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Forever Free: The Story of Emancipation and Reconstruction (Vintage)by Eric Foner
Synopses & Reviews
From one of our most distinguished historians, a new examination of the vitally important years of Emancipation and Reconstruction during and immediately following the Civil War — a necessary reconsideration that emphasizes the era's political and cultural meaning for today's America.
In Forever Free, Eric Foner overturns numerous assumptions growing out of the traditional understanding of the period, which is based almost exclusively on white sources and shaped by (often unconscious) racism. He presents the period as a time of determination, especially on the part of recently emancipated black Americans, to put into effect the principles of equal rights and citizenship for all.
Drawing on a wide range of long-neglected documents, he places a new emphasis on the centrality of the black experience to an understanding of the era. We see African Americans as active agents in overthrowing slavery, in helping win the Civil War, and — even more actively — in shaping Reconstruction and creating a legacy long obscured and misunderstood. Foner makes clear how, by war's end, freed slaves in the South built on networks of church and family in order to exercise their right of suffrage as well as gain access to education, land, and employment.
He shows us that the birth of the Ku Klux Klan and renewed acts of racial violence were retaliation for the progress made by blacks soon after the war. He refutes lingering misconceptions about Reconstruction, including the attribution of its ills to corrupt African American politicians and "carpetbaggers," and connects it to the movements for civil rights and racial justice.
Joshua Brown's illustrated commentary on the era's graphic art and photographs complements the narrative. He offers a unique portrait of how Americans envisioned their world and time.
Forever Free is an essential contribution to our understanding of the events that fundamentally reshaped American life after the Civil War — a persuasive reading of history that transforms our sense of the era from a time of failure and despair to a threshold of hope and achievement.
"Probably no period in American history is as controversial, as distorted by myth and as 'essentially unknown' as the era of emancipation and Reconstruction, award-winning historian Foner (The Story of American Freedom; Reconstruction; etc.) argues in this dense, rectifying but highly readable account. His analysis of 'that turbulent era, its successes and failures, and its long-term consequences up until this very day' addresses the debates among historians, corrects the misrepresentations and separates myth from fact with persuasive data. Foner opens his work with an overview of slavery and the Civil War and concludes with a consideration of the Civil Rights movement and the continuing impact of Reconstruction upon the current political scene, a framework that adds to the clarity of his history of that era, its aftermath and its legacy. Joshua Brown's six interspersed 'visual essays,' with his fresh commentary on images from slavery through Reconstruction to Jim Crow, buttress Foner's text and contribute to its accessibility. In his mission to illuminate Reconstruction's critical repercussions for contemporary American culture, Foner balances his passion for racial equality and social justice with disciplined scholarship. His book is a valuable, fluid introduction to a complex period. 139 illus. (Nov.)" Publishers Weekly (Starred Review) (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"In the first half of the 20th century, white Americans remembered the chaotic decades after the Civil War as a 'tragic era' when bestial ex-slaves ruled a prostrated white race, throwing noble white leaders out of government, stealing public funds that black legislators extracted through exorbitant taxation, and assaulting innocent white girls. After seeing D.W. Griffith's 1915 film 'The Birth of... Washington Post Book Review (read the entire Washington Post review) a Nation,' which championed gallant Ku Klux Klansmen for upholding civilization against criminal blacks, President Woodrow Wilson is said to have remarked of the film, 'My only regret is that it is all terribly true.' White Americans embraced this racist history to justify overwhelming discrimination and violence against African-Americans. 'Forever Free' is the culmination of 50 years of attacks on this specious version of Reconstruction and should finally lay to rest whatever remnants of this view still remain. During the civil rights movement, historians re-examining the post-Civil War years concluded that the terrible truth of the era was actually that Americans had reversed the heroes and villains. Combing the historical record, scholars discovered that black legislators never controlled Southern state governments, that postwar taxes paid for the region's first public schools and that black men were typically accused of rape only after they already had been lynched. Southern African-Americans themselves gradually came into focus; they were hard workers chiseled out of their wages, they were family men and women trying to create a world where their children would have opportunities, and they were victims of the Klan. Many white Southerners underwent their own transformation in these years, exposed as terrorists who cheated workers and then killed those who protested, ultimately turning to a campaign of lynching and legalized segregation to reinstate white racial superiority over their black neighbors. In 'Forever Free,' the prizewinning Columbia historian Eric Foner (along with the media scholar Joshua Brown, who edited and annotated the book's many illustrations) summarizes these studies, breaking little new ground but presenting a highly readable story of black Americans' ongoing heroic struggle for freedom in a racist white society. Here black Union soldiers claim manhood as they fight for emancipation, and freedmen demand economic and political rights during the complicated politics of the late 1860s. Some eventually become successful entrepreneurs or prominent politicians. Gradually, though, black gains recede after 1870 as racist whites regain control. By the turn of the century, black Americans still occupy the bottom tier of a racialized nation, repressed into subservience when they try to exercise economic or political rights. Interspersed between Foner's chapters, Brown's engaging essays investigate the meaning of 19th-century racial drawings, cartoons and photographs, celebrating the courageous attempt of black Americans to control their images in a nation that loved black caricature. In a final, eloquent chapter on the 20th century, Foner demands that the nation address its long repression of African-Americans and insists that the quest to establish racial equality remains unfinished. 