This is another unpublished essay that I thought needed to see the light of day, rather than be hidden away on my hard drive. It’s not about religion in the institutional sense, but about various aspects of Southern identity, which tends to function as a civic religion anyway. This essay goes with my previous posts on Southern Agrarianism and racism, but tackles the issue from a more personal perspective and includes a few suggestions for future action.
There are certain episodes in life that make a decisive mark on one’s intellectual and political formation. One such episode occurred when I was a senior at a very small K-12 private school where the high school division never had more than twenty-five people at any given time. The school’s pedagogy was progressive, but the student body was not. In an apparent nod to the open schools concept of the 1970s, all twenty odd of us were stuck in a single room for seven hours, with the different age groups breaking into smaller groups overseen by teachers. Despite the lack of walls or even curtains separating one class from another, we were all supposed to act like we didn’t hear what was happening elsewhere in the room. I was the only black person in the class, but I was so used to being the only minority in a sea of Caucasians that it generally wasn’t something I thought about. On the occasion in question, however, I was acutely aware of my difference, not just in terms of melanin content, but in term of how I interpreted our communal history.
On the occasion in question, I was sitting alone at a table working on math, while the tenth and eleventh graders gathered in a corner of the room’s common area to examine The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. At some point the discussion veered away from the book, and the students began talking about the social pathologies of modern blacks, such as why they were arrested more often than whites (they concluded that it was because whites knew how to hide their crimes better). I was sorely tempted to inform them that they were hardly exemplars of intellectual curiosity or morality, but I remained silent, focusing on my parabolas and dreaming of the day when I could be liberated from their oppressive prescence. However, I felt compelled to respond when a certain male student issued a blanket condemnation of the City of Atlanta, how every street was either named after Martin Luther King, Jr. or Peachtree, how every time “those people” advanced he became disadvantaged, and how celebrating the history of “those people” meant denigrating those of his ancestors. To quote the late Leanita McClain, “It’s the article that offends.” Or in this case, it was the demonstrative pronoun that was offensive. Abandoning my work, I unleashed my frustrations on students and teachers alike, expressing my outrage at how they denigrated my racial cohort right in front of me, while expecting me to just take it in silence. Unimpressed, the teachers asked me to leave the classroom, until my tone became more acceptable to them. In that moment, I wasn’t a fellow colleague in the learning process, one with legitimate interest in not being imprisoned in a racially hostile workplace, I was just another uppity Negress, one who in a less enlightened age might have found myself on the business end of a noose for daring to contradict my white overlords.
Reflecting on this incident thirteen years later, I think that at least one part of that young man’s statement was and is true; white Southern identity as defined by the Lost Cause mythology that prevailed for most of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, is incompatible with the black history narrative that emerged during the Civil Rights Movement. It is impossible to assert that white Southerners were engaged in a noble struggle to protect their way of life – which just happened to include owning other human beings – while simultaneously believing that slavery and the subsequent Jim Crow regime were great moral evils, at least not without suffering from a severe case of cognitive dissonance. The Lost Cause ideology asserts that black people have no inner lives to speak of, no families, children, hobbies, or motivations that would mark them as unique individuals. They are a “peculiar people,” whose skin color marks them off as lesser beings destined to be in a state of perpetual servitude, whether of the formal variety during the antebellum period or in the debased semi-indentured variety of the Jim Crow era. When black people do take charge of their own lives, as was the case during Reconstruction, the result is disastrous for blacks and whites alike, and the latter must take it upon themselves to put them back in their proper place, whether through the political process or through the mobilization of extralegal violence (e.g., the Ku Klux Klan). Thus, being a black Southerner under the Lost Cause ideology can only be defined by whites, which invariably reduces blacks to the ways in which they affect white interests; “good Negroes” willingly and joyfully acquiesce to white supremacy, whereas “uppity Negroes” must be taught to submit to their racial betters.
Not only did white Southerners control what it meant to be “a Negro,” they also closely policed the boundaries of their own identity. Despite the lip-service paid to reconciliation between Northern and Southern whites after the Civil War, Southern whites continued to view Northern transplants to their region as invaders and carpetbaggers, an opinion that is still not uncommon today. One was a Southerner because he or she was the descendent of people who found and died in the service of the Confederate nation during the Civil War, which gave them a personal stake in maintaining and promoting the cult of the Lost Cause; simply being born in the geographical boundaries of the Old Confederacy with the correct level of skin pigmentation was insufficient for admission to the white Southerner club. The semi-feudal nature of the South discouraged the kind of large-scale immigration that brought Catholics and Jews to industrial cities in the North and Midwest, causing Southern identity to take on an exclusionary, almost hereditary character. The trial and lynching of Leo Frank was a dramatic illustration, not just of the inability for the white Southern consciousness to accommodate individuals from other backgrounds, but how suspicion of modernity (as represented by how the public associated Frank with the triple threats of capitalism, the industrial North, and Jewish immigration) became a principle worth dying or killing for. This restricted definition of Southern identity bound whites and blacks together in a complicated web of love, hatred, suspicion, and kinship not unlike the dynamics of a religious cult or dysfunctional family, where newcomers are viewed with suspicion and those who are on the inside are forbidden not just from leaving, but imagining that life could be any different than the abusive status quo.
