Will Someone Explain the South To Me?

1371761867744.cached The first time that I visited my in-laws at their retirement home in North Carolina, we visited Fort Macon, a Civil War fort. The tour guide told us about its distinguished history during the “War of Northern Aggression.”

“What’s the War of Northern Aggression,” I whispered to Steve. “It’s the Civil War, you Northern moron,” he said.

I don’t get the South. And I don’t get Paula Deen. I’m sure that she’s a very nice lady, but she’s clearly living in a different world from the rest of us.

23 thoughts on “Will Someone Explain the South To Me?

  1. I went to high school in northern VA. I never considered NoVA as the “south” but we had a confederate flag flying over our school (which was named for a confederate general) and also heard references to the war of northern aggression. At the same time, our high school was incredibly diverse, with immigrants from all over the world. White students were definitely the minority. (National Geographic did a story on it once, claiming more languages were spoken there than any other school in the country.) So, I think it’s complicated….(But as for Paula Deen, I can’t explain that, not at all.)


    1. Like most things, it’s best not to generalize about a region by the actions of a Food Network celebrity. Read Faulkner’s Light in August. I’m southern and I find it a wonderful and tragic place with glorious complexity and stunning ugliness.


  2. The Atlantic feed had an article about the economics of slavery (in response to Ron Paul’s suggestion that a viable course of action would have been to purchase the slaves, in order to avoid the civil war).


    One interesting tidbit in the article is references to how the talk of slavery changed from the late 18th to early 19th century, from being a “unfortunate but unavoidable evil” to a positive good, at the same time that one could calculate the economic value of slaves increasing from 300 million to 3 billion. Those numbers and attitudes always strike me when I read about slavery’s place in American history (casual reading, a lot of it from child-oriented texts like the secrets of the presidents). Slavery permeated American society, most directly in the South, but not in isolation from the rest of the nation. If you grow up in the midwest, you hear about slavery as a though it happened in an entirely different country, including lots of references to the underground railroad (which the midwestern border states played a significant role in). You don’t hear about how 50% of American exports were produced by slaves.

    I think we don’t talk enough about the role of slavery, and that allows folks to remember the South more fondly than they should. Visiting Mount Vernon, for example, you have to understand that every bit of graciousness there was underpinned by the use of enslaved human labor (noted by us when we saw the outhouses, fairly near the main residence, in which the waste was removed by slaves on a daily basis).


  3. I guess what always confuses me is the strong identification with a particular location along with the entire location’s history. Here in New Jersey, we don’t do that. People in New Jersey strongly identify with their town, but not their state. We don’t go around saying things like “don’t mess with New Jersey.” We have no idea about our state history. There are no manditory school classes on New Jersey history or Northearn history. I couldn’t point out my state flag in a multiple choice test. I suppose if you pressed me on the matter, I would say that I identified as being from the New York City metropolitan area. But probably the biggest cultural identification would be Italian-American.


  4. What Laura says about New Jersey I’ve found to be true about the Midwest (Missouri and Illinois are the areas I know best). We’re happy to be Midwesterners because we think that means “sensible” or “down to earth” or something like that, but it doesn’t have anything to do with “Midwestern history.” Of course Missourians like Truman and Illinoisians are big Lincoln fans (we don’t celebrate Presidents’ Day but get Lincoln’s birthday off instead), but other than that I’m not sure people know anything about state history.

    I definitely do not get the whole “War of Northern Aggression” thing. It’s as if the U.S. still had a beef with Austria-Hungary for what happened in World War I.


  5. I think that being a southerner is like being an Italian American. There is a specific kind of food, music, common phrases, an accent, etc. There is also a history–but instead of the old country or the immigrant experience, its slavery, the Civil War, and the Civil Rights Movement. As a Brooklyn transplant, I feel a little like an immigrant (in fact, almost all of my daughters friends are lower middle class immigrants because they have similar values and background).


  6. I worked my way through the iTunesU Open Yale course, “The Civil War and Reconstruction Era, 1845-1877,” by Professor David Blight. He covers the events and the legal and intellectual arguments advanced to justify and condemn slavery at the time of the war, and the years after.


    I was glad to hear the Moth podcast, “the House Sherman Didn’t Burn,” by George Dawes Green, Best of the Moth vol. 12. A bitter inheritance.

    As a Yankee, how much of my cultural inheritance is present but not recognized as such? The Abolitionists won, thank God. When my children study American history, much of it starts in the Northeast. The American Revolution, Industrial Revolution, Civil War, etc. There was a unit in elementary school social studies in which the students had to learn the geography of our state.

    I find it sad that people are presenting an image of the South through Paula Deen, of whom I know very little. It’s like using Emeril to represent the Northeast. Silly.


  7. Interesting about no New Jersey history. We had Ohio history and learned a lot about Ohio. I wonder if the lack of NJ history is a NYmetro area thing? or a northeastern thing? I remember someone describing PA history as just being American history. Matbe the 13 original colonies just see their history as being American.

