The dangerous myth of a singular, unified, white American South

The South is more complicated than we let ourselves imagine.
The South is more complicated than we let ourselves imagine.
Image: AP Photo/Gerald Herbert
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One-hundred and fifty years after the end of the Civil War, the thirst for an alternate version of Southern history in the US remains unquenchable. The Confederate flag endures as a symptom of the deeper cancer of racism, eating into the bone of the nation. And now a distinguished team of HBO showrunners, no doubt keen to appeal to the Trumpian electorate, is creating a show set in the alt-right South—in which the Confederacy’s secession was triumphant, and slavery is still legal. The planned show, “Confederate,” will purportedly depict the road to the “Third American Civil War.”

HBO seems to believe that there is something edgy in the idea of “Confederate.” But there is also considerable perversity inherent in our willingness to let this question to be asked, over and over again. Kevin Wilmont’s 2005 mockumentary, C.S.A, tried to imagine what life might be like in a more contemporary slaveholding Confederacy. Ben Winter’s recent book, Underground Airlines, did so with an even greater degree of cleverness, following the arc of a slave-turned-slavecatcher in an alternative present. HBO’s “Confederate” also dates back to the much-earlier imaginings of Winston Churchill and MacKinlay Cantor and Harry Turtledove—revealing a century-long catalog of attempts to answer the question, What if the South had won the Civil War?

The answer, however, is always the same: Slavery survives, adapts, and spreads, in a plot that seems designed chiefly to let white people imagine what it would be like to own slaves and revel in white supremacy in the contemporary world. As Roxanne Gay put it in a recent New York Times op-ed, it is utterly exhausting to consider fiction’s repetitive desire to resurrect slavery and keep it alive. Why not, she writes, imagine a South where slave rebellions were triumphant? Or dream up a more robust, more introspective, multi-racial liberal democracy, built on top of the ashes of white supremacy?

The answer has everything to do with how American political and popular culture is haunted by the Civil War—and by the more foundational, mythical idea of a singular, unified South. In many ways, the Confederacy still appears to be present, real, and dangerous. This is in part because that once-troublesome block of states is still troublesome in the same ways. But it is also because we routinely use an antiquated definition of the region.

When the media invokes the South, typically, it seems to be referring to white people on the political right—imagining a geographical region matching up to the borders of the former Confederacy, free of the demographic complexities of modern America. In this David Brooks-style vision of red states and blue states, the very notion of “the South” is always conservative, always nostalgic, and always looking backward toward what was presumed to be a better day.

The GOP generally idealizes a certain kind of South as a bastion of conservative tradition. But so, too, do the creators of Talladega Nights, a film that parodies our fixation with stock car racing and machismo, linking both to a deeper, presumably Southern history of anti-statist bootlegging and gun-running. The South, as a retrograde concept, is a useful recruiting tool for voters alienated by immigration, globalization, and even feminism. But it is also a helpful foil for proponents of the North—for expansive articulations of liberal democracy that seem, common stereotype dictates, to have taken deeper root outside of the region.

In reality, the South is a dazzlingly diverse, politically complicated, difficult-to-define place. Social movements mobilize against it—or on behalf of it. White men move to protect monuments devoted to the South, but black women also scale flagpoles to remove its visual signifiers. The region has changed hands as an imperial territory more than any other section of the continent, moving from French and Spanish territories into the Anglophone commonwealth. It has an extraordinary history dating back centuries before European conquest, not easily centered on whites. And it currently features big-shouldered global cities, like Atlanta and Houston, that are as diverse as any other in the nation, and which now dominate our representations of race and blackness in particular. When Reniqua Allen, writing in the New York Times, considered leaving the supposed cosmopolitanism of New York City for Atlanta, it was this diversity – along with the lower cost of housing and a more serious chance for socio-economic advancement – that drew her to consider a new home in the South. One has to squint, turn sideways, and make a wish to look at the region and see it as a white bulwark against modernity.

Scholars, for their part, long ago jettisoned the notion of a singular South defined as white and bounded by the borders of the Confederacy. New Southern Studies scholars have shown that the 19th and 20th-century South was as tightly connected to the Caribbean as it was to the rest of the republic, and that the history of Jim Crow is but a chapter in the history of white world supremacy—linked to apartheid in South Africa, to skin-color stratification in Brazil, and to colonialisms in every corner of the globe. They’ve shown that despite its geographical core, the idea of the South defies location. It moves and spreads, goes underground and then resurfaces.