'Forever Free' counters old-fashioned histories of Reconstruction more effectively than it explains the era itself. The image of a handful of black freedom fighters standing against a unified nation of white oppressors obscures the true diversity of the postwar struggle for equality. Women, American Indians, Chinese, Irish, Southern European and Mexican immigrants — as well as wage laborers — were all trying to negotiate a new kind of freedom in the wake of the Civil War. Like African-Americans, these groups were often cruelly caricatured and suffered political and economic oppression as well as physical violence. Like black Americans, they fought to define what American freedom should mean, were often disappointed by society and sometimes died for their beliefs. Their presence in the Reconstruction struggle challenges 'Forever Free's' contention that white racism alone determined the course of the nation. If racism was the defining feature of the nation, why was the 15th Amendment guaranteeing black suffrage ratified 50 years before the 19th Amendment establishing women's suffrage? The answer is that the fortunes of different groups shifted as various interests fought for control of postwar America. But 'Forever Free' is curiously quiet about political competition and the class tensions that drove it. It suggests that whites and blacks fought over suffrage without reference to political policies. In fact, white opponents of black suffrage hammered on the idea that black voters would support politicians who promised welfare legislation, paid for by taxes levied on propertied whites. When this idea took hold during economic downturns, suffrage became limited to those perceived to be supporters of conservative regimes — usually (but not always) white men. Increasingly, powerful Americans embraced the idea that those who did not own taxable property should not decide how tax money was spent. By 1900, voting restrictions across the nation kept poor Americans, black and white alike, away from the polls. By the 20th century, political invective about tax reform had turned certain groups of white Americans into killers who found it entertaining to lynch the black men they thought threatened their own prosperity. The story recounted in 'Forever Free' is heroic and beautifully told, but ultimately it is too simple for today's America. Foner offers a tutorial in racism and seeks to illuminate current debates over affirmative action and reparations by suggesting that racial equality cannot be realized until entrenched white racism is addressed. But the events of the Reconstruction period illuminate a larger national struggle over who should have a say in government when voting determines how tax dollars are spent. That 19th-century demands for tax reform blossomed into festive 20th-century gatherings where black people were lynched seems a perilous lesson for today's Americans to ignore. Heather Cox Richardson is an associate professor of history at the Univ. of Massachusetts at Amherst and the author of 'The Death of Reconstruction: Race, Labor, and Politics in the Post-Civil War North, 1865-1901.'" Reviewed by Heather Cox Richardson, Washington Post Book World (Copyright 2006 Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group)
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"[A] more accessible, though equally distinguished, treatment of the material covered in Foner's Reconstruction. It draws on his earlier work and also on more recent scholarship to...correct common misconceptions about the period (18651877)." School Library Journal
"Forever Free will not supersede Reconstruction....His new book is aimed at readers basically unfamiliar with American history....Forever Free is a good book: passionate, lucid, concise without being light." James Goodman, The New York Times Book Review
"Passionate, lucid, concise without being light....Foner traces the lines of race and politics that run from Reconstruction to the age of segregation to the civil rights movement to our own time." The New York Times Book Review
"African Americans emerge as political powerful actors in Forever Free. In [these] vivid pages...we become acquainted with these extraordinary people, some well-known, some virtually unknown." The New Republic
Refuting lingering misconceptions about the Reconstruction period, an award-winning author explores the events that fundamentally reshaped American life after the Civil War. High school and older.
From one of our most distinguished historians comes a groundbreaking new examination of the myths and realities of the period after the Civil War.
Drawing on a wide range of long-neglected documents, Eric Foner places a new emphasis on black experiences and roles during the era. We see African Americans as active agents in overthrowing slavery, in shaping Reconstruction, and creating a legacy long obscured and misunderstood. He compellingly refutes long-standing misconceptions of Reconstruction, and shows how the failures of the time sowed the seeds of the Civil Rights struggles of the 1950s and 60s. Richly illustrated and movingly written, this is an illuminating and essential addition to our understanding of this momentous era.
About the Author
Eric Foner, a winner of the Bancroft Prize and the Francis Parkman Prize, is the DeWitt Clinton Professor of History at Columbia University and a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. His books include The Story of American Freedom and Politics and Ideology in the Age of the Civil War. He lives in New York City.
Joshua Brown is the executive director of the American Social History Project/Center for Media and Learning at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. His books include Beyond the Lines: Pictorial Reporting, Everyday Life, and the Crisis of Gilded Age America. He lives in New York City.
This book is the first effort of the Los Angeles-based Forever Free Project, an ongoing collaboration among film and television producers and writers and our most distinguished historians and scholars. The Forever Free Project is preparing a film on Emancipation and Reconstruction.
Table of Contents
Seeing Race and Rights: A Note About the Visual Essays
CHAPTER ONE: The Peculiar Institution
Visual Essay: True Likenesses
CHAPTER TWO: Forever Free
Visual Essay: Re-visions of War
CHAPTER THREE: The Meanings of Freedom
Visual Essay: Altered Relations
CHAPTER FOUR: An American Crisis
CHAPTER FIVE: The Tocsin of Freedom
Visual Essay: On the Offensive
CHAPTER SIX: The Facts of Reconstruction
Visual Essay: Countersigns
CHAPTER SEVEN: The Abandonment of Reconstruction
Visual Essay: Jim Crow
EPILOGUE: The Unfinished Revolution
Bibliography for Further Reading
Bibliography for the Visual Essays
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