However, the Lost Cause ideology could not have had retained the hold that it did over the American imagination if it had been confined to embittered Southern whites. The popularity of Birth of a Nation, Gone With the Wind, the Shirley Temple plantation movie franchise, the myth of Aunt Jemima, and the confounding survival of blackface minstrel shows illustrates that the Lost Cause was a nationwide obsession during the first half of the twentieth century. When blacks started to leave the South during the Great Migration, “the Negro Problem” invariably followed, causing whites in other parts of the United States to conclude that the white supremacist narrative that lay at the heart of the Lost Cause was essentially correct, even if the Confederacy was wrong for trying to secede from the Union. Whites from the more industrialized parts of the United States, anxious about immigration, labor unrest, and urban decay, looked to a mythical “Dixie” as a romantic, agrarian paradise, untroubled by the ills of modernity where the living was easy and everybody knew his place.
It was precisely because the Southern version of the Civil War was so dominant in American culture that the eruption of the Civil Rights Movement in the mid-1950s took most whites by surprise. Despite small victories against the Jim Crow regime – the desegregation of the armed forces in 1948, sporadic boycotts and protests against segregated facilities, court cases that challenged institutionalized racism like Morgan v. Virginia – that punctuated the immediate post-war years, the general assumption was that the Jim Crow status quo was solid, and would continue into the foreseeable future, world without end. Southern whites tried to speak for blacks once again by claiming that “their Negroes” were content with their subservient position in society, and any claims to the contrary must be from the usual group of outside agitators who had been trying to undermine traditional Southern values since antebellum times. However, when thousands of blacks began to take to the streets across the South, it became obvious that white Southerners knew very little about “their Negroes,” other than the stereotypes they had been projecting upon them since the antebellum period.
Despite the principled non-violence that characterized the vast majority of civil rights activities, Southern whites of the 1950s and 1960s felt like they were victims of a second “War of Northern Aggression,” especially when the National Guard was called out to forcibly integrate Central High in Little Rock, Arkansas. In Mississippi, the fear of losing the “Southern way of life” (i.e., white supremacy) was so acute that an entire shadow government, the Mississippi Sovereignty Committee, was created to fight against the Civil Rights Movement, an odd decision given that this state never seemed to have money to invest in infrastructure, education, or healthcare. The conservative establishment of the time was unambiguously against the idea of social and political equality for blacks, from mainstream figures like Ronald Reagan and William F. Buckley to the John Birchers on the fringe. Even today, it’s not hard to find conservative whites who are not only sympathetic to the Jim Crow South, but consider the Civil Rights Movement to be the beginning of the twilight of American culture, like abortion never would have been legalized if only those darkies had just been content to stay in the back of the bus.
If I could talk to that now grown male student from high school, I would press him on what he thinks the Confederate flag represents. The South’s resistance to the federal government? The fact that the Jim Crow regime was able to keep blacks in a debased state for more than two hundred years under the dubious rationale of “states’ rights”? The high rates of teen pregnancy, obesity, smoking, and child poverty found in the states of the Old Confederacy? The region’s heroic battle against evolution? I would tell him that if this is what he considers to be his heritage, then he has nothing to be proud of. The “Southern way of life,” as characterized by agrarianism, anti-modernism bordering on Ludditism, anti-intellectualism, poverty, and an obsession with racial classification and stratification, isn’t sustainable in the twenty-first century and hasn’t been for more than two hundred years. The plantation economic model, which requires keeping millions of people, permanently shackled to the land in perpetual poverty was already obsolete at the turn of the eighteenth century, yet white Southern elites, both during the antebellum period and the subsequent Jim Crow regime, have been hellbent on keeping the region permanently underdeveloped. The economy of the twenty-first century doesn’t need gentleman farmers or inter-changeable pseudo-peasants so beloved of the Southern Agrarians, but an educated, cosmopolitan workforce with the ability to think critically and creatively.
While it is doubtful that the true believers in the Lost Cause will abandon their religion, the demographic shifts that are “browning” the United States means that the number of people who hinge their identity on the Lost Cause will steadily diminish. This de-Confederatization process began during the late 1960s, and will only become more urgent as the South continues its inevitable “brown-ward” march. The upshot of the decline of the Lost Cause is that Southern whites will finally be liberated from a flawed viewed of history that encouraged a pathological fear of change and modernity. Rather than waste time building a Southern identity based around the trivial (i.e., NASCAR), the blatantly offensive (i.e., the Confederate flag), or the self-destructive (i.e., anti-intellectualism), Southern whites must come to terms with the past they’ve worked so hard to sugarcoat and attempt to find common ground, not only with the blacks they tried so hard to disenfranchise, but with the increasingly diverse groups of people who have decided to make the South their homes. Although there was a major push at national reunification (at least, between whites) after the Civil War, no such effort accompanied the Civil Rights Movement. What the United States needed after the end of the Civil Rights era was a Truth and Reconciliation Committee like post-apartheid South Africa, rather than fifty years of dog whistle politics. The collective task for Americans in general and Southerners in particular in the twenty-first century will be to redefine American identity in such a way that no one ethnic group is considered to be the default race. One reason why racial progress is so elusive in the United States is because politics is viewed as a zero-sum game; if a piece of legislation or social program benefits blacks, then many whites feel that they will be harmed. The idea that something could help all Americans, regardless of race, doesn’t seem to factor into the decision-making process of many Southern white conservatives.
Fortunately, societies can and do change rapidly if the people who belong to the culture in question decide that transformation is necessary, the most dramatic examples in recent memory being the transformation of fascist Japan into an pacifistic economic power or Quebec’s “Quiet Revolution” that turned a theocratic backwater into one of the the most diverse and secular regions in the Americas. The reinvention of the Wren’s House from Lost Cause shrine to a an innovative house museum dedicated to preserving the multiracial Southern literary and oral storytelling tradition is instructive in how Southern institutions can take a critical eye to the past to build an inclusive future. If Southern whites can let go of the allure of moonlight, magnolias, and white supremacy and join with blacks, Hispanics, and Asians in building the “New New South,” the lives they save may be their own.