What If: Reimagining Race Relations After the American Civil War
Allow me to be your cicerone through this brief work of my imagination. I want to carry my reader through a myth, a would-be scenario in which postbellum America would reunite as a nation and as a people, devoid of the racial caste that existed before this war and the terror-induced one that subsisted for almost one hundred and ten years after it.
Towards the end of the American Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln had declared victory over the Confederate States of America, reducing the pro-slavery aristocracy to a shadow of its former glory. What was to be an enduring kingdom, built, established, and idolized into the future on the economic structure of slavery came to a screeching halt at the request of international powers, national abolitionists, and a bloody five-year Civil War. And, after some 750,000 Americans laid their lives down on the battlefields of the Northern States and the Southern States, some, for the perpetuity of slavery and others for its annihilation, on April 9, 1865, Confederate generals and government officials unconditionally surrendered their forces to the reigning Union army of the North. Some three and a half million souls, previously bound to chains, whips, and the horrors of chattel slavery were now emancipated from their former restraints and imbued with a sense of freedom. Shortly after this, literally, days later, Abraham Lincoln was assassinated by a recalcitrant Southern stage actor named John Wilkes Booth.
It was in this atmosphere, in this era that America had the opportunity to settle its debt to the African American people they had deracinated from the western African plains to till their lands, under the threat of whip and terror, for the enrichment of the new American colony now known as the United States of America. It is here, at the end of the American Civil War where we could have experienced the pinnacle of American race relations but are then presented with the spawn of a new American empire then known as the Age of White Terror.
Former Confederate soldiers were now home from the war, their efforts turned futile, and their former slaves — their property — now roamed the streets in search of work. Not the work of yesteryear where their toils merited them nothing but the kind of work they would get paid for. The disgrace and shame of loss beamed brightly on every white Southern face. Valiant Southern men previously vested with bravado and religious fanaticism now stood and gazed at the consequence of their failures. Their formerly wealthy white communities now lay tarnished by the ubiquitous presence of colored freedmen and freedwomen and the disdained presence of federal soldiers roaming the streets, defending these free people. It was too much to bear for these former rebels. These soldiers, under the guise of night, hood, and culture, dressed with the blood of newly freed African Americans to regain their sense of pride and communal endurance, terrorized every Black American soul, to return them not to bondage but a living hell on earth for having brought so much shame to this proud and undying American South. If Black Americans would not live under the demoralizing institution of slavery they would have to live under the fiendish reality of white terror, and so it was for the next one hundred and ten years. The false zenith of race relations became the nadir of its potential, accomplishing only the resurgence of a malignant tumor on the American plains, White Supremacy.
For a short and forgotten twelve years after the American Civil War, Black Americans experienced what is now understood as the Reconstruction era where, from 1865 to 1877, they thrived in attaining freedom from bondage, freedom to become citizens, and the freedom to vote. (Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments). There was a spike in Black representation in American politics, and in one instance, America had voted into power some two thousand Black men to represent the interests of all Americans.
This period, however hopefully and revolutionary for the Americas was short-lived as the result of the aforementioned reign of terror reduced every gain Black Americans have accomplished and then pulverized every bridge of hope they had fought to build, all in the same of White Rule. Former Confederate soldiers made sure to overturn elections where Black or Reconstruction favoring candidates had won, often doing this by killing them, their voters, or anyone who dared get close enough to a voting booth to vote for them. They lynched Black Americans in broad daylight under the banner of the While League — militant former Confederate soldiers who refused to hide their faces when terrorizing Black Americans. They raided Black communities at night under the cloak of the Ku Klux Klan. And in Louisiana, they formed white supremacist secret societies to overwhelm their racially integrated opponents in every facet of government by forming and perfecting their rites and methods in groups such as the Knights of the White Camelia. Formerly known as the Knights of the Golden Circle, antebellum.
Republican President Rutherford B. Hayes won the seat of power in the mid-to-late 1870s with the help of some Southern Democrats who expected a compromise in return: the removal of federal troops from the South. Once this request was honored, Southern aristocracy was once again at the pinnacle of society, now wielding its sword of terror with impunity and the newly discovered cultural claim of “Home Rule” bestowing white Americans with unimaginable power and authority.
