Forever Free: The Story of Emancipation & Reconstruction. By Eric Foner. (New York: Random House Inc., 2005. Pp. xxx, 238).
In all of American history there is perhaps no time period more misrepresented than Reconstruction. Those crucial years between the conclusion of the Civil War and the “withdrawal” of federal troops from the South in 1877 have been clouded in a fog of ignorance and indifference for generations. In his book Forever Free, acclaimed historian Eric Foner successfully rebukes the status quo perspective of Reconstruction by “reintroducing to the nation’s memory, Reconstruction’s remarkable cast of characters and their enduring accomplishments” (xix).
Foner’s primary objective is to eradicate the traditional view of Reconstruction, which has continued to affirm the delusion that emancipated slaves played little or no role in shaping post-Civil War America. Foner’s prose focuses on the deficient aspects of Reconstruction historiography, and suggests that such deficiencies stem not from ignorance, but from racist undertones that saturated early historical inquiry. In this book, Foner effectively reveals how such myths wove their way into the collective memory of American society, along with the historical imperative that demands sincere revision of Reconstruction historiography.
The initial chapters of Foner’s book focus on the development of early Reconstruction historiography. Foner outlines the communal desire of both the North and South to purge any and all "Negro involvement" from the collective memory of Civil War history. In essence, the objective was to portray the Civil War “as a tragic family quarrel among white Americans in which Blacks played no significant part” (xxi). What resulted was a distorted national perspective of the fundamental issues that shaped Reconstruction. In consequence, the contributions made by emancipated slaves were obscured by xenophobic Whites, which labeled Negroes as ignorant children, incapable of appreciating their newly granted freedom. The resulting racism permeated American culture and gave credence to groups like the Ku Klux Klan, which Foner points out was seen as a romantic and patriotic defender of Southern liberties (216-217). Foner also mentions the powerful impact that early nineteenth century books and movies (most notably D. W. Griffith’s repugnant film "The Birth of a Nation") had on portraying blacks as simple-minded, gullible and bestial. By reducing African American involvement during Reconstruction to the level of a simple spectator, Americans were duped into accepting a watered down history that promoted White superiority and Black inferiority.
Foner’s book is clearly intended for readers with an elementary understanding of the time period. For their benefit, Foner devotes a large portion of his book to the general history of slavery and abolitionism before and during the Civil war. He then provides specific examples of how African Americans passionately participated in their struggle for freedom. Foner also guides his readers through the various problems that plagued the South during Reconstruction, and how Blacks and Whites reacted in very different ways. Foner, however, does not confine his research to a simple analysis of early Reconstruction historiography.
Along with the general outline on the history of slavery, Foner provides an in depth look into the various struggles African Americans faced to secure their freedom. Of all the struggles, Foner makes specific mention of the racist elements that drove plantation owners to find new ways of restricting their former slaves. As Foner states, “Reared on the idea that African Americans would not work except through physical coercion, white southerners sought new ways to maintain a disciplined labor force and revive plantation agriculture despite the end of slavery” (92). Newly enacted Jim Crow laws, along with other race laws, gave the racist South all the ammunition it needed to subjugate African Americans to a level of bondage that often equaled their former slave state. Essentially, these racist laws gave southern society a loophole to get around emancipation.
Despite such laws, Foner makes it clear that African Americans did not quietly submit to the injustice that surrounded them. Instead, a large number of Black leaders emerged to challenge Jim Crow laws and to reassert the importance of African American contributions during Reconstruction. Foner gives strong emphasis to the endeavors of W.E.B. Du Bois and Henry Adams, whose works tried to reclaim the lost voices of African Americans during Reconstruction. Foner also adds credence to his argument by pointing out the violent response most Blacks received whenever they spoke out. Groups like the Ku Klux Klan were quick to silence those that stood in the way of, “overthrowing Reconstruction and restoring white supremacy” (174).
In his concluding chapters, Foner completes the connection between the struggles for freedom and equality during Reconstruction, and those that existed during the civil rights movements of the 1950s and 1960s. Foner calls the connection between these separate historical eras “The Unfinished Revolution,” and suggests that American society ignored the problem for almost a century. The chapters are greatly enhanced by Foner’s effective incorporation of images depicting the lynching of several African Americans. The images provide the reader with a more realistic sense of the racism that permeated America and of the struggles African Americans faced in their quest for equality.
Foner’s work clearly takes a strong stance against the “traditional” historiography of Reconstruction. The book provides ample evidence to support his claim that African Americans were at the vanguard of political and social battles for equality in the post-Civil War era, and that early historiography simply ignored their contributions. Foner’s work serves to resurrect many of the forgotten characters that helped to shape Reconstruction. The book is a valuable source that serves to augment the already changing historical perspective of the Civil War and Reconstruction.