Virginia Thomas, CSWGS Postdoctoral Fellow
As a scholar of the history and aesthetics of lynching, I find Reconstruction and particularly its aftermath of vital interest and importance in setting the stage for the transformation of white supremacist terror under slavery into Jane and Jim Crow terror. I am also a cisgender white woman from North Carolina and raised on the unceded lands of the Shakori, Eno, Tuscarora, and Lumbee. There are not many aspects of North Carolina’s political history in which I take pride, given the use of state as a primary tool of colonization and other iterations of structural white supremacy. However, there is part of North Carolina’s past that I envision as a future: the state’s history of Fusion politics. Following what many call “radical Reconstruction,” Fusion politics describes moments of political collaboration between the Republican and Populist Parties. As many former Confederates were unable to vote during the Reconstruction period, farmers and newly freed African Americans were voted into office. Figures such as Abraham Galloway set out to create policies that empowered greater access to voting and engagement in the political process. Formally, this fusion chiefly took place during elections as a combined ballot between the Republican and Populist Parties to challenge the former slave-holding planter class that largely comprised the Democratic Party. Less formally, that Republican and Populist Party bridge signaled a burgeoning coalitional politics among poor white agricultural workers and Black people.
What is so inspiring to me about this period is not merely the collaboration across different identities, but the potential futures of identity-formation this movement seeded after the legal end of slavery. Without painting a utopian and therefore inaccurate picture, the possibility of Fusion put into jeopardy whiteness’s place as a primary and dominant organizing mechanism of people’s politics and daily lives that slavery’s legal era had such immense success in developing. Fusion moved racial, gendered, and sexual identities into flux; the teetering potential of these categories’ radical reconstruction is evidenced by enormous white supremacist backlash. Historians have richly detailed the backlash and ensuing strategy spearheaded by Furnifold Simmons for the Democratic Party to gain power: his turn to campaigning based on a single message—that of white supremacy—as a battle for the imagined futures of the people of North Carolina. This campaign relied on a key figure to invoke white supremacist futures: the figure of the innocent white woman who, according to this logic, needed protection against newly freed Black men whom this white supremacist schema portrayed as so-called “black male rapists.” This identitarian logic, resuscitated from slavery with revised twists, had and continues to have devastating effects. While this campaign supposedly protected white women, it had everything to do with constructing white masculinity. Its efficacy lay in the thinly-veiled appeal to white men’s own fragile masculinity which required the lynching of black men, the sexual violation of Black women, and white women’s endorsement of these actions as its strawmen to fuel its own existence. The repercussions of this racialized, gendered, and sexual identity matrix continue to manifest in the present.
Yet, while white women are often given a pass or even seen as victims in this equation, maintaining our innocence only reproduces the logic that enabled Simmons’s strategy in the first place. As Crystal Feimster and others have pointed out, white women’s ascendency into the public sphere at this time capitalized on and leveraged the image of the black male as a threat to their safety to rationalize white women’s movement into more public roles. This early feminist logic legitimized white women’s mobility as a kind of (white) racial justice against being held back by the imagined threat of black male predation. In other words, white bourgeois women took up and retrofitted the identity logic that politicians such as Simmons developed as a pliable tool to advocate for their own freedoms. This fact, then, reveals white women’s gender—in its “progressive” and aggressive forms—as mandating anti-Black violence as part and parcel of its expression and legibility.
So then, what might a form of radical reconstruction of identity look like with the power to withstand and disrupt this shallow shell of humanity that white supremacy used to prevail, despite the promise of Fusion politics?
In considering Fusionist futures, it’s important to note the fact that while Reconstruction as a federally-mandated phenomenon enabled the possibility for the radical reconstruction of identity that Fusion politics opened up, it also led to the fall of Fusionist political unity. What I’m trying to express here is that while Reconstruction made possible the kinds of new social organization that made way for Fusionist politics to take place, its operation primarily at the federal and structural level left space at the cultural and social level for white supremacy to revive after a few short years of real Fusionist potential. This leads me to wonder what a dual approach, one that is both structural and cultural, might look like as a Fusionist future. Thinking with the term repair—a term that I use to encompass reparations, rematriation, repatriation, and other terms that seek to redress histories of white supremacist violence and harm toward Black, Indigenous, and People of Color families, communities, and life—is useful here. While this is not an arrival at a simple answer, perhaps thinking with repair as a project invested in using the past as a road toward the future can be a kind of departure/beginning. Looking quite tangibly at the role of white women before me (in and outside of my own biological and material inheritance lines) how might I reframe my own innocence into a kind of repair that is accountable to their gendered violence? In recognizing that they paved the way for my body to be imagined as innocent within a matrix of anti-Black and anti-indigenous violence, how might I reconstruct my identity to embody repair as my gender? While I have no exact answers to this, I move from the hope that Fusion party politics birthed and move toward repair as a way to reroot/reroute toward Fusionist futures.