Friday, February 09, 2007
FOREVER FREE : A Review of Eric Foner
February is Black History Month. Each year I set out to read some things related to the theme during this time period. For 2007, I have decided to read Taylor Branch’s third and final volume in his "America in the King Years" series, At Canaan’s Edge. As with the previous two Parting the Waters (Pulitzer Prize) and Pillar of Fire, Branch has written, probably, the best material yet on those eventful years. This final volume is a testament to the power of nonviolent resistance. I could only wish that Christians would read through these books but since they range from over six-hundred to a thousand pages a piece most will simply pass them by.
Thus I am going to recommend a marvelous work by Eric Foner, Forever Free: The Story of Emancipation & Reconstruction … a mere 250 pages that fly by. Foner is one of the foremost historians on 19th century America, especially Reconstruction. This is my fifth book by this author, the previous being: Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men: The Ideology of the Republican Party Before the Civil War; Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877; America’s Reconstruction: People and Politics After the Civil War; and The Story of American Freedom.
Forever Free, released in November 2006 by Vintage Press is possibly the best book I have read on the period. Foner literally brings the times alive. He is not simply interested in official national policy but what was happening in the popular American mind. Thus we find ourselves in Alabama, South Carolina, St. Louis, New York and New Orleans. To illustrate his theme he dips into an incredible array of sources from newspapers to sermons.
One of the unique features of this books is that after each chapter Foner has a “Visual Essay.” The visual essays are liberally sprinkled with reproduced newspaper articles, advertisements for consumer goods and political parties, and a wide range of other material. These visual essays have a powerful effect in the book … Foner is not talking about academics but the reality of life for people. The rest of the book is also illustrated with dozens of illustrations and photos.
Through the story we run into the often forgotten perspectives of such old friends as Frederick Douglass, Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. DuBois. We are also introduced to new ones like Mifflin Gibbs and Blanche Bruce.
The mythology of Reconstruction is powerful in America. Films like D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation (1915) and Gone with the Wind have had lengthy shadows on our collective psyche. Foner takes on the myths and effectively demolishes them as, at times, bordering on pure fabrication.
Nor is Foner simply interested in the 19th century. The historian moves us into the 20th century and traces out the social forces that shaped Reconstruction down to our own day. He leaves us with the serious question of “have we finished the revolution?” Have we followed through on the promises of justice. For the Christian these are important question.
If you are looking for an incredibly informative book that is also amazingly user friendly and reads as well as a novel then may I recommend that before Black History Month is over that you allow this book to enrich and challenge you. The book recieves four and a half stars from this reader.
P.S. In line with my Campbell and Wright post below I cited Shaun Casey. Casey is a widely quoted and respected Christian ethicist and supporter of the Just War ethic. Here is a link to a short piece he wrote before the invasion: