Our Voices

RFKHR Book Club Hosts Dr. Peniel Joseph, Author of “The Third Reconstruction”

Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights’ virtual Book Club on July 18 focused on stories and storytelling – the stories that shape our understanding of the past and our hope for the future.

“The most powerful aspect of any society is storytelling,” said Dr. Peniel Joseph, historian, professor, and the recipient of RFKHR’s 2023 Book Award for his latest work, “The Third Reconstruction: America’s Struggle for Racial Justice in the Twenty-First Century.”

“American history is really about what stories we tell ourselves, to each other, about us,” he said. “That’s the story that is going to affect our institutions, and also the story that will affect your local church, your community center, your PTA.

Joseph added: “You can tell yourself a story about why you should hate trans women, why you should hate immigrants, why you should hate Black people…Or you can tell yourself a story about why diversity is good. Why equality – and equality of not just opportunity, but outcomes – and equity is good.”

Headlining the organization’s ninth Book Club, Dr. Joseph and moderator Fanta NGom, Senior Manager for the RFK Compass Investors Program, delved into key themes from “The Third Reconstruction” – including the lens through which we understand American history, the role of Black women in advancing intersectional justice, and the relationship between dignity and citizenship.

In his book, Joseph argues that the racial reckoning of 2020 marked the climax of a Third Reconstruction, comparable to the movements that arose after the Civil War and during the civil rights era.

Noting the common threads between earlier eras and this third reconstruction period, Joseph and NGom highlighted Black women as “co-architects of this reimagined American democracy” who have worked tirelessly to expand the definition of citizenship, dignity, and democracy. Referencing contemporary leaders such as Nikole Hannah-Jones, Stacey Abrams, and Vice President Kamala Harris, Joseph expounded on their impact.

“We’ve seen Black women at the forefront of American history in a way that we hadn’t previously…In a lot of ways, this third period is really extraordinary in the sense of seeing Black women so clear and visible.”

As the child of Haitian immigrants, Joseph’s interest in Black feminism and intersectionality began at a young age. He credits his mother as his first teacher and the first person to introduce him to the civil rights struggle. In graduate school, he went on to study the work of Maria Stewart, Ida B. Wells, and Frances Harper – intellectuals, philosophers, and leaders who shaped his approach to American history.

“Since 1865, we’ve had these two competing stories about American history,” Joseph said. “One is a reconstructionist vision of American history…It’s this idea of not just abolishing systems of punishment, but really investing in and creating systems that allow us to flourish.

The second, as Joseph described, is a racist redemptionist view that becomes institutionalized in policy and public education. Outlining the danger of this redemptionist ideology, Joseph presented an alternate path forward – a future that recognizes and honors all people.

“Dignity is the prerequisite to citizenship…Robert F. Kennedy understood this. Dignity is God-given, and citizenship is the external recognition of that dignity. Dignity is something that we are forced to recognize ourselves as individuals, and then we connect it to the collective by saying, ‘If I have human dignity, we all have human dignity.’”

“The key to this worldwide human rights movement is achieving Black dignity and citizenship.”