Confederate flags fly in Ohio and Detroit. BBQ and bourbon are global exports. And the work of Southern writers and filmmakers resonates abroad, and draws deeply, as well, from the world. Perhaps most importantly, the region’s history is neither exclusively white nor fixed to a single block of states – even if many white people might desperately wish for it to be so. Tellingly, the new collection of essays Keywords for Southern Studies, edited by Scott Romine and Jennifer Rae Greeson, expands beyond the Mason-Dixie line with work devoted to “Haiti,” “Tropics,” “America,” “Global South,” and “Black Atlantic.” These places are far from the “moonlight and magnolias” dreamscape of Gone with the Wind. Academics are shedding light on the Asian and Latino populations who also shaped the 19th and 20th century Southern states. And even the idea that “race-relations” in the pre-Civil Rights movement South refers to the struggles of African Americans has been revised by new histories, like that of Monica Muñoz Martinez, which show that lynching was used to police both black and brown communities in the first half of the twentieth century.

This more accurate, more complicated history isn’t hard to find. This knowledge isn’t hidden away in a vault in the desert; it is at the library, and has been for years. Consider the history of Lowndes County, Alabama. It is home to the Lowndes County Freedom Organization—more popularly known as the Black Panther Party, founded by the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in 1965, as Hasan Kwame Jeffries chronicles this history in his 2010 award-winning book, Bloody Lowndes. Lowndes also played a critical role in the history of the Great Depression, when African American sharecroppers joined a union aligned with the Communist Party of the United States – the most aggressive champion of civil rights in the 1930s – and organized collectively for better, fairer wages and more decent treatment by the state. That history, dramatically captured in Robin D.G. Kelley’s 1990 classic, Hammer and Hoe, literally set the stage for the organizing struggles of the 1950s and 1960s. Reading these books and many others, one could tell the history of radical movements in the United States by focusing only on Lowndes County.

Lowndes County, too, is the South – which means that it represents a Southern political tradition worth centering in our national narratives about the region. Indeed, it is interesting to note, in this presumably populist moment, that the Alabama sharecroppers might represent a more useful, more constructive politics for the working poor than the relatively centrist five-point agenda being rolled out by the Democratic Party. We might also wonder whether the community-based anti-poverty and public health campaigns of the Black Panthers might represent the kind of Southern history we should be recovering in our policy prescriptions – and memorializing in marble.

Of course, there is some truth to broader characterizations of the South. There is a striking correlation between the partisan tendencies of the states of the former Confederacy and the red-state, GOP-dominated region that runs from Texas to Virginia. One can track today’s issues concerning unfair labor conditions for immigrant workers back to emancipation; the punitive Black Codes enacted in the deep South immediately after slavery; and World War II-era bracero program, which brought Mexican laborers to the US. Or one can simply show how clearly and powerfully the thought of “the South” influences the white men who serve overwhelmingly as governors, senators, and congressmen in red states. Historian Nancy MacLean did this recently with Democracy in Chains, a galvanizing narrative history of conservative economic thought and anti-democracy that draws a red line from the pro-slavery South Carolinian John C. Calhoun to the present-day Koch brothers.

An honest narrative about the region would look closely at the 1950s and the 1960s, at the return of the Confederate flag – the so-called “stars and bars,” with its own tawdry history – and find the beginnings of our modern political polarization. It would see, in the GOP’s effort to limit or even revoke the franchise of minority voters, a denial of representation—both literal and symbolic—with deep ties to a slaveholding past.

There’s nothing wrong with writing about the South, or making movies and TV shows about it. The danger lies in presenting to the world an over-simplified, short-sighted vision of the South and its history, in which white men operate at its center. This isn’t a daring experiment; it is a wish for a different present. It breathes life back into the Confederacy of 1861 and spotlights the region that championed chattel slavery and rendered non-white bodies as inhuman. It eclipses the historic diversity of the region, then and now. It limits what we can say and think about the South today. It lends strength to a political separatism that has real consequences, right now, for ordinary people. And it naturalizes the notion that the South has always been, and will always be, led by white men.

For too long, the South treated non-white people as undeserving of political voice or representation. We cannot afford to repeat that pattern in the way we talk about the South today.