Reconstruction had survived a short and troubled life, succumbing to the Redemption era of the American South as whites regained every seat of power back from Radical Republicans, Reconstructionists, and Black Americans.
What was meant to become the zenith of American race relations became, instead, its nadir.
But, I ask myself, I beg the question in my head all the time: what if race relations postbellum had gone a different route? What if Southern white Americans had instead joined the Reconstruction philosophy and spawned a revolution so benevolent that America would have become the world’s greatest superpower from April 9, 1865, to date?
What if the United States of America, at the end of its grotesque civil war, had then fused itself back into a country with a battlecry against racism? Mind you, most abolitionist Americans in the North, Abraham Lincoln included, wanted slavery to end but wanted nothing to do with Black Americans. As much as they disdained the nefarious institution of chattel slavery, they could muster the courage nor the compassion to see Black Americans as fellow human beings, equals, deserving of brotherly love and intermingling. Northern white Americans for a great deal of time fought conscription mandates to join the Civil War, resisting the government’s demands that they participate in liberating Black Americans from the chains of slavery. In some cases, they rioted and killed Black Americans where they could find them in a show of force, elucidating the fact that whites should not be called upon to die for Blacks.
The horrors of Southern slavery were evident and most Northern whites wanted nothing more than to bring it to an end, but their distrust of newly freed Black Americans, their loathing of these newly enfranchised citizens, and their hatred of all things Black was only now coming to the limelight with a flare.
But no one declared a war on racism. Perhaps the term was unheard of, perhaps the understanding of it was somewhat blurry to them then. But everyone was aware of the caste system Americans had created to not only perpetuate slavery in the former empire and its prolonged disenfranchisement of Black Americans in the new one. For white supremacy to exist and subsist, for this parasite to thrive, it needed a host, it needed a sub-class, a lesser race to exist and they created it in people of darker skin.
So even if the terminology was ahead of its time, the philosophy was ubiquitous, so much so that perhaps they might’ve missed it the way we miss the rays of the sun even while we receive its heat. My attempt isn’t to promote historical presentism, holding historical characters responsible for modern problems. Far from it. I want to hold them accountable for what they already knew and in that knowledge, persisted, protected, and promoted.
Again, what if Americans had declared war on racism or declared war on prejudice and discrimination the same way recent American leaders had declared their misguided war on drugs or terror, we might have avoided one hundred and some odd years of white terror and black disenfranchisement. I can almost certainly confirm that had Americans dealt with racism right after the Civil War there might never have been a war on drugs — which disproportionately targeted and still targets Black Americans — and a war on terror — which disproportionality and dishonestly targets brown people and Muslims. You see, racism, as we understand it today, is what founded the western world. Other societies were formed on imperialism, usually subjugating the surviving masses of their conquered peoples to slavery or bonded yet limited servitude, independent of their sex or race. But western civilization capitalized on the concept of race and the meaning thereof as they conquered new and unexpectedly and unsurprisingly occupied lands to the west. And since then, since the devilish concept of “white equals good, privileged, blessed, free, and intelligent,” and colored equals “rebellious, subjugate, workforce, vacuous, and lesser than,” society has struggled to tackle it because those who thrived within it saw little to no benefit in confronting it, nevertheless dismantling this exploitative system. So much so that even today when Americans attempt to discuss race and its ramifications, many white Americans see the discussion as an assault on the very fabric of their mythical history, namely the history that American founders were heroes and not land-hungry despots who fought tyranny on one hand to then create a more fiendish version of it for others.
Certain people fail to see the looming and lasting effects this race-based caste system has had over American society from inception to date because to see it would mean to see themselves as the children of raiders, land-grabbers, enslavers, and mass killers. These terms, these identifiers, however horrific are easily dismissed as evils of antecedents committed in the past, therefore they have no bearing on our current circumstances. But to confront racism, well, racism is still very much with us and it is the catalyst for the many sins of their ancestors. Therefore the mention of it, the mere connotation of the ramifications of the persistence and virulence of racism is difficult to denounce considering just how ingrained it is in many of our unseen but felt traditions and realities in the 21st century.
Therefore, I ask, time and again, what if there had been a war declared on interpersonal discrimination and systemic government-inspired and protected, de jure race-based discrimination shortly after the Civil War?
