News & Views » David Walters

Go South, Young Man

Moving beyond myths and history


Foreigners don't always understand that the South begins with a capital "S.' Like the West of myth and legend, the American South is more than just a geographical location. It is a place with many meanings, and debate about its virtues and vices never seems to end. The northern and eastern parts of the USA can't claim such mythic dimensions. New England has many wonderful places (it's the part of the USA that feels most like my English home, with its rocky shores and coastal villages). Northern cities like Chicago rank among the world's most interesting urban centers, and smaller communities like Urbana-Champaign, meshed with the University of Illinois campus, espouse a blend of academic and civic character that is quintessentially American. But the West and the South are something else.

The American West is an amazing fabrication, one that has compelled generations to believe a lie, a false tale of bold pioneers and brave soldiers carving civilization from the wilderness despite the murderous depredations of the native savages. But we've known better now for 30 years, since Dee Brown's landmark book Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee was published in 1970. People all over the world have learned that Hollywood projected a travesty of the truth. Instead of bold cavaliers fighting heroically to tame the West, we now understand the latter decades of the 19th century as a period of calculated and cruel ethnic cleansing on the part of the American government, a process that tore apart and laid waste the indigenous cultures of the Indian tribes.

Equally emotive myths and warped histories define the South, and need to be treated with the same circumspection. Misconceptions seep through Southern culture like a miasma of mist through Spanish moss in a Savannah square, obscuring truths and fabricating seductive stories to take their place.

Beautiful Southern cities like Savannah and Charleston construct this mythology with their buildings, using details from different architectural periods to graft history onto a young country and disguise its raw origins. Similarly, various myths have been woven into received wisdom to obscure the historical fact that unified the South: racial identity seen through the lens of slavery. The moral repercussions of these tragic circumstances still ripple through contemporary society, for by historical standards the South is a young culture, and one that is still evolving.

Although southern states acted politically in unison to protect slavery during the drafting of the Constitution in the late 18th century, the cultural coherence that defines the South today can be traced back only to the 1830s and 40s, a couple decades before the Civil War cemented hostility to the North firmly in place. This recent past is one reason why the cultural wounds of a defeated population run so deep.

People don't like to let go of history, and that's a problem. In Northern Ireland today, annual Protestant celebrations to mark their victory over Catholic forces on the banks of the River Boyne in 1690 still provoke violence on both sides of the religious divide. Scottish nationalists still chafe under the memory of "Butcher" Cumberland's cruelty at the Battle of Culloden in 1746 where English troops routed the Scots and triggered the emigration of dispossessed Highlanders to America.

The antipathies of the two English civil wars, by contrast, are long forgotten, and few Britons rail at the unfairness of history when the perfidious French helped American "traitors" steal the colonies from the incompetent George III in 1776. English folk have moved on; after a while baring one's wounds in public becomes counterproductive. Making new histories is far better than rehashing old ones.

That's why recurring outbursts of misplaced Southern pride, replete with denials of history, and antagonism to people who move here from elsewhere in the USA are so depressing. There is so much to admire about the South, but clinging to the Confederacy and its symbols isn't one of them.

Like many people who end up in the South by pragmatic choice rather than specific intent, I grapple daily with the strangeness of my cultural context. I view with deep distaste its omnipresent religiosity, particularly when religion is disfigured into an instrument of hate, yet I will jump to the defense of Southern places I know and, in some ways, love. I feel aggrieved, for example, when people slander Arkansas on the basis of crude stereotypes, and proudly point out the sophistication I know exists in cities like Little Rock and Fayetteville. And I despair when Arkansans act in ways that reinforce those dismal stereotypes by acts of ignorance and bigotry.

I defend Charlotte, too. There is much about our city that deserves credit, but here too, we can be our own worst enemy. We, or our ancestors, all came here from somewhere else. Parochial defensiveness and brooding on the past brands us as losers. Let's shape tomorrow rather than wallow in yesterday.

Add a comment