Black Reconstruction in the Twenty-First Century


Activists gathered for a rally in Times Square to protest police brutality in July 2016 (a katz/Shuttershock)

Peniel E. Joseph, The Third Reconstruction: America’s Struggle for Racial Justice in the Twenty-First Century. New York: Basic Books, 2022. Pp. 277; $27.00 (Hardcover)

Peniel E. Joseph’s The Third Reconstruction: America’s Struggle for Racial Justice in the Twenty-First Century is one of the most poignant books of our contemporary historical moment. Unfolding political battles over citizenship, voting rights restrictions, educational censorship, and violence across the United States, in the last year, gives profound clarity and credence to his central argument that the nation is in its third Reconstruction period. Joseph’s book is a thoughtful and well written re-examination of some of the most difficult episodes in U.S. American history. Traversing more than one hundred years of Black liberation struggles to realize the full potential of democracy in the United States, the book emphasizes an underlying fissure in the remaking of the nation after the Civil War— “a dual identity reflecting warring ideas about citizenship, freedom, and democracy” (10).

Joseph argues that the post-Civil War period augmented the country’s duality and fundamentally shaped each of its major subsequent periods of renewal. As he explains it, U.S. national duplexity manifests itself in the sustenance of “reconstructionist” and “redemptionist” ideals (p.10). Reconstructionists, he asserts, have worked since the Civil War to reimagine the possibilities of the United States through active advocacy for racial democracy. These efforts, Joseph explains, come in direct conflict with the actions and efforts of redemptionists, who labored to recover the legacies of a nation that prospered and expanded through the system of slavery. Consequently, understanding the politics and history that define the Third Reconstruction Joseph describes necessitates reconsideration of the historical forces that have shaped it. Equally important in The Third Reconstruction is Joseph’s contention that the competing visions of reconstructionists and redemptionists in the United States during the post-Civil War period remain impactful on public memory about national history.

The Third Reconstruction fits squarely within larger scholarly discussions about public memory and the looming presence of Civil War history in contemporary debates on race, citizenship, freedom, and democracy. Indeed, the book is reminiscent of David Blight’s Beyond the Battlefield and Race and Reunion in its focus on memory and historical narrative. The Third Reconstruction also expands on arguments made by historian Edmund S. Morgan in his 1972 book Slavery and Freedom: An American Paradox, though it does not offer much discussion about the ways in which redemptionist and reconstructionist ideals were forged during the colonial period. Joseph’s book resists the distance of traditional academic narrative in favor of a semi-autobiographical style—making it a more accessible and compelling read. Each of the book’s four major chapters is framed by evocative memories of the historian’s personal journey towards professional scholarship and, specifically, the study of Black history in the United States. As he notes in the acknowledgements section, his work in The Third Reconstruction aims to offer the reader a better sense of the historical context that shaped recent calls for Black dignity and the protection of Black citizenship in the third Reconstruction period.

Joseph’s mother, Germaine Joseph, figures prominently in each chapter as a scaffold for his lifelong thinking about the thematic lenses that drive the book—citizenship, dignity, backlash, leadership, and freedom. In addition to his mother, Joseph features historical actors, public intellectuals, activists, teachers, and, most prominently, former President Barak Obama. The book marks the presidential election of Obama in 2008 as the beginning of the Third Reconstruction. It proceeds from there to explore the former president’s legacy in a nation still marred by racial tension and violence. Joseph argues that the former president exemplified the possibilities of a racial democracy through appeals to American exceptionalism and a Black politics of respectability. He illustrates the potency of these strategies by pointing to key figures in the First and Second Reconstruction periods, such as Frederick Douglass and Martin Luther King Jr. who also employed them. Yet, Joseph notes that Obama’s use of these powerful ideals ultimately fell short as redemptionists publicly questioned his citizenship and leaders of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) Movement challenged his use of respectability politics as a viable strategy for achieving racial justice in the twenty-first century.

Joseph’s exploration of the BLM’s insistence on dignity as the foundation of Black citizenship and leadership dominates much of his discussion on the blueprint for feasible hope in U.S. American democracy, as well as it does form the basis of his most persistent critique of former president Obama. Despite broad support, Joseph contends that the former president was still unable to avoid backlash against his legitimacy as a citizen and certainly as president. His third chapter emphasizes the failures of Obama as a symbol of racial progress by pointing to the heightened occurrences of anti-Black violence, the rise of former president Donald Trump, racial scapegoating, and voter suppression in the subsequent elections. Joseph points to these developments to highlight the “dual and dueling traditions of reconstruction and redemption within the national body politic” (136). This chapter also lays the groundwork for his emphasis on the BLM as a vital part of achieving racial justice in the United States. Specifically, he points to the movement’s call for national recognition and protection of Black dignity as critical in the larger effort toward racial progress.

“Radical Black dignity” as Joseph argues, underscored the anti-lynching campaigns of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the grassroots movements of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and the larger Black Power Movement (BPM) of the 1960s and 70s (130). Linking this emphasis on dignity to the longer civil rights struggles of Black people throughout the United States, he positions the BLM as an heir to these movements and its leadership as a critical vanguard in calls for racial equality. “By insisting that the most oppressed people within the Black community are worthy of dignity and citizenship,” he writes, “BLM argued that we all remain unfree until liberation comes to those faces at the bottom of the well of Blackness” (129). Hence, Joseph notes, the BLM movement remains vital in public dialog about a more just democratic society in the United States, and an important example of the ways in which Black Power traditions have evolved. This last point is laid out beautifully in Joseph’s fourth chapter discussion on the leadership model of the BLM, one that foregrounds queer Black feminist thought and leadership, while championing the most marginalized communities within Black America.

In its final section, The Third Reconstruction leaves readers with a call to action. Joseph reminds us that the work of reconstruction is on-going and that this period of renewal requires all Americans to make conscious choices about the type of future they envision for their nation. The book ends in the same way it begins, with an invitation for readers to take the journey with its narrating scholar. Indeed, his concluding suggestion to “choose hope” despite the disheartening events of our current socio-political and economic times is an homage to the persistence of Black liberation struggles in each of the Reconstruction periods before this one. Joseph’s book offers a compelling argument that is well grounded in historical scholarship which has also explored the complex legacies of the post-Civil War era. The book is also very accessible for broad audiences and provides a good amount historical synthesis for its audience. Even so, the broad range of historical periods Joseph ties together throughout the book may find some readers confused or needing/wanting to know more. In all, The Third Reconstruction makes a solid case for understanding the events from 2008 through 2020 as a period of reconstruction in the United States. The continuity of socio-economic and political discourse Joseph outlines from the 19th century through the early 21st century undergirds the book’s powerful assessment of our national story. No doubt, The Third Reconstruction has made room for a host of new scholars to continue unpacking the relevance of the U.S. American Civil War and the long civil rights movement.

Share with a friend:
Copyright © AAIHS. May not be reprinted without permission.


Lacey P. Hunter

Lacey Hunter, Ph.D. is a faculty instructor in the African American Studies and the Honors College at Rutgers University, Newark. She received her PhD from Drew University. Her dissertation focused on the role of African American religious ideologies on racial constructions. She holds an MA in American History from Rutgers University-Newark and is currently teaching courses on African American Studies and Afro-American History. She is actively involved in organizations that help urban students transition into college, as well as collaborative programs for “at-risk” college freshman. She is also deeply committed to restructuring historical teaching and encouraging greater literacy rates among students of color.