What if former confederate soldiers, upon returning home to their dilapidated cities and towns, destroyed by abandonment on one hand and the war on the other, joined forces with newly freedmen and women, to rebuild their society under the banner of friendship and reconciliation? What if Southern aristocrats opted instead to lead the South out of ridicule with the help and leadership of newly freed Black Americans?
Did you know that freedmen were forced into contractual work that paid them very little and anyone caught wandering the streets without a work contract was arrested, beat, fined, and then forced into manual labor for private and state-owned jails? This is the ignoble system called the convict-leasing gulag of the United States of America.
So what if former slavers had opened their hearts, understanding the cruelty of their former way of life, and then changed from it, in the service of fellow human beings. Implanting their new neighbors in their communities, affording them homes and land, tools, animals to work the land, and privileges they were afforded by their local governments before the war. Enfranchisement for all is a step in the right direction. Thinking otherwise is the cruel and selfish neologism known as the racial zero-sum model which states that if a Black man advances in life, in the social sphere, in the battle for Civil Rights, then it must be at the expense of a white man.
It was here that Americans had the perfect opportunity to form and live out the Constitution their predecessors spoke so passionately about and fought so vehemently for in their revolutionary war against the tyrannical British empire. They had seceded from the English, in turn, to build a bastion of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness for white land owners only to enslave millions of souls within the same stroke of a quill. Here they had the chance to right the wrongs of previous generations, leading the nation onward to the right path, without the need or consequence of innocent blood painting their city streets. White Americans had the right opportunity to end their racial caste, rising like the beast of Babylon in 1619 and with the possibility of dying a thousand deaths in 1776. Unfortunately, this dream was inconceivable for many, save for the likes of Americans like Benjamin Bennaker who resisted and scowled with righteous invective against the hypocrisy of the United States Constitution which afford liberty for whites and perpetual slaves based on jus sanguinis (by bloodline).
Can you imagine what America would look like today had more and more racially integrated political spheres painted the American deltas, mountains, coastal towns, and capital city? What it would look like today if Black Americans had been afforded the same and equal rights to land ownership wherever they so please? If black, white, yellow, and brown children had been granted the right to study and play together without fault or fear? If they had been able to walk into the same businesses, restaurants, venues, bars, jazz clubs, and churches, seated one beside the other, hand in hand, arm in arm without posted signage condemning such innocent practices?
We understand that none of these would have made much of a difference if white supremacy had not been challenged and destroyed, to begin with. White supremacy in a world where equal rights are afforded to all is a world that is only moments, a few skirmishes, a few election cycles, and one more civil war away from returning to its recently deceased but still very much present forefather, White Terror.
The Ku Klux Klan has since slithered into the shadows to survive modernity but in its place, we now have the Proud Boys, Oath Keepers, the Aryan Brotherhood, the Patriot Front, MAGA’s (Donald Trump loyalists), neo-confederate, white nationalist, neo-nazi, constitutional sheriffs, and other equally if not more dangerous white supremacist entities bent on restoring or rather “redeeming” white rule in America.
The more racially and culturally diverse America becomes the more violent these extremist groups become. One must wonder if terming them as “extreme” is appropriate considering just how normal white terror is throughout American history toward non-whites.
So, even if Black and white Americans had united under their Constitution after the war, avoiding the all-too problematic “separate but equal” Jim Crow culture that pervaded American life — its effect was so effective that the Nazis took note and used it in their anti-semitic Nuremberg Laws — America would still be crippled by its racial caste system.
Even if banks, land and community developers, and the Federal Housing Association had granted Black Americans the right to purchase land wherever they wanted and if the Veterans Association had provided Black American veterans their much deserved G.I Bill through which to purchase property, if racism was left unchallenged we’d all revert to the same caste system eventually.
I just want to know, I beg to know, I have a burning desire to know what would have happened if America had fought off the cause of its many woes, its many embarrassments, the devilish poison of racism at the end of the Civil War?
Where would we be today, as a people, as a nation — I speak as someone who spent eighteen years of his life in America, in the American Deep South — if we had confronted the Judas Iscariot of this nation, which sold her glory for the lives of some four to thirteen million Black souls. And I’m not even counting the losses in the Native American, Mexican American, Creole American, and Chinese American communities.
