Book Review: “Stony the Road,“ a Novel by Henry Louis Gates, Jr.

Known as a historian, a literary critic, a scholar, and a professor, readers approach the work of Henry Louis Gates, Jr. with considerable expectation and some apprehension; one doesn’t want to miss the point or misinterpret any message. Readers anticipate that the work will present a clear purpose and have several argument worthy motifs. “Stony the Road – Reconstruction, White Supremacy, and the Rise of Jim Crow”does not disappoint the reader.

In the manuscript, Gates provides the history of the Reconstruction era and the Redemption period that followed it; and explained their violent relationships and their dependence on white supremacy. Gates wrote the book “to celebrate the triumphs of African Americans following the Civil War and to explain how the forces of white supremacy did their best to undermine those triumphs …” (xxii). After one reads the book, it is obvious that Gates accomplished his purpose. This was most notably observed in his discussion on Sambo art. He exposed the world-wide systematic distribution of demeaning caricatures portraying African Americans. The marketing of the art was intentionally destructive. Calling the caricatures, images, and films of Sambo art “art” is and was an error; they were and are weapons of white supremacy.

Gates began writing in an intimate first-person voice; he writes directly to the reader explaining how the work came to be and his youthful exposure to the topics through an undergraduate survey class on Reconstruction and Redemption. This first-person voice remains throughout book, preventing historical details from appearing too academic. The first-person voice involves the reader in a conversational lecture with Professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr. The voice used in the text also allows eighteenth century perspectives to be considered by readers.

Within the book, scholarly articles, historical texts, and works of fiction from the 1800s are discussed; the points of view from the research are largely pro-slavery and anti-slave, reading material that many African Americans might find offensive. Not many blacks would read about scientific racism which attempts to compare them to apes, not many would consider a hateful white man’s reasoning for the civil war, not many would read about the bible being manipulated to demean them as a damned people; the first-person voice that Gates uses to present the information keeps the reader engaged.

Gates’ discussion on Booker T. Washington is another offensive topic for many African Americans. In his estimation, Washington dropped the leadership baton passed to him from Fredrick Douglass. Washington’s accommodationist stance retarded the voting rights advancements that should have followed the Douglass regime. Clearly, Gates expected much more from Washington, but the most controversial topic in the book is the defining of the term New Negro. Gates offers a history of the term that will surprise many, but the surprise doesn’t stop there; his explanation, recollection, and estimation of past and present need for the idea of New Negro will leave some readers flustered.

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