Rutgers President Jonathan Holloway is a leading scholar of Black history, a professor at Yale University for many years, a deep-dive academic who has written and edited several tomes on the topic.
But his new book, The Cause of Freedom, is something different. It is just 120 pages, and it written for a popular audience, including those who don’t know the first thing about Black history. It was released Thursday by Oxford University Press, and Holloway discusses it in a Q&A below.
Somehow, Holloway’s book is brief without being superficial, thanks to his deep reservoir of knowledge on the topic. He is African-American and makes clear moral judgements throughout, but his tone is not militant or angry. That may grate on those who feel this moment calls for a primal scream, but the man is an academic. He lets the evidence tell the story, to powerful effect.
He takes us to Virginia in 1662, when it was first declared that the children of a women in slavery would also be slaves for life, unlike many earlier versions of slavery that were temporary, and not strictly tied to race. “It also meant that the sexual exploitation of enslaved women by free white men was codified and legitimized,” Holloway writes.
Among the many things I didn’t know: The majority of the roughly 4,000 lynchings of Blacks in America were prompted by accusations of rape, or even making a comment to a white woman that was perceived as sexual in nature. Emmet Till, who was tortured and murdered at age 14 for making a suggestive comment to a white woman in 1955 Mississippi, was only the most famous case. The ferocious paranoia over the sexuality of Black men brought out the violent beast in racist whites more than anything else.
“These hyper-sexualized pathologies speak to white America’s brutality towards slaves,” Holloway says in the accompanying interview. “They could treat them horribly because they really aren’t quite human. It’s easy to mistreat an animal.”
Holloway tells several stories about the slaves who fought back by escaping or attacking their white masters, another piece of our history that’s often glossed over. We hear of Harriet Tubman’s heroics, which will soon be recognized on our $20 bills, Nat Turner’s revolt that killed more than 50 whites, and many lesser known acts of defiance.
He takes us to Rochester in 1862, when Frederick Douglass accepted an invitation to speak on July 4 before a group of mostly white women: “This Fourth of July is yours, not mine,” Douglass thundered. “You may rejoice, I must mourn.”
Page after page, Holloway traces the ugly infection of white supremacy in America, from the huge crowds who attended lynchings, staying for hours as their victims were beaten, mutilated, burned, and then hung, drawing out the experience as if it were a sensual delight. Some took pictures and made postcards, while other took body parts as souvenirs.
The same spirit extended to the Supreme Court, which put a patina of legalism around the never-ending brutality, with decisions like Plessy v. Ferguson, the 1896 ruling that sanctioned forced segregation, and the earlier Dred Scott decision in 1857, offering perhaps the purest expression of white supremacy, when Chief Justice Roger B. Taney declared that escaped slaves anywhere could be dragged back to the plantation because African-Americans were “so far inferior that they had no rights which a white man was bound to respect.”
After the Civil War, the story turns encouraging for one decade, when Blacks in the South earned the rights of citizenship, took office in state capitals and in Washington, as thousands of schools were built to educate former slaves who had been forbidden to read.
But that window was slammed shut in 1877, when a political deal was struck that returned power to white supremacists. The agreement called for the withdrawal of all Union troops from the South, in return for Southern support for the election of Rutherford B. Hayes as president. It condemned Blacks in the South to return to a state of near-slavery, working as sharecroppers who could be raped and attacked at will, or cheated by white landowners without recourse. It was in this period when lynching became more common, with white gangs enforcing the strict racist code with vigilante violence. A more grotesque political deal is hard to imagine.
He describes Abe Lincoln with qualified admiration, a shrewd politician who steered the country past slavery, but made moral compromises along the way, like his decision to free the slaves only in rebel states, not in the four slave states that fought with the union, Maryland, Delaware, Kentucky and Missouri.
Holloway recounts several race massacres in the 20th century, in places like Chicago, where roving gangs killed at least 40 people, and injured 5,000, in a five-day rampage that went unchecked, and the heartbreaking attacks on Black soldiers returning from World War I, sometimes in uniform.
He knocks Franklin Roosevelt for his failure to stop the wave of lynchings, fearful that it would alienate white supporter he needed to support the New Deal. He praises Harry Truman for desegregating the military and bringing Blacks into high-ranking jobs in his government.
After the war, Blacks encountered explicit racism that barred them from obtaining loans for housing and disqualified them from federal housing programs that helped create the white middle-class. And he brings it all to the present day, and to the Proud Boys and other crazies who stormed the Capitol last month.