I believe I’m revising things in my head and imagining them at the same time, that had Americans challenged their racial caste system then, shortly before or shortly after Abraham Lincoln’s assassination, we’d never have heard of Ida B. Wells, W.E.B. du Bois, Fannie Lou Hamer, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr., Emmitt Till, Stokely Carmichael, Bobby Seale, Huey P. Newton, the AME nine, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, and more.
We’d never have seen pictures of men clad in white robes and hoods, handling torches, with Black bodies swinging from trees not far behind, crowds of white faces elated at the scapegoat swaying to and fro for their communal purification. We’d never have heard of federal government incentives to divest Black communities of resources, funnel drugs into them to finance American wars abroad, or its push to segregate communities with the construction of highways, barring Black Americans from moving into pristine and cushy suburbs with heinous “one drop” housing rules.
We’d never have heard of Black Lives Matter because there’d be no need for such a movement.
We’d never have heard of the reactionary Blue Lives Matter either because our police forces would have long been integrated and more willing to confront their prejudices early on, in an attempt to humanize the people they arrest, men and women worthy of due process and free from harassment and unlawful searches and seizures.
We’d never have to see section eight housing, ripe with police presence even in the face and evidence of reduced crime rates in the same areas.
There would be no section eight housing, and even if there had been, it would have been racially diverse, with people of all stripes and races, being provided for, as things should be.
What if we began to challenge racism today? We understand it for what it was and for what it is but will we pass this burden along to yet another generation? Will we permit white supremacy to live and thrive in the shadows before it rises, resurgent and boastful, under yet another banner, taking the lives of Black innocents through bombings, mass shootings, and bulldozing protestors with cars? “Klansman” sounds outdated but “president” seems fitting, these days. How long will we trouble ourselves with the blessings of the land whilst negating the horrors of the people who took it? Sure, they’re all dead but their theft, its magnanimity lives on, giving to the descendants of thieves the gifts of pride, land, wealth, and influence, and giving, in equal parts, to the descendants of colored people, horror, shame, poverty, and blame.
So who will confront that which our ancestors, or rather, your ancestors (white readers) failed to confront? Black Americans have fought (not violently, until recently) to regain their humanity, their Constitutional rights, and their human rights, from the genesis of this nation but their fellow white Americans have only fought, and this is recent, for the end of a symptom of racism, not its cause.
Religionists, especially those of my persuasion, namely, Christians, white ones at that, will petition we only leave this battle of hate and disdain, to the work of Christ. This, too, is an excuse. Refrain from engaging religionists who think only of heaven whilst their fellow countrymen starve here on earth. Jesus, the God whom they claim to follow, would not approve of their methods.
But you, my reader, in this time, will you challenge the poison of racial supremacy? Had things been the other way around, and depending on how our secular culture deals with power once racial dynamics shift and colored people become the majority, should there be, then, a situation where colored people begin to dehumanize and discriminate against white people because they are white, instituting a caste system in the image of their former white countrymen to now subjugate them in reciprocity, I will — should I live long enough to see the day — condemn it to hell.
Any caste system, whether it thrives off of the exploitation of some group or another based on religion, nationality, race, sex, gender, class, income, or pizza topping, your choice, should be condemned to hell and before it reaches that fiery pit it ought to be confronted and shamed while it cowers under our combined efforts to exorcise it from our world.
But these things will exist, they will thrive, and they will fester in the shadows as long as we allow them to.
When will we finally put an end to white supremacy? A flaming dagger in its heart? It will not be when all white people cease to exist. They won’t, mind you. I pray they do not. I would love for them to be around and to thrive in a world where they no longer carry the burden of false superiority. It’s a burden no one ought to carry and they have done so, for hundreds of years, to their own demise.
White supremacy must die for us to live. We cannot, we will not allow another generation to go by as this evil in the psyche, the heart, and systems, to live, move, and have its being to dehumanize, desecrate, and destroy lives for yet another one hundred-odd years.
That America I keep thinking about, daydreaming about, where Black and white Americans, Americans of all stripes, thrive and live and enjoy, is still very much attainable.
“When” it comes to fruition, however, depends on us.