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The Irony in the ‘Rich Men North of Richmond’

You may have heard about Oliver Anthony, a Virginia-based folk singer who has become a conservative folk hero on account of his populist anthem, “Rich Men North of Richmond.”

But Anthony’s populism is, as Eric Levitz details for New York magazine, decidedly right-wing.

I don’t have any particular interest in either Anthony or the song in question (although Levitz’s piece is good and you should read it). But as an almost lifelong Virginian myself, I do think it is interesting that this musical spokesman for conservative populism comes from Farmville, Va. — a town of historical significance in the fight for civil rights — which is a little more than an hour west of Petersburg, once the political home of the “Readjuster” movement of the late 19th century.

One of the most common misconceptions about Jim Crow is that it came directly out of the defeat of Reconstruction. But Jim Crow — a system of white supremacist class rule — wasn’t a response to Reconstruction as much as it was a response to the aftermath of Reconstruction, when biracial coalitions of laboring men and their allies continued to vie for power and influence throughout the states of the former Confederacy.

In Virginia, this took the form of the Readjuster movement, named for its call to partially repudiate, or “readjust,” the state’s debt in order to maintain the social services, and, crucially, the public schools, that conservative elites hoped to dismantle in the name of “economy, retrenchment and self sacrifice.”

An independent coalition of (mostly) Black Republicans and white Democrats led by the former Confederate general and railroad magnate William Mahone, the Readjusters governed Virginia from 1879 to 1883, electing most of the state’s legislature as well as a majority of its delegation to Congress. The Readjusters were, the historian Jane Dailey writes in “Before Jim Crow: The Politics of Race in Postemancipation Virginia,” “the most successful interracial political alliance in the postemancipation South.”

With their support for policies that favored debtors over creditors and working men over the wealthy, the Readjusters and other similar independent parties represented an effort to find threads of “common interest that emphasized class status and civil rights and downplayed race.”

As fraught and tenuous as it was, the Readjuster movement still represents a moment of possibility in the history of the American South — one that would be eclipsed by a relentless “counterrevolution of property” that, in its success, cemented relations of domination, across lines of race and class, for most of the next century.

Compared with some of the signature moments of Virginia history — whether the settlement of Jamestown or Bacon’s Rebellion or the Battle of Yorktown or the surrender at Appomattox — the rise and fall of the Readjusters is obscure, if not outright unknown to everyone other than those with a serious interest in the American past.

For my part, I can’t help but think there’s something ironic about the fact that, despite sitting close to this history, the latest populist voice to come out of the commonwealth has chosen, in the end, to give comfort to those with the boot on his neck and scorn to those who might try to help lift it.


What I Wrote

My Tuesday column was on the anti-democracy inclinations of the anti-abortion movement.

My Friday column was on the past and present Rudy Giuliani.

Elsewhere, I joined my friend Amanda Smith on the Disaster Girls podcast to talk about the 2003 film “The Core.” And on the latest episode of my podcast with John Ganz, we discussed the 1995 crime thriller “Dead Presidents,” directed by the Hughes brothers.


Now Reading

Justin Chang on Christopher Nolan’s “Oppenheimer” for the Los Angeles Times. (I don’t normally comment on the material in this section of the newsletter but I think this is the best piece yet on the film.)

Colin Bradley on John Rawls’s critique of capitalism for Aeon.

Jane Hu on “Barbie” for Dissent.

Grace Lavery on women and gender for The Los Angeles Review of Books.

David Scott on C.L.R. James for Boston Review.


Photo of the Week

Credit…Jamelle Bouie

I was biking around town just to pass the time and I saw this orange couch against a bright green background. I snapped a picture and here is the result. I like it!


Now Eating: Brownies with Rye Flour

Credit…Jamelle Bouie

I made with these my five-year-old Friday afternoon — it was a mostly-successful lesson in cracking eggs and learning some addition, subtraction and fractions — and they came out beautifully, as you can see from the picture above. As always with brownies, be sure to use the highest quality chocolate and cocoa powder you can get your hands on — it makes all the difference. Recipe from New York Times Cooking.

Ingredients

  • 11 tablespoons/156 grams unsalted butter, cut into ½-inch cubes, more for greasing pan

  • 10 ½ ounces/300 grams bittersweet chocolate (60 to 70 percent cocoa), chopped

  • 1 ½ cups/200 grams whole grain rye flour

  • ½ cup/50 grams unsweetened Dutch-process cocoa powder

  • ½ teaspoon/3 grams baking powder

  • 1 teaspoon/5 grams fine sea salt

  • 4 large eggs

  • 1 cup/200 grams granulated sugar

  • 1 cup/200 grams light brown sugar

  • 1 tablespoon/15 milliliters vanilla extract

  • 1 teaspoon/5 grams flaky sea salt, such as Maldon, for sprinkling on top

Directions

Heat oven to 350 degrees. Butter a 9-by-13-inch baking pan.

Using a double boiler, or in a metal bowl set over a saucepan containing an inch of simmering water (do not let bottom of bowl touch the water), melt the butter and chocolate, stirring with a heatproof rubber spatula. Let cool.

In a separate bowl, whisk together rye flour, cocoa, baking powder and sea salt.

Using an electric mixer, beat eggs, granulated and brown sugars and vanilla until light and fluffy, about 2 minutes. Beat in melted chocolate mixture until smooth. Beat in flour mixture.

Pour batter into prepared pan and smooth the top. Sprinkle lightly with flaky salt and bake until brownies are mostly firm, but with a very slight wobble in the center, about 25 minutes.

Let cool completely before cutting into squares. Eat with ice cream or, as I did, with a nice petite syrah.

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