The surprise is that this sad story, in Holloway’s hand, is not more depressing. And that’s because at each stage, he recounts the noble resistance put up by Blacks, from those slave revolts and escapes to the Black Lives Matter movement.
We learn of remarkable people who aren’t as well-known as Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr., people like A. Philip Randolph, who led Black railway porters to press for more rights in the 1920s, a breakthrough, and won concessions from Truman to desegregate factories in the North, and Ida Wells, one the most courageous journalists in our history, who refused to let white American hide or dismiss the wave of lynchings at the turn of the century. The stories of mass resistance, peaceful despite the constant violent provocations, are an inspiration.
Reading Holloway’s book brought to mind the lead essay by the African-American writer Nikole Hannah-Jones in “The 1619 Project” published by the New York Times in August 2019.
“More than any other group in this country’s history,” she wrote, “We have served generation after generation, in an overlooked but vital role: It is we who have been the perfecters of this democracy.”
That explains, she said, why her father always flew the American flag despite all this ugly history. Turn the experience of oppression on its head, and you see the beauty in the fight against it. Learning Black history is a first step.
I asked Holloway what he thought of Hannah-Jones’ claim. “My book is fundamentally in service of that statement,” he said. “If we are to fully realize ourselves, our ideals, the grand rhetoric of our founding documents, it can only happen when we take an expansive view of our history and include not just Black people but women, immigrants, and all groups outside the mainstream. We can’t be ourselves if we don’t do that.”
This book is an invitation, a first step. With this short survey of Black history, Holloway offers a guide to “Further Reading” that includes 167 books and articles.
The man, after all, is a teacher by trade. And it is a joy to sit in his class.
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Please continue below as Holloway discusses the book with me. This is an edited transcript:
Q. Your book surveys four centuries of the Black experience in America in just 120 pages, and requires no previous knowledge of Black history, a departure for a scholar like yourself, who has written and edited a half dozen academic works on the topic. What’s your intention?
A. To provide a sweeping overview of an understudied area of American history, to help people understand what this nation is. The target audience is curious and wants to know how to become a better American.
Q. A poll from Pew Research Center last year found that the overwhelming majority of white Americans believe the country has already done enough to establish “equal rights” for Black Americans. What do you say to them?
A. Establishing laws is one thing and acting on them is something entirely different. You can have all the laws you want, but if you don’t enforce them, you have nothing. And if people have an honest understanding of the radical differences that run along race and class lines, they might begin to think something is wrong. Look at the radical disparities in how Covid is being experienced. The gap is very clear. The gap in life expectancy is very clear. And educational opportunities. These differences are all delineated along racial lines.
Q. What in particular do white Americans tend to miss about Black history? How might a book like yours change attitudes?
A. Too many Americans don’t understand that African-American history is American history. If they think about it at all, they see it a side story. They may look at the great figures like Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks, and that’s important. But what’s more impressive to me are all the African-Americans who fought for their birthright, their citizenship, and how they had to be resilient. African-American history is a great barometer of how Americans understand citizenship, what it means to be American. So much mainstream history involves denying the experience of Black and brown folks, immigrants, and so on.
Q. Denying the experience, in what sense?
A. To what extent has Black contributed to the greatness of this country? I’ll be specific: It’s only in the last 15 years or so that people doing heritage tours of the South, the great plantations, will say, “You know that enslaved Americans built everything we see today.” Literally, the Black experience has been written out of history.
Q. If you had a dinner party and could invite one figure from Black history, who would it be? What would you ask them? And can I come?
A. I hate this question so much, but I’ll go with James Baldwin. There are other Black writers I adore, maybe even more, but Baldwin had a clarity that is bracing. It’s a shot of cold air, just wakes you up. What I think is so impressive about Baldwin is that he fiercely loved this country. A lot of people ask why he was angry. He was furious because America has so much promise and it was failing. Sitting to dinner with someone with that magnetic quality, that would be pretty special.
Q. Which book would you recommend?
A The Fire Next Time. It’s two essays really, and just read the first one, when he writes to his nephew that “Nowhere in this country have the imagined a space for you.”
Q. In your first chapter, you note that slavery in America was at status that was inherited at birth and intended to last forever, unlike in many slave states through history. What’s the significance of that?
A. Manny white laborers came here as indentured servants, agreeing to work for seven years. They volunteered for that. Blacks did not volunteer for anything. And as Europe’s labor supply began to dry up, and the global slave trade expanded, you see the rationalization of chattel slavery that is heritable, by birth, along racial lines. “Let’s rationalize our way towards a system where we can control our labor costs – racialized slavery that’s heritable. It’s born out of what planters considered a necessity.
