a little depressed.

For a comparable portrait of hard times in African American urban existence, you have to go back to the earliest rap records and "Public Enemy"; or beyond that, to Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye at their most achingly aware. As reportage, Wu Tang Forever is both eloquent and angry. As music, it achieves a hard beauty -- an ugly grandeur.


SINGER: Yo, yo
Fusion of the five elements
To search for the higher intelligence
When we won't grow around celibate
Living irrelevant
The benolithic king
Communicating through your dreams
But two pictures been planted
Are lost for they seen
We want to surround the atmosphere
Troposphere, thermosphere, stratosphere
Can you imagine one single idea
Everything appeared here
Understanding makes my truth crystal clear

TUCKER: It's been four years since the last Wu Tang release, but in the meantime, five members released solo albums -- each of which was a hit and one of which, "Liquid Swords" was some kind of sonic masterpiece.

Like George Clinton's numerous Parliament Funkadelic spinoffs, the Wu Tang Clan is its own cult and its own marketing strategy. And like "P-funk" (ph), it has a guiding intelligence -- that of its primary producer who goes by the name of "The Rizza."

The Rizza combines stark hip-hop beats with the dreamy flow of movie soundtrack scores. The group takes its name from one of the Asian martial arts films they love, and one of the best cuts here uses the title of a John Woo film, "A Better Tomorrow."


This goes for all my brothers and sisters locked down
For my people's incarcerated; for those who ain't make it
Yo, in the housing
Thousands see an early grave
victims of worldly ways
Memory stayed engraved
All my live brothers, is locked in with high numbers
The young hunger blind to lies
They die younger
In this new world order
Slaughter, men, women and their children
10-feet gates gates around the building
Keep us sealed in
The projects, life was like a Vietnam vet
Constant war, separate threats of enemy conquest

Crooked cops tour my building complex
That's in the rumble
Streets are like a jungle, can't let my psycho crumble
Vivid thoughts, severals, resort to trick knowledge
They kick garbage
Less for chicks and quick dollars
I know the pain the game bring, I did the same thing
Spaced out in the staircase, performing a sting
It's hard to keep control
I bless those who seek a scroll
Trying to reach a whole nation and break the sleeper hold
Not a role model, I work a hard road to follow
I sold bottles of sorrow then chose poems and novels
The gospel which told some soul to swallow whole
Mentally they fold
And they eventually sold their life and times
Gently, like the virus designed but too
Minute to dilute the scientists' mind

You can't party your life away -- drink your life away
Smoke your life away -- (expletive deleted) your life away
Dream your life away -- scheme your life away
'Cause you're Cs grow up the same say.
A voice cries from the ....

TUCKER: The profane language and violent imagery that suffuses Wu Tang Forever can be heard as the result of African-American men raised in routinely horrific contemporary circumstances. Some of this is repellent, especially the misogyny that surfaces like a shark in too many songs.

I'm not going to offer any sort of high-minded justification for it, other than to note that at the very start of this collection, the group acknowledges its own awareness of the problem.


SINGER: These things just took over me
Just took over my whole body
So I can't even see no more
I'm calling my black woman a bitch
I'm calling my people all kinds of things that they're not
I'm lost, brother, could you help me?
Can you help me brother, please?
You see, what....

TUCKER: In a summer when many of the movie blockbusters have proven noisy and empty, Wu Tang Forever is a pop culture exception -- the musical equivalent of John Woo's "Face/Off;" noisy and full, bursting its boundaries with livid images and ideas. Now playing on every city street corner, it's the summer blockbuster you don't have to wait in line for.

GROSS: Ken Tucker is critic-at-large for Entertainment Weekly.

Dateline: Ken Tucker; Terry Gross, Philadelphia
High: Rock critic Ken Tucker reviews the new double CD by the hiphop group Wu Tang: "Wu Tang Forever."
Spec: Music Industry; Wu Tang
Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright (c) 1997 National Public Radio, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by Federal Document Clearing House, Inc. under license from National Public Radio, Inc. Formatting copyright (c) 1997 Federal Document Clearing House, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to National Public Radio, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission. For further information please contact NPR's Business Affairs at (202) 414-2954
End-Story: Wu Tang Forever
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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