Saturday, December 13, 2014

Shame ("After Lincoln" by A.J. Langguth)

Of the 20 chapters in A.J. Langguth's After Lincoln, a history of the United States' failed attempts at reunification and peace following the Civil War, nineteen of them are concerned with the events of just over two decades:  1865-1887. These eventful twenty-two years saw the assassination of Abraham Lincoln--the moment that serves as this book's opening scene and, by intimation, the catalyst for what comes later--the elevation of Andrew Johnson to the presidency, the elections of Ulysses S. Grant and Rutherford B. Hayes, as well as the first black politicians in the nation's history, insurrection in every Southern state, the disenfranchisement of black voters, the rise of the Ku Klux Klan, lynchings, revolts, mobs, and the widespread murder of former slaves, their supporters and defenders, and their descendants. In the process, Langguth also offers us a wealth of backstories and foreshadowings that break through the timeline's constraints, but overall this is the story of a generation in which the opportunity to correct centuries of oppression and genocide was squandered in a single generation, thereby enshrining such horrors for centuries to come.

Only by the twentieth chapter--the final chapter--does Langguth take everything he's presented and connect it to our modern world...or at least as close to our modern world as he feels necessary. In this case, that means ending his history of Reconstruction with the 1964 Civil Rights Act, a monumental piece of legislation that Langguth seems to imply marks the end of the tortured history of America's shameful, post-war racial history. Which is the problem with After Lincoln, the fourth and final volume in the author's series. Langguth, who himself covered the Civil Rights Movement as a reporter, seems to bestow the Civil Rights Bill with the qualities that Lyndon Johnson himself emphasized in advocating for its passage:  "Let us close the spring of racial poison," Johnson said and Langguth quotes, continuing, "Let us pray for wise and understanding hearts. Let us lay aside irrelevant differences and make our nation whole." These words were and continue to remain noble words, unquestionably, and Johnson pushed these ideals and their enforcement more than any other president since Lincoln, even though his own history on issues related to civil rights were often questionable.*

And yet, exactly fifty years later, we know with certainty that our nation did not come together and become one again. In many respects, we remain a country divided--millions of people standing on separate shores looking for unity in the opposing reflections but finding strangers. It's easy to point to events from this year and claim that we have not come as far as we should have or thought we had--since 1865, 1887, 1964--a claim that is hard to quantify, no matter who you are. It's also easy to see the events from this year and say, with misplaced confidence, that at least it's not as bad as it once was:  no more lynchings, no more laws against interracial marriage, no violent protests over the integration of schools. However, by making these statements, we are looking to excuse ourselves from responsibility. According to the former, we are only aware of our lack of progress when tragic events force us to reexamine how we treat one another and approach issues of race; unarmed black men and children are shot and killed, protests erupt, and only then are we able to assess the level of progress we've made. On any other day, when the news is not dominated by similar stories, we can dismiss our responsibility as people and citizens to consider such possibilities. The latter implies that any sort of progress, regardless of its breadth or depth, excuses whatever problems remain to be solved. But lesser violence is still violence, and lesser hatred is still hatred. We see what crimes are no longer committed rather than which crimes remain, and we refuse to believe that what we've consigned to the dust-bins of history have any relation to what occurs in the broad sunlight of our own backyards, even when it's clear that one is our inheritance from the other.

In reading a book like After Lincoln, it's easy to choose a particular person or group of people and lay the blame for our current problems at their footsteps. Andrew Johnson is perhaps the best example of this inclination. He was an undeniable racist and an unabashed drunkard who based much of his decisions on satisfying his own sense of inferiority and need for acceptance and validation, and his decisions undoubtedly allowed for much of the atrocities that followed. But in focusing on Johnson--or Ulysses Grant, or John Wilkes Booth, or Gideon Welles--we absolve the millions of people who came before us, experienced racism and racial violence--as perpetrators, apologists, bystanders, armchair advocates, what have you--and did nothing to fight back. In fact, Langguth's book is full of those who can be seen as accomplices to the crimes and missteps of Reconstruction, but there are comparatively few men and women--Amos Akerman and Benjamin Bristow at the federal level, thousands of unnamed women who taught in black schools at the local level--who we can look to as genuine heroes. Unfortunately, in the history of the United States after the Civil War, it's the perpetrators who dominate its pages, as their fingerprints are all over the problems we face today, alongside the fingerprints of previous generations whose poisoned ideologies remain with us, haunting us in different forms but with the same goal. And regardless of the form, the severity, the excuse, hatred is hatred, and its history is far from over. Its final volume has yet to be written.

*A.J. Langguth passed away on September 1 of this year, just over two weeks before After Lincoln was published, and in his "Acknowledgements" he mentions being in hospital and then restricted to home. It's possible--and I'd like to believe this--that this final book of Langguth's was rushed, and that, had there been more time, he would have written a stronger closing chapter.