“Picture perfect memories scattered all around the floor….” (“Need You Now” Lady Antebellum.)
The American South has colonized the imaginary landscape of popular culture. It is mythologized in literature, film, television, photography, music, art and the Southern tourism industry. Even though it is the primary region of demonization and scrutiny in the USA, the romantic conceptualization of the South renders many Americans starry eyed. The South occupies a paradoxical position because it is simultaneously a constituent and an antithesis of the rest of the nation. In Redneck Manifesto, Jim Goad describes the South as “America’s cultural nigger rendered in geographical terms” (qtd. in Gary and Robinson 335).
Stereotypical conceptions of the South as anti-reformation, anti-intellectual, and rooted in white supremacy and slavery are exemplified by the social subdivisions of the white-laced Southern belle and gentleman of the Old South, the submissive, master-loving, black slave and the Tobacco road hillbillies, crackers and rednecks of the benighted South (See Figure 2 and 3). Whether the South is portrayed as an agrarian utopia of Lost Causes or a subnormal dystopia of lynch mobs, the reality is that the real South exists somewhere in between. Misunderstanding, misrepresentation, mystification and a false nostalgia for Gone With the Wind-mythology, enhanced by the role of Hollywood, obscures American perceptions of the Old South and ‘Southerness’.
The South’s cultural peculiarity, however, is responsible for its attraction and aversion. William Faulkner epitomizes this either-or fallacy of the South because he is “locked in a love-hate struggle with his native region” (Cobb & Stueck 5). He resembles the ‘been-to’ figure of West African literature because of the division in his psyche that embodies an admiration of the West and an anxiety about the South’s cultural genocide by westernization (6).
In Reconstructing Dixie: Race, Gender and Nostalgia in the Imagined South, Tara McPherson metaphorically describes the South as a three-dimensional postcard in the national imagination. McPherson argues Americans utilize a “lenticular logic of racial visibility” to conceptualize the region. A “lenticular logic is,” McPherson states, “a monocular logic, a schema by which histories or images that are actually copresent get presented (structurally, ideologically) so that only one of the images can be seen at a time” (7).
McPherson’s use of the metaphor of the postcard, a symbol of tourism, to interpret America’s conceptualization of the South is pertinent considering “the re-romanticizing of the Old South by the tourist industry” (Wright & Glass 36). Rich Hall who dissects Hollywood’s portrayal of the South in the documentary, The Dirty South, says that the South has embraced this stereotypical image of itself. However, James Cobb warns, “this obsession with idiom and idiosyncrasy threatens to turn the South of popular perception into a home grown caricature of itself” (142-143).
The Southern tourism industry capitalizes on the South’s cultural exoticism. The Shack Up Inn and Cotton Gin Inn in Clarksdale, Mississippi is a tourist hotspot, which does more business than the local hotel industry. This is a prime example of the capitalization of culture. The website for this can be viewed here. As can be seen from Figure 1, the shotgun shack fulfils a blues pilgrim’s dream of Southern authenticity because it provides the full cultural experience with memorabilia, old photographs and moon pies.
On the other hand, some of the African American community condemns the glorification of the South by the tourism industry and the arts. This is evident from a recent blog post about the successful, country music group, Lady Antebellum (See Figure 2). The blog post can be viewed here. A music video of Lady Antebellum can be viewed and listened to here.
The name of the group, Lady Antebellum, originates from a photo shoot they did dressed in Civil War-era attire, which is an acknowledgment of the band’s Southern ancestry and an unconscious salute to the Old South. The “picture perfect memories”, mentioned in their song lyrics, become the memory of a picture-perfect Old South implied from their band name. The combination of the polite term for an aristocratic woman with the term to describe an era in the South prior to the Civil War evokes a Gone With the Wind mind-set towards racial inequality and oppression.
Tami Winfrey Harris, the author of the blog post who is African American, admits that “it is not the music; it’s the name” that chafes her. Harris claims the band’s name is an example of the glorification of “a culture that was based on the violent oppression of people of colour” (Ms. Blog n. pag.). Even though it is 150 years after the end of the Civil War and 50 years after the Civil Rights Act, the myth of the Old South is fresh in America’s collective unconscious.
Harris draws a comparison between contemporary society’s glorification of the Confederate’s cause, slave culture and the Antebellum south to the glorification of the Third Reich and the Nazi Party’s cause, which would not be socially acceptable, if not in fact criminal. Harris’s makes a valid point and this brings evokes the question: would society accept a band called Lady Third Reich? “No one thinks of the people,” Harris says, “who were denied their freedom and humanity so that the Southern economy could rise, and that all the Rhetts and Scarletts could sit in their fine houses, showing off their fancy clothes and manners” (Ms. Blog n. pag.).
This blog post not only reveals the socially acceptable commodification of Southern idealism through the use of a nomenclature in the music industry, but it also exposes the gaping, historical wound of racial oppression present in the collective psyche of African Americans that stings from the salt of Southern memoirists’ delusional nostalgia for a blissful Antebellum past in an amaranthine Old South.
