- Rewriting HistoryThe Publication of W. E. B. Du Bois’s Black Reconstruction in America (1935)
For African American historians of the nineteenth and first half of the twentieth century, the goal of writing history was as evident as the stakes were great. Amateur, and later professional, historians dedicated themselves to the proposition of writing African American history into mainstream American history, to instilling pride in the African American community and its roots, and to correcting popular misrepresentations while also addressing the issues and problems specific to their time and place. It was most emphatically history with an agenda.
The role played by African American historians, whether amateur or professional, in the historiography of the field has been well charted in works such as August Meier and Elliott Rudwick’s Black History and the Historical Profession, 1915–1980 (1986).1 Part of the story remains largely untold, however, since little research has been undertaken by scholars from the perspective of book history.2 How did these historians find publishers for their works? What type of publishing houses issued them? How were they promoted and received, and what was their readership and influence on the field of American history? Most specifically, how does the publishing history of such works help account for their impact—or lack thereof—on the historiography of a given period?
In this article, I offer a case study of one particular work by W. E. B. Du Bois, a seminal figure in African American studies best known of course for his 1903 essay collection, The Souls of Black Folk. Yet his monumental Black Reconstruction, published in 1935 by the important New York commercial firm of Harcourt, Brace, redefined the terms by which the history of Reconstruction was analyzed, a redefinition that appeared at a time when mainstream historians presented a very different picture of the post–Civil War period. I propose to begin with a brief reminder of the historiographical debate over Reconstruction. I will then look at the type of publishing houses [End Page 266] that issued histories of Reconstruction, whether black or white, in the first three decades of the twentieth century.
I will also pay close attention to the work of two distinguished Du Bois scholars, Herbert Aptheker, editor of the complete works of W. E. B. Du Bois, and David Levering Lewis, author of a two-volume biography of the scholar and activist. These two scholars are important to my analysis because they scrutinized the circumstances surrounding the publication of Du Bois’s works, as well as their sales figures and critical reception. I will summarize the findings of Aptheker and Lewis and complete the picture with an analysis of the promotion of Black Reconstruction by its publisher, Harcourt, Brace. I will then conclude with an examination of the sales figures of the work.
Reconstruction Historiography and Publishers of Works on Reconstruction: Before Black Reconstruction
The last chapter of Black Reconstruction is a bibliographical essay that bears the significant heading “The Propaganda of History.” In this final chapter, which fulfills many of the same functions as a traditional introduction (given that Du Bois accounts for the inception of his book and explains his methodology and sources), the author demonstrates how the history of Reconstruction has been distorted by most white historians, whose basic argument and biases are familiar to those who have seen David W. Griffith’s 1915 movie Birth of a Nation, or read the trilogy by Thomas Dixon—at least the 1905 novel The Clansman—that served as a basis for the film. The story is simple: Reconstruction gave former slaves and Radical Republicans complete sway over the already ruined southern states, encouraging what Dixon called the “Africanization” of the South. This reversal of the so-called “natural order” led to chaos, widespread corruption, and the rule of vengeful carpetbaggers allied with ignorant blacks. This grossly distorted vision, Du Bois argues, has contaminated textbooks, which defend the following three theses: (1) “All Negroes were ignorant”; (2) “All Negroes were lazy, dishonest and extravagant”; and (3) “Negroes were responsible for bad government during Reconstruction.”3 This nicely recapitulates the writing of Reconstruction in the late nineteenth century, at a...