- Open Wound: The Long View of Race in America
William McKee Evans, professor emeritus of history at California State University Polytechnic, here follows his earlier monographs on race and Reconstruction with an impressive synthesis on race in American history. Evans tells an engaging story accessible to undergraduate students even as he distills insights in a way that will edify experts in the field. Though similar in its organization to Michael Goldfield's The Color of Politics and to my How Race Survived U.S. History, Open Wound is a unique and adventuresome study.
Evans portrays both enduring patterns of white supremacy and also lingers over three periods—the American Revolution, the Civil War and Reconstruction, and the Cold War-inflected civil rights movement—during which significant openings for change occurred. He regards those periods of change as ones during which divisions among elites, and/or pressures from the wider world, made it possible for a durable protest tradition to achieve real changes though not full equality.
The approach is basically a materialist one, at times a polemicizing against psychological interpretations which could be read as making racism a timeless human flaw. However, the emphasis on class is folded into Gramscian theories of hegemony. The result is a study able to account for social structure and cultural expressions convincingly. Indeed a crucial section on race and the origins of the Civil War uses the varied roles of blackface minstrelsy to focus its analysis.
The early sections of the book are particularly successful in making sense of the turn from a religiously-based slavery to a racially-based plantation society comprehensible but also highly contingent. Evans roots plantation slavery's history in the Mediterranean world, the British political economy, and the interracial rebellions of early Virginia, setting the stage for a book often astonishing in its transnational scope.
The section on the Revolution provides an especially fine example of the author's ability to cut to the heart of matters in clear and vivid language. Describing the on-and-off British strategy of encouraging slaves to desert from revolutionary owners, he writes, [End Page 271] that the strategy failed because Britain "never made a clear choice between two mutually exclusive alternatives: promoting a slave revolt or promoting the Loyalist Party, which included important slave owners" (56). Similarly, and with wickedly effective force, he later writes of the 1930s that "Stalin gave Communism an uglier face at a time when Roosevelt was giving capitalism a kindlier one" (203).
Not surprisingly, the sections on the Civil War and Reconstruction, Evans' areas of specialization, are especially strong. The sense in which the Democratic Party, and not only the Whigs, collapsed is beautifully captured as is the role of John Brown. The material on the post-Civil War years captures the coexistence of terror and political economy in shaping results and rightly emphasizes that in much of the South struggles persisted far past the 1877 date generally taken as ending Reconstruction.
At certain junctures, my own preference would be for more emphasis on the centrality of Black self-activity, and less on exogenous factors shaping what was politically possible. In particular, telling so much of its twentieth century story via the activities of the Communist Party and of anti-Communists seems to lose as much as it yields. But Open Wound on the whole is an excellent study, well-suited to the classroom and beyond.