Having considered both white and black Americans’ contemporary views of the South, it is also worth considering the South from an internal perspective. In Reconstructing Dixie, McPherson argues the nostalgic image of the Old South is unreal and that conceptualizations of the South are merely modern interpretations of Lost Cause ideologies. This framework of Lost Cause ideology is apparent in the South from what McPherson calls the “cyber-Confederacy”, which are a network of website constituting “a secessionist Dixie in cyberspace” (105). These websites include the Heritage Preservation Association, Dixie Net and the Confederate Network, which provide information about Civil War reanimations and they contain links to other websites that advocate southern secession and separatism.
Neo-Confederacy in the South, however, is not restricted to cyberspace, as can be seen from the well-established neo-Confederate groups in the South. With further web research, I discovered a website called Southern Poverty Law Centre (SPLC), with the title “Hatewatch: Keeping An Eye On the Racial Right”. The SPLC is a non-profit, civil rights organization whose motto is to fight hate, teach tolerance and seek justice while tracking and exposing hate groups. The website also contains a unique feature called a “Hate Map” that categories all the hate groups according to the quantity and geographical location in each state of America. However, the site also contains a “Stand Strong Against Hate” Map that allows users to add themselves to the map or report hate incidents in their state.
One of the posts I read on this site was by Heidi Beirich who discusses the Neo-Confederates march on Montgomery, Alabama, which can be read here. On 19th of February 2011, Sons of Confederate Veterans (SCV) held a march to honour the sesquicentennial, 150 anniversary of end of the Civil War, which demonstrates the strong presence of confederate nationalism in the South. Other neo-Confederate movements involved in this march include the League of the South who believe God ordained slavery and that the South should be an independent country governed by Anglo-Celts, and the Council of Conservative Citizens who support the white supremacist belief that “black people are ‘a retrograde species of humanity’”.
More information about the League of the South may be viewed here.
More information about the Council of Conservative Citizens may be viewed here.
The reason for these movements obsession with the confederacy is evident from their ideology. Neo-Confederate movements support white supremacy, separatism, political secession, and racial segregation. These ideologies stem from their view that the Confederate States of America were victimized by Lincoln’s tyrannical regime. They interpret the Civil War as a failed attempt at invasion by one country on another, which required them to fight for their independence. They believe the war was not about slavery and the Emancipation Proclamation was not responsible for freeing the slaves. Their self-delusion also extends to their denial of racism in the South, which they believe is more prevalent in the North.
Consequently, through this discussion of past and contemporary views of the American South from website and literature research, it is apparent that conceptualizations of the South exist on a continuum. The nostalgic, agrarian idyll of the Antebellum South, occupied by belles, gentlemen and master-loving slaves, exists on one end while the crackers, hillbillies and rednecks, exemplifying inbreeding, inverse evolution and retardation, of the Tobacco road South occupy the other side of the continuum. The real South, however, exists somewhere at the cross-section between these two stereotypical extremes. Regardless of this fact, contemporary society’s views of the South have not quite reached a middle ground between these two fallacies. This is partly due to Hollywood’s filmic portrayal of the South and ‘Southerness’ that taints public perceptions. The South cannot escape the stigma of the Civil War and Hollywood appears to be unwilling to let it. Consequently, these views of the South are also preserved by Southern society’s adoption of these stereotypes for cultural capitalization, as evident from the tourism industry, and those that hope “The South will rise again”.
Works Cited & Consulted
Bauer, Margaret D. “On Flags and Fraternities: Lessons in History in Charles Chestnutt’s Po’Sandy.” Eds. Susan Prothro Wright and Ernesthine Pickens Glass. Passing in the Works of Charles W. Chestnutt. Mississippi: UP of Mississippi, 2010. 23-39. Print.
Beirich, Heidi. “Defending the Antebellum South, Neo-Confederates to March on Montgomery, Ala., Saturday.” Southern Poverty Law Centre. 16. Feb. 2011. Web. 21 March 2011.
Cobb, James C., and William Whitney Stueck. Globalization and the American South. Athens: U of Georgia P, 2005. Print.
Cobb, James. Redefining Southern Culture: Mind and Identity in the Modern South. Athens: U of Georgia P, 1999. Print.
Gary, Richard J. and Owen Robinson. A Companion to the Literature and Culture of the American South. Massachusetts: Blackwell, 2004. Print.
Hall, Rich. The Dirty South. BBC Four. 12 July 2010. Youtube. Web. 21 March 2011.
Harris, Tami Winfrey. “Lady Antebellum and the Glorification of the Pre-Civil War South.” Ms. Blog Magazine. Web. 21 March 2011.
Lady Antebellum. “Need You Now.” Need You Now. Capitol, 2010. CD.
Lasky, Ed. “The South Rises.” American Thinker. 24 Oct. 2007. Web. 21 March 2011.
McCarter, William Matthew. “Homo Redneckus: Redefining White Trash in American Culture.” American@ 2.1 (n.d.): 97-135. Web. 21 March 2011.
McPherson, Tara. Reconstructing Dixie: Race, Gender, and Nostalgia in the Imagined South. North Carolina: Duke UP, 2003. Print.
Rampton, James. “Rich Hall on The Dirty South.” The Telegraphy. 09 July 2010. Web. 21 March 2011.
Here are some videos I think are interesting: