Reconstruction, Power, and the Personal

Reconstruction, Power, and the Personal

This is the first post in our roundtable on We Were Eight Years in Power by Ta-Nehisi Coates. Today’s post comes from Brandon R. Byrd, an assistant professor at Vanderbilt University who specializes in the intellectual history of the nineteenth- and twentieth-century United States, looking specifically at African American history and the African Diaspora.

The editor’s introduction is here, and subsequent posts can be found here, here, and here.


We were eight years in power.

–Thomas Miller, 1895

Cain’ member nothin’ ‘bout re’struction.

Frankie Goole, 1936

In the fall of 1895, Thomas E. Miller stood before the South Carolina Constitutional Convention. The free-born attorney, college graduate, and former U.S. congressman was one of six black delegates to the convention called by U.S. Senator Benjamin “Pitchfork” Tillman and his political allies. He was also one of its most vocal dissidents. Miller knew the convention was supposed to disfranchise black voters and discard the state constitution drafted in 1868. He also understood the propaganda meant to justify the purge. Tillman, Miller told the convention, condemned Reconstruction-era political corruption but had “not found voice eloquent enough, nor pen exact enough to mention those imperishable gifts bestowed upon South Carolina . . . by Negro legislators.” “We were eight years in power,” Miller continued. “We had built school houses, established charitable institutions, built and maintained the penitentiary system, provided for the education of the deaf and dumb, rebuilt the jails and court houses . . . In short, we had reconstructed the State.”[1]

Harper’s Weekly cartoon sympathizing with the plight of black people in the Reconstruction-era South. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Power. Ta-Nehisi Coates begins his most recent book, We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy, with Miller’s claim to it before deploying it in much the same way. For Coates, the black politician wields power. Possesses power. Is power. He, and in this rendering it is implicitly a he, is Miller’s cherished memory of “Good Negro Government” and Tillman’s haunting specter of “Negro Rule.” He is both inspiration and threat, symbolic and real.

But power is personal, too. Although Coates writes that “the argument made in much of this book is that Good Negro Government . . . often augments the very white supremacy it seeks to combat,” the common thread in the eight notes that precede each chapter is not white backlash to black governance, then or now.[2] Rather, it is his experience of Barack Obama’s power. Coates invites readers to feel his improving sense of financial security as publishers assigned more value to black writers who covered race, increasing pessimism as America’s experiment in multi-racial democracy seemed to unravel with every officer-involved shooting, growing anxiousness about his professional relationship with Obama, and creeping resignation as Donald J. Trump came closer and closer to entering the White House. He, through these reflections on the past eight years, implies that the “we” in his book’s title includes “me.”

This matters a great deal, not just for those trying to understand current issues of race and politics but also for historians writing about Reconstruction. As Kidada E. Williams writes, we still need “audacious scholarship that connects the history we know to the more obscure inner lives of African Americans experiencing a world remade by the crucibles of war, emancipation, citizenship rights and new forms of governance, and the backlash of Redemption and Jim Crow.”[3] That scholarship would ask what power meant to poor and disabled black people who needed the charitable institutions that Miller saw as crowning achievements of Reconstruction. It would explore how black people imprisoned at the South Carolina Penitentiary, not just the black politicians who fought for its establishment, experienced power. It, in short, would find the personal meanings and memories applied to (presumably) collective black empowerment.

Of course, historians have worked hard to build on the pioneering work of W.E.B. Du Bois and, to quote Williams, “capture the full kaleidoscope of African American life.”[4] Still, there is a need to push further, to consider and reconsider the interior lives of black people like Frankie Goole. Born enslaved in middle Tennessee, Goole was about eighty-five years old and living in Nashville when she gave an interview to an elderly white woman working for Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Works Progress Administration (WPA).[5] It begins with Goole’s assertion that:

Mah ole Missis wuz named Sallie, en mah Marster wuz George Waters. Mah mammy’s name wuz Lucindia, she wuz sold fum me w’en I wuz six weeks ole, en mah Missis raised me. I allus slept wid her. Mah Missis wuz good ter me, but (her son) mah Marster whup’d me.

Goole follows that disclosure about early separation from her biological mother and forced intimacy with white slaveowners who might also have been kin with the claim that “[I] Dunno ob any ex-slaves votin’ er holdin’ office ob any kin.” In fact, she reiterates later in the interview, “I nebber voted en dunno nothin’ ‘bout hit. Hab nebber had any frens in office. Cain’ member nothin’ ‘bout re’struction. I hab bin sick en still don’ feel right. Sumtimes I feels krazy.”[6]

What should we make of this? What can we make of this? On the one hand, Goole tells her interviewer, a white southerner who looked and sounded like those who once enslaved her, that she could hardly recognize the era that Miller remembered and Coates reimagined. Tennessee was the first of the former Confederate states to enfranchise black men but she claims no friends in office. Republicans had controlled Tennessee for two years but she pleads ignorance of Reconstruction. Instead, she dissociates from power.[7]

At the same time, though, Goole provides a wealth of details about what Gregory Downs and Kate Masur call the “postwar era.”[8] She recalls the yellow fever epidemic that devastated Tennessee in the early 1870s and the Ku Klux Klan, sometimes conflating those postwar terrorists with the antebellum “Pat-a-rollers.” She remembers caring for her biological mother, attending Fisk University, and buying her first pair of shoes, “high tops . . . called bootees.”[9] She connects, narratively, her unfamiliarity with the electoral politics and periodization of Reconstruction to her chronic feelings of illness and her occasional bouts of insanity. She steers the interview inward, away from what her interviewer hoped to learn about politics and power.

