White supremacy is a global export of the Confederate South

Out of sight does not mean out of mind.
Out of sight does not mean out of mind.
Image: AP Photo/Scott Threlkeld
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On Friday, the city of New Orleans dismantled a statue of Gen. Robert E. Lee—a symbol of the Confederacy that had loomed over the city since 1884, and a direct link to the South’s dark past. The removal completed the city’s controversial decision to take down four monuments commemorating the rise and fall of the Confederacy, including statues of Jefferson Davis, its former president, and Gen. P.G.T. Beauregard, as well as a monument representing the Battle of Liberty Place.

“These monuments celebrate a fictional, sanitized Confederacy; ignoring the death, ignoring the enslavement, ignoring the terror that it actually stood for,” New Orleans mayor Mitch Landrieu said in a speech Friday.

But what is the right way to deal with the legacy of white supremacy? Some argue that physical monuments glorify the Confederacy and the white supremacist, pro-slavery ideology it stood for. Other protesters decry the erasure of “Southern heritage,” thereby conveniently divorcing the Confederacy from the racism at its core. And somewhere in the middle are those who understand the troubling narrative that these statues evoke, but argue that their presence is necessary because they remind us of the nation’s horrible past. Regardless of one’s personal views, one thing is clear: It will take more than removing these four monuments from the physical landscape for New Orleans to effectively deal with white supremacy. When it comes to Southern history, out of sight does not mean out of mind.

Consider the material history of the Confederacy, and the antebellum South it so vehemently fought to preserve. Confederates wanted to keep alive the fiction of a bucolic plantation filled with happy, singing, childlike slaves, who formed “intimate” bonds with their supposedly benevolent masters. This false nostalgia persisted long after the end of the Civil War, not only in monuments to Confederate leaders but in the popularity of movies like Gone with the Wind and in consumer products like the mammy-esque Aunt Jemima pancake syrup and Uncle Ben’s rice. In other words, the white supremacist legacy of slavery and the Confederacy is not rooted in any one geographical place; it is not confined to the South, or even to the US for that matter. White supremacy travels; it has always been a global political project.

A case in point is Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, originally published in 1852 as a novel. It has since undergone countless revisions, moving between the written page, the screen, the stage, and through material objects like handkerchiefs and dolls (for a comprehensive overview of Uncle Tom’s Cabin in its many forms, go here).

Before and during the Civil War, the book was widely viewed as an abolitionist text because of its depiction of the violence of slavery. But afterward, it was criticized for presenting the Southern plantation as an idyllic setting, in which docile slaves were faithful to their owners even in the face of extreme brutality. As Robin Bernstein, Jo-Ann Morgan and others have argued, Stowe’s narrative was politically elastic, taking on new meaning as it traveled between various media. For example, the middle aged, muscular Uncle Tom of the novel became the elderly Uncle Tom on stage, reinforcing the docile slave archetype that was an essential ingredient in the nostalgia for the antebellum South.

Uncle Tom’s Cabin meaning also changed as it was circulated outside the U.S. Scholars like Sarah Meer have examined the transatlantic movement of Stowe’s text to Great Britain. There was also a transpacific movement of stage productions (known as Tom Shows) to Australia. Tom Shows were wildly popular in Australia from the mid-19th century into and beyond the mid 20th century, with Australians frequently putting on their own amateur shows after seeing professional American troupes perform this well-known tale. Uncle Tom’s Cabin was right at home in this context because it expressed a white supremacy that Australians knew all too well, albeit in a different form.

One example of this is the “White Australia Policy,” a series of measures unofficially beginning in the 1850s that were created to keep Australia white, and revolved around anti-Aboriginal and anti-Asian sentiments. It should come as no surprise, then, that in Australian productions of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Aboriginal actors sometimes played the titular role, thus demonstrating the racialization of Aborigines as black. The logic of white supremacy offered by Stowe’s tale in other words could easily envelop Aboriginal bodies. Thus, the movement of Uncle Tom’s Cabin to Australia puts in sharp focus how the white supremacy at the center of its nostalgic depiction of the antebellum South transcended the limits of geography.

The space that Jefferson Davis and Robert E. Lee haunt, therefore, goes far beyond their statues or the New Orleans streets that still bear the names of Confederate leaders. Representations of the Confederacy are part of a long genealogy of American visual and material culture that romanticized the antebellum South and circulated outside the U.S.

As city workers removed the statue of Davis on May 11, a chant filled the air: “White supremacy’s got to go.” But white supremacy is not going anywhere until we recognize that what the Confederacy stood for was bigger than the Old South—and begin to dismantle white supremacy on a global scale.