In a word, yes. Governor Ralph Northam is reportedly reading Alex Haley’s Roots, as well as Ta-Neheisi Coates. That’s fine, but if the governor asked me I would suggest he take a look at Nell Irvin Painter’s The History of White People, Bernard Bailyn’s The Barbarous Years, subtitled The Peopling of British North America: The Conflict of Civilizations, 1600-1675, Nancy Isenberg’s White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America, David Hackett Fischer’s Albion’s Seed, William Freehling’s Road to Disunion (in two volumes, Secessionists At Bay, 1776-1854 and Secessionists Triumphant, 1854-1861), David Blight’s Race and Reunion: The Civil War In American Memory, Rhys Isaac’s The Transformation of Virginia, 1740-1790, and maybe even the works of George Fitzhugh, defender of slavery for whites as well as blacks (Cannibals All and Sociology For The South). If he can read these, or even any two of them, while performing the basic functions of governing, more power to him. Then if he has the energy, he could certainly look at The Norton Anthology of African-American Literature, including Henry Louis Gates’s preface, “Talking Books.”
I do not need to see Governor Northam’s face on TV doing a “listening tour.” May I suggest that he do a speaking tour, when he is ready to enlighten us on his journey to wokeness. He need not impose any additional burdens on the inhabitants of Virginia or the rest of the United States. We do not need to work to teach him anything. He is term-limited as governor and is perhaps already a very lame duck, but he ought to think about studying and learning before he “listens” to anybody on camera. If he truly believes that his vocation as a doctor gives him a knack for healing, that’s the least he can do. If he comes up with a policy agenda that promotes racial “equity,” that would be great too.
Here’s something that Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton, and probably Ralph Northam have in common: the Dunning thesis, which viewed Reconstruction as a disaster precisely because freedmen were unready for participation in American democracy. W.E.B. DuBois, in his 1935 book, Black Reconstruction in America, 1860-1880, described Dunning as “less dogmatic” and more “judicious” than some of his reactionary and white supremacist academic colleagues at Johns Hopkins and Columbia and elsewhere, but DuBois levelled sharp criticism of the “Columbia school” for its “endless sympathy with the white South…ridicule, contempt or silence for the Negro,” and its conclusion that the North did a “grievous wrong” by promoting black suffrage. During the 2016 campaign, both Trump and Clinton showed that they had likely absorbed this version of Reconstruction in high school history and never questioned it. I imagine the same might well be true of Northam. And I think that while we could argue over whether Northam made a faux pas by speaking of “indentured servants” at Old Point Comfort, Virginia in 1619, the destructive effect of uncritical absorption of the Dunning thesis on Reconstruction is likely a worse trap. The civil rights era of the 1950s and 1960s was a Second Reconstruction, and we are on the cusp if not in the midst of a Third, with all of the accompanying conflicts and bad conscience and awkwardness. Ralph Northam, whether he stays in his office or not, is just a small piece of the puzzle.