Review of Lalita Tamedy’s Red River and a History Lesson on the Difference between a Riot and a Massacre

Reconstruction has always been an era in U.S. History that has intrigued me the most. For a period to have held the most promise for the United States to work towards living up to the principles and ideologies espoused by its early designers, it is also the darkest period in U.S. history which is given the least amount of time for analysis in most U.S. schools. I speak from experience, for it was the smallest chapter in my 11th grade U.S. History textbook and was conveniently skipped by my much esteemed U.S. History teacher who confidently told me that I wouldn’t amount to much 😉

Since I learned about it in college, I continue to devour any additional information I can obtain on the subject whether it’s held in a textbook, historical novel, film, or piece of art.

I was first introduced to Lalita Tamedy through Cane River, her first breakthrough novel published almost twenty years ago. She held a pretty successful career in corporate America but left it to pursue a literary career writing historical fiction. Cane River primarily was based upon a story of the different generations of the women in her family in antebellum Louisiana. This breakthrough novel had many of us, including myself, rummaging through my family’s old photographs and documents to reconstruct my own history. I started this blog decades after I first read it and I have to eventually write a review because it still remains my all time favorite book.

Red River picks up after Cane River in Louisiana during Reconstruction. Unlike Cane River, the men of her family are the primary subject of this story. The book begins when some of the men of Colfax decide to defend the local courthouse. Members of the Lost Cause have refused to acknowledge recent election results in which Freedmen were able to cast their ballot for the first time. The men of the town have decided to force open the doors of the courthouse and defend their newly elected sheriff who just so happens to be a carpetbagger with little to no roots in Louisiana. It is clear throughout the entire novel, that their willingness to risk their life is not on behalf of the new sheriff but for the defense of their rights as American citizens and as men, and their children’s dreams.

Harper’s Ferry 1867 publication. “The First Vote.”

They wait in vain for reinforcements from the federal government and although they put up a valiant effort, are soon defeated after white supremacists from outside towns and parishes with weaponry used in the Civil War force the men to surrender. The author’s great great grandfather participated in defending the courthouse and was able to get out alive. However, that was not the case for most. Those who surrendered were systematically tortured and murdered. According to Tamedy, over 150 African American men were killed for simply asserting their rights as American citizens. Prominent historian Eric Foner labeled this day “one of the most bloodiest acts of carnage” in Reconstruction.

The first half of the book details the massacre and Tamdey’s ability to wisk you away to that night amid the same emotions that permeated the air in 1873 is noteworthy. I literally couldn’t put the book down and I loved that as I read I could feel the fear, resolve, helplessness, and hopefulness the men experienced at the court house. I also enjoyed her window into the emotions the women felt, for it reminds her readers that the defense of this courthouse was based on the courage of both the men and women of the town. Unfortunately, it took me a while to finish the second half where she detailed the life of her great grandfather’s children. Their fight to build a school and assume their positions as leaders in the community among stories of who married whom was hard to maintain my interests after the massacre and it felt at one point like the story was dragging.

However, I will say that this book is worth a read. It taught me the difference between a massacre and a riot. Although these men valiantly fought back, the level of unjust and unwarranted cruelty exemplified by the white supremacists of Louisiana can not be defined but as a massacre. It has led me to start reevaluating how I will refer to late 19th and 20th century race riots this coming school year. The sign below is the only marker that exists today where the newly freedmen of Colfax chose to sacrifice everything for their constitutional rights. Their story incenses me today when I hear Trump supporters attempt to define what patriotism looks like and who can only be labeled as true patriots. The “150 Negroes” who died in Colfax on Easter Sunday 1873 are the prototype of true patriots.

This marker is a disgrace. There is no mention of the bravery of the 150 “Negroes” referenced in the sign or their cause.