If you think of places throughout sub-Saharan African, which has a long history of slavery, it was very different. It was about warfare, and was not built around abject brutality, as in the New World. Slavery took a particularly brutal form in North America.
Q. And how did the heritable status affect the slaves themselves?
A. The possibility of freedom is eliminated. If it’s inherited, you don’t have that. You don’t have control of your body, your time, your labor. On a psychological level, it had to have been absolutely crushing.
When I read Alex Haley’s Roots, there was a moment when Kunta Kinte is a grown man, and his daughter is taken from him. He had kept mark of time with a gourd he had, and when his teen-age daughter is taken away, he smashes the gourd. It’s as if he ceases to exist. To me that was one of the most devastating moments in the book. It speaks to the totality of the slave experience, that someone else is in control of your life.
Q. Over and over, we see a paranoia among whites when it comes to the sexuality of Black men. You say that most of the roughly 4,000 blacks who were lynched had been accused of raping white women, or even making the wrong comment, as in the horrific murder of Emmett Till. What do you make of that extreme sensitivity?
A. These hyper-sexualized pathologies speaks to white America’s brutality towards saves, that they could treat them horribly because they really aren’t quite human. It’s easy to mistreat an animal. The language that was used with the Scottsboro Boys when they were accused of raping two white women, newspapers said it soke to the most savage jungle desires among Black men, and their savage and animalistic behavior. It’s this deep psychosis about status anxiety, about white control of their own dominion.
Q. You note that President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation did not free the slaves in the four slave states that fought with the Union, fearing the move would cause those states to join the Confederacy after all. Was that a shrewd political tactic, or a grand moral failure?
A. Probably both. The shrewd part is all the gymnastics in the document, a grand moral statement without actually doing the things it’s implying. The Emancipation Proclamation didn’t emancipate anyone, but it changed the discourse permanently. Lincoln knew what he was doing, forcing the debate, and he took a big risk in doing so. A moral failure? It’s hard to judge by 21st century standards. Pretty much everyone fails
Q. You describe Franklin Roosevelt’s refusal to act against lynchings, or to desegregate the military. Do you give him a failing grade when it comes to race relations?
A. I give him a failing grade when it comes to those decisions. It’s impossible to give him a failing grade on race overall because under his administration you had the creation of a Black political force, with race advisors appearing his cabinet, and his pragmatic appeals to Black voters. So I’m not throwing out the baby with the bathwater on Roosevelt. But his failure on lynchings? That’s hard for me. And on desegregating the military, he could have made that happen. He also could have been more aggressive when it came to desegregating factories, and changing other racial practices during the New Deal.
Q. Like raising the minimum wage — but not for domestic servants and farm workers?
Q. The New York Times, in the lead essay of its “1619 Project,” argued that Black Americans have saved American democracy by forcing the country to live up to its professed ideals, or at least move closer. You don’t make that argument explicitly, but you do provide a lot of evidence to support the idea. What do you think?
Q. My book is fundamentally in service of that statement. If we are to fully realize ourselves, our ideals, the grand rhetoric of our founding documents, it can only happen when we take an expansive view of our history and include not just Black people but women, immigrants, and all groups outside the mainstream. We can’t be ourselves if we don’t do that.
Q. I loved history as a kid and am shocked now how poorly the subject was taught. I didn’t learn about the massacres in places in Tulsa and Chicago, or the political deal that handed the South back to white supremacists in 1877, or the explicit bans on black home ownership that extended into the 1960s. Are students today better educated on that history?
A. It depends on the school district. I think it was Mississippi where the state board refused to purchase textbooks that made reference to slavery, saying it should be about labor. The state boards in Kansas and Texas have engaged in political motivated editing of our past, and even science. Over my lifetime of teaching college students who know thing I didn’t discover until I was in college. That’s’ wonderful, but not uniform.
Q. Let me fast-forward to today: What’s the most important thing President Biden could do to help heal America’s racial wounds?
A. I’m an educator, so I always start with education. We need amore robust public education system that really pays attention to the quality of education that Black and brown kids get. That will really make a difference.
Q. Looking ahead, do you ever entertain the dream that America will actually achieve racial equality? What does that look like to you?
A. I entertain the aspiration. It’s critical that we have faith in this country and its great possibilities. It’s a big and complex country, and to think we’ll solve all our problems is a fantasy. But I never expected to see an African-American president, or a woman – let alone an African-American and Asian woman – as vice-president. I choose to be hopeful because that’s the only way I know to get out of bed in the morning.
More: Tom Moran columns