10 Feb 2007

Forever Free: A Review of Eric Foner

Author: Bobby Valentine | Filed under: Black History, Books, Contemporary Ethics, Kingdom, Ministry

FOREVER FREE : A Review of Eric Foner

February is Black History Month. Each year I set out to read some things related to the theme during this time period. For 2007, I have decided to read Taylor Branch’s third and final volume in his “America in the King Years” series, At Canaan’s Edge. As with the previous two Parting the Waters (Pulitzer Prize) and Pillar of Fire, Branch has written, probably, the best material yet on those eventful years. This final volume is a testament to the power of nonviolent resistance. I could only wish that Christians would read through these books but since they range from over six-hundred to a thousand pages a piece most will simply pass them by.

Thus I am going to recommend a marvelous work by Eric Foner, Forever Free: The Story of Emancipation & Reconstruction … a mere 250 pages that fly by. Foner is one of the foremost historians on 19th century America, especially Reconstruction. This is my fifth book by this author, the previous being: Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men: The Ideology of the Republican Party Before the Civil War; Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877; America’s Reconstruction: People and Politics After the Civil War; and The Story of American Freedom.

Forever Free, released in November 2006 by Vintage Press is possibly the best book I have read on the period. Foner literally brings the times alive. He is not simply interested in official national policy but what was happening in the popular American mind. Thus we find ourselves in Alabama, South Carolina, St. Louis, New York and New Orleans. To illustrate his theme he dips into an incredible array of sources from newspapers to sermons.

One of the unique features of this books is that after each chapter Foner has a “Visual Essay.” The visual essays are liberally sprinkled with reproduced newspaper articles, advertisements for consumer goods and political parties, and a wide range of other material. These visual essays have a powerful effect in the book … Foner is not talking about academics but the reality of life for people. The rest of the book is also illustrated with dozens of illustrations and photos.

Through the story we run into the often forgotten perspectives of such old friends as Frederick Douglass, Booker T. Washington and W. E. B. DuBois. We are also introduced to new ones like Mifflin Gibbs and Blanche Bruce.

The mythology of Reconstruction is powerful in America. Films like D. W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation (1915) and Gone with the Wind have had lengthy shadows on our collective psyche. Foner takes on the myths and effectively demolishes them as, at times, bordering on pure fabrication.

Nor is Foner simply interested in the 19th century. The historian moves us into the 20th century and traces out the social forces that shaped Reconstruction down to our own day. He leaves us with the serious question of “have we finished the revolution?” Have we followed through on the promises of justice. For the Christian these are important question.

If you are looking for an incredibly informative book that is also amazingly user friendly and reads as well as a novel then may I recommend that before Black History Month is over that you allow this book to enrich and challenge you. The book recieves four and a half stars from this reader.

Bobby Valentine

P.S. In line with my Campbell and Wright post below I cited Shaun Casey. Casey is a widely quoted and respected Christian ethicist and supporter of the Just War ethic. Here is a link to a short piece he wrote before the invasion:


10 Responses to “Forever Free: A Review of Eric Foner”

  1. Neva Says:

    Thank you for stopping by Dancing in the Light. I have visited your blog several times and enjoyed your insights.

    Peace to you and yours

  2. Ben Overby Says:

    Thanks for the review, Bobby. You mentioned W.E.B. DeBois. I bought The Souls of Black Folk a while back. If anyone’s interested it’s also free online at http://www.pagebypagebooks.com/W_E_B_DuBois/The_Souls_of_Black_Folk/index.html


  3. Stoned-Campbell Disciple Says:

    DuBois is an important person to read. He wrote a very interesting book called “Black Reconstruction in America.”

    Bobby Valentine

  4. Joel Solliday Says:

    I bought one of Eric Foner’s books because it looked interesting but have learned more since then that leaves me disappointed. Professor Foner clearly loathes President Bush with an irrational hostility. He calls Bush the “worst president in U.S. history” and he twists truth, in my opinion, to justify that hostility. After 9/11, he wrote in the London Review of Books; “I’m not sure which is more frightening: the horror that engulfed New York City or the apocalyptic rhetoric emanating daily from the White House.”

    That statement is outrageously irresponsible, regardless of how you may want to rate the President.

    I few years ago, Foner organized a “teach in” at Columbia Univ. which attracted controversy because one speaker wished for “a million Mogadishus” (a reference to the ambush of U.S. forces by an al-Qaeda warlord in Somalia in 1993). This speaker (not Foner who planned the event) also said, “Peace is not patriotic. Peace is subversive, because peace anticipates a very different world than the one in which we live–a world where the U.S. would have no place.”

    I could not have sat silent if I had been in charge of that event. What Foner himself did say that day was, “I refuse to cede the definition of American patriotism to George W. Bush.” Fine. But Foner added, “I have a different definition of patriotism, which comes from Paul Robeson: The patriot is the person who is never satisfied with his country.”

    Paul Robeson was an icon (and member) of the American Communist Party, who received a Stalin Peace Prize from Stalin himself.

    My impression is that Eric Foner presumes that if you are a conservative, you are necessarily a racist. I cannot buy into that.

  5. Stoned-Campbell Disciple Says:

    Joel that is most interesting. I am not aware of Foner’s political orientation. And you are right some of that rhetoric is clearly unhealthy.

    But in the books that I have read by him, including Forever Free, have been both scholarly and passionate. I have not always agreed with an interpretation here and there but he is a good conversation partner.

    You may be right about Foner on conservatives (I do not know). However I think the opposite is probably also true … most conservatives think that “liberals” hate America. Both positions are probably skewed slightly. I really think liberals and conservatives need each other.

    On a closing note, Forever Free is a great book.

    Bobby Valentine

  6. Stoned-Campbell Disciple Says:

    Joel we have many reasons for gratitude. I share your opinion. I do feel we need to recognize the bad for what it is and also the good. We are all like David of old … we can be incredibly good but also incredibly inhuman.

    Bobby Valentine

  7. Darin Says:

    Thanks. Some other readings have taken me in this direction, maybe I should just dive in.

    P.S. Things are good.

  8. preacherman Says:

    Thanks for the reveiw. I appreciate it. Thanks ben for the info.

  9. Candle (C & L) Says:

    Booby- Hope alliswellin Arizonaand the weather has become more friendly. My piece of the North has beenblessed by lots ofsnowafter a very mild- fall-like January. I suspect Milwaukee is somewhat similar.

    Thanksfor sharing these thoughts and thanks for droppingby Whitfield’s journey.

    God Bless

  10. Candle (C & L) Says:

    OOPS – I should proof read more carefully –BOBBY — forgive my misspelling of your name.


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