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Reconstruction: America After the Civil War

A response to Henry Louis Gates Jr’s seminal PBS documentary series from 2019.

By Linda Brogan

 The series explores the transformative years (1865-77) following the American Civil War, when the nation struggled to rebuild itself; twelve years described by W. E. B. Du Bois as ‘a brief moment in the sun’ for African Americans. 

 A large arts organisation wants me.

 I used to go to this club, 1970s, the Reno. A cellar club in Moss Side! Legendary. Soul. Funk. Heroic. Just after Black Power. No longer need Afros. We are Sidney Poitier saying to his dad, ‘you think of yourself as a black man. I think of myself as a man.’ Mixed race. Total freedom. Nod at each other as we enter.  It is our theatre. We are both audience and players. I resurrect it when I excavate the site. Bottles. Bottles. Bottles. Coke bottles mainly. The way you hold your coke bottle adds to your ace. 

 It draws a huge crowd. Vibrant. Sprung. We bounce off each other. Whitworth Art Gallery exhibition of the dig. We dance amongst our memoirs obliterating their art. The dice I excavate from the Reno gambling room is also priceless. Irreplaceable. No other dice has ever walked its path, epic as a Roman sandal’s. 

 A large arts organisation wants me to bring people like me through their door. 

 Wanting to be like them is pecking at me: 

‘If you don’t do what they want, they won’t want you.’ 

‘They want you for yourself.’ 

‘What is my self?  No. Seriously. Who am I?’

 I am post-Reno, post-struggling to get into the arts, post-rejecting the arts, post-clenched to its bosom after I’ve told the arts to fuck itself; I don’t care, but of course I do, or I wouldn’t be trying to get the arts out of my head. 

 The parted hair and frock coat of formerly-enslaved abolitionist, Frederick Douglass enter my head. Why did he pretend to be like them? Why didn’t he stand on stage and say, ‘You load of cunts. Look what you did to me and mine. You will burn in hell for this.’ Why did he pretend he could beat them at their own game? They have been playing for years. Who is Frederick Douglass? 

 Who is a slave? What is a black person after being enslaved? How do you stop the master from being in your head?  How do we reconstruct ourselves? How much were they assisted? How much were they chained? The lengths a white man will go to keep supremacy. A frightening tale. Watch the white academics deliver it as individual manoeuvres on a chessboard. Watch the black academics deliver it with pain. Their education, parted hair and frock coats. 

 Reconstruction: America After the Civil War is like dissecting the ultimate abusive relationship. America, the male, has leathered African American, the female, countless times, but still she won’t leave him. Go where? Do what? He holds the purse strings. She is a Fourteenth Amendment Citizen. He’s kicked the ballot box up the street.  By the time the law arrived, she’d be dead anyway. 

 A large arts organisation wants me to help reconstruct the arts. 

Photo courtesy of PBS