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Peniel Joseph examines eras of change in ‘The Third Reconstruction’

‘This is such a rough period for people who believe in democracy and justice and equality,’ says the historian. ‘But you have to find hope.’

David Wilson for the Boston glob

In his new book, “The Third Reconstruction” (Basic), historian Peniel Joseph frames post-Civil War America in terms of three periods of reconstruction — eras defined by an expansion of democracy, justice, and equality. Each time, forces of redemption — those who mourned the “Lost Cause” of the Confederacy — sought, sometimes violently, to restore the antebellum racial, economic, and social order.

Joseph, who teaches at the University of Texas, dates the first reconstruction from the end of slavery to the 1898 massacre of Black people by white residents in Wilmington, N.C. Following more than a half century of Jim Crow segregation, the second reconstruction began with school desegregation in 1954 and ended with the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968. The third, he writes, began in 2008 with the election of Barack Obama. He sees the current battle over the teaching of history as a new, if familiar, front in the enduring fight between reconstruction and redemption.


“Until recently, most of what we were getting was that Lost Cause narrative,” said Joseph, “And that’s the redemptionist history of the Civil War and American democracy and reconstruction.”

Joseph, the son of Haitian immigrants who grew up in “a 100% all-Black community” in Queens, received a different kind of education. “I learned about reconstruction at my mother’s house. I learned about the Haitian revolution,” he said. “We were taught about Black feminism, pan-Africanism, labor activism.” This is by far the most personal book he’s written. “I wanted to write about my mom, and different Black women who impacted my life.”

Whether America’s future will be reconstructionist, a time of multiracial democracy and progress, or redemptionist, an era of shrinking definitions of citizenship and justice, Joseph expects that the younger generation, especially Black women, will lead. “This is such a rough period for people who believe in democracy and justice and equality,” he said. “But you have to find hope. Young people are going to be pushing us, facing huge obstacles, but they’re definitely hopeful and optimistic. They challenge us to think that a different world is really possible.”


Peniel Joseph will be in conversation with Ibram X. Kendi at 7 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 29 at Boston University, 808 Commonwealth Ave., Brookline, and will be in conversation with Brandon Terry at 7 p.m. Friday, Sept. 30, at Harvard Book Store.

Kate Tuttle, a freelance writer and critic, can be reached at kate.tuttle@gmail.com.