Julia Ann Jackson, a participant in the WPA ex-slave interviews conducted in Arkansas. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

The imperative, then, is that we follow. Although mediated, Goole’s interview, like others given by formerly enslaved people in Tennessee, acknowledges the question of black political participation but defies Miller’s invocation of power.[10] It withdraws, too, from Coates’s investment in collective black empowerment. Rather than encouraging further assessment of “Good Negro Government,” her testimony demands more attention to emancipation’s local variances, black mental illness, and the uses of forgetting and denial.[11] It calls for an accounting of the interiorities that the assumption of power has sometimes influenced but often obscured.


[1] W.E.B. Du Bois, “Reconstruction and its Benefits,” The American Historical Review 15, no. 4 (1910): 794-795.

[2] Ta-Nehisi Coates, We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy (New York: One World Publishing, 2017), xvi.

[3] Kidada E. Williams, “Maintaining A Radical Vision of African Americans in The Age of Freedom,” The Journal of the Civil War Era, accessed October 12, 2017, This essay also appeared in the March 2017 issue of the JCWE.

[4] Williams, 15. On Du Bois’s groundbreaking effort to recover the interior lives of enslaved and free(d) black people, see especially Thomas Holt, “‘A Story of Ordinary Human Beings’: The Sources of Du Bois’s Historical Imagination in Black Reconstruction,South Atlantic Quarterly 112, no. 3 (Summer 2013): 419-435. Foundational texts that employ Du Bois’s methodology include Eric Foner, Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877 (New York: Harper & Row, 1988); Tera C. Hunter, To ‘Joy My Freedom: Southern Black Women’s Lives and Labors after the Civil War (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1997); Steven Hahn, A Nation Under Our Feet: Black Political Struggles in the Rural South, From Slavery to the Great Migration (Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2003); and Thavolia Glymph, Out of the House of Bondage: The Transformation of the Plantation Household (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008).

[5] The WPA slave narratives are the subject of a debate that exceeds the space granted here. Carole Emberton puts them to excellent use in “The Freedwoman’s Tale: Reconstruction Remembers in the Federal Writers’ Project Ex-Slave Narratives,” in Carole Emberton and Bruce E. Baker, eds., Remembering Reconstruction: Struggles Over the Meaning of America’s Most Turbulent Era (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2017).

[6] Interview with Frankie Goole, in Nashville, Tennessee, Born in Slavery: Slave Narratives from the Federal Writers’ Project, 1936-1938: Tennessee Narratives, Vol. 15,

[7] William E. Hardy, “‘Fare well to all Radicals’: Redeeming Tennessee, 1869-1870,” (Ph.D. diss., University of Tennessee, Knoxville, 2013).

[8] Gregory P. Downs and Kate Masur, eds., The World the Civil War Made (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2015).

[9] Interview with Frankie Goole.

[10] Of the twenty-six informants interviewed in Nashville and Knoxville, Tennessee, only seven stated that they had voted, campaigned, had friends in political office, or had knowledge of black voting. Of course, more needs to be done to contextualize and analyze these responses. How, for instance, would formerly enslaved people have interpreted a question about whether they had “friends” in political office? A good starting place for the postemancipation history of Nashville is Bobby Lovett, The African-American History of Nashville, Tennessee, 1780-1930: Elites and Dilemma (Fayetteville: The University of Arkansas Press, 1999).

[11] The topic of mental illness is closely connected to trauma, particularly the concept of “soul murder” that Nell Irvin Painter explores in “Soul Murder and Slavery: Toward a Fully Loaded Cost Accounting,” in Nell Irvin Painter, ed., Southern History Across the Color Line (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2002). The work on the national memory of Reconstruction is quite robust; that on ordinary black peoples’ troubled recollections of that process, less so. Emberton and Baker’s Remembering Reconstruction thus provides a necessary intervention.

Brandon R. Byrd

Brandon R. Byrd is an Assistant Professor of History at Vanderbilt University and an intellectual historian of the nineteenth- and twentieth-century United States with specializations in African Americans and the African Diaspora. He is completing his first book, The Black Republic: African Americans, Haiti, and the Rise of Radical Black Internationalism, and has publications in outlets including Slavery and Abolition and Palimpsest: A Journal on Women, Gender, and the Black International. He also co-edits the Vanderbilt University Press’s Black Lives and Liberation series and writes for Black Perspectives, the online publication of the African American Intellectual History Society.

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