    There’s definitely WA history here and, I think, CA history in California.


    1. There’s a unit in one of the elementary grades on Massachusetts. Maybe not MA history per se (like, how the state was developed) but definitely on the geography of MA. Then again, most US history teaching begins with MA history.


  8. I highly recommend any Faulkner as mentioned above. The south is complicated. There are people like Paula Deen but most of them are her age. It’s kind of a generational thing. But there’s a reason I no longer live in the south. Not that long ago, I dated a med school student, who was black, and we could not get served at a restaurant in a major city in the south. And don’t get me started on their issues with women. Catholics have the virgin/slut problem and southern ears have the same thing, rooted in their holding women up to this crazy standard. But in larger cities, things are changing. But go outside of the cities and you’ll find people who wish the south had won, or if they don’t, are seriously concerned about changing demographics, much of which is affecting their towns and cities. And they express those concerns in ways that make you cringe.

    I got tired of cringing and tired of people thinking my main role in life is about taking care of my man and my kids. I turned down money for grad school to get away from that.

    P.S. I’m writing this from the south, and I’ve already cringed once. There’s more to come.


  9. I vote for “it’s complicated.”

    I like Florence King’s “Southern Ladies and Gentlemen” (a sort of field guide) and her memoir “Confessions of a Failed Southern Lady” (a bisexual coming of age story largely set in 1950s Mississippi, but with the childhood portions set in 1930s and 1940s Washington DC).

    I am very interested in culture and always have been. My paternal grandmother’s family has some connections to Arkansas and the more Southern-leaning portions of Texas. I am a Northerner, but my husband and I and our two oldest moved to a Southern-leaning pocket of Texas (there are 32 different flavors of Baptist in town, sweet tea in the Mexican restaurants, and Southern Living in the grocery store checkstands) six years ago. The town itself is about half white, with the other half being split evenly between Hispanics and African-Americans, so I suppose that culturally, the town straddles the South and the Southwest (it feels like 50% of the restaurants in town are Mexican). Before we moved here I did some online research. One of the first photos that popped up when I did a google image search for the town’s name was a grisly charred corpse of sombebody who’d been lynched during an infamous historical episode during the teens. The academic community here has a lot of Southerners (as well as Northern transplants like ourselves). I find white Southern academics very genteel and very earnest, often painfully so. They are trying very hard to do the right thing.

    Having a history is the normal thing. Being a blank slate is weird. In some ways, it’s a terrible disadvantage for Americans without a history (and who are proud to have no history) to be attempting to manage the lives of foreigners abroad who have had more history than they can comfortably deal with. It makes just as much sense to say, “Forget the Civil War,” as it does to say, “Forget Andalusia,” or “Forget the Holocaust,” or “Forget Danzig,” or “Forget Constantinople” or “Forget Kosovo Polje.”


  10. For the record, “Don’t Mess with Texas” is an anti-littering slogan.

    From Wikipedia:

    “The phrase Don’t Mess with Texas is a trademark of the Texas Department of Transportation, which began as part of a statewide advertising campaign started in 1986. The intention behind the Don’t Mess with Texas campaign was to reduce littering on Texas roadways and has garnered statewide attention.

    “The phrase “Don’t Mess with Texas” was prominently shown on road signs on major highways, television, radio and in print advertisements. The campaign is credited with reducing litter on Texas highways roughly 72% between 1986 and 1990. The campaign’s target market was 18-35 year old males, which was statistically shown to be the most likely to litter. While the slogan was originally not intended to become a statewide cultural icon, it did.”

    “Beyond its immediate role in reducing litter, the slogan became a Texas cultural phenomenon and the slogan has been popularly appropriated by Texans. Though the origin of the slogan is not well known outside of Texas, it appears on countless items of tourist souvenirs, the phrase is actually a federally registered trademark; the department has tried at times to enforce its trademark rights with cease and desist letters, but has had very limited success. The phrase “Don’t Mess with Texas” is a frequently cited example of pride in Texas culture.”

    “”Don’t Mess with Texas” has been awarded a plaque on the Madison Avenue Walk of Fame and a place in the Advertising Hall of Fame, a distinction given to only two slogans annually.”



  11. Amy P has it mostly right, I think. Southern academics are so earnest, aren’t they? I almost got a masters in African-American studies. I was trying to atone for something, I think. I mean,I was born in Mississippi. I’m glad I pursued that area, though, because my parents’ and grandparents’ version of things was skewed. I once dined in a pizza place where the owner spoke of the war at Little Rock. I had no idea what she was talking about. Um, yeah, it was the desegregation of Central High School. Never ate there again.

    I think the thing is, as a southerner, you recognize you have this complicated and rich history and you want to understand it because, hey, it’s your heritage, even if its embarrassing. But I think a lot of southerners just accept their history in an unexamined way, and that’s where Paula Deen comes in. The n word is part of history, yes, but if you excuse it because of that, then you haven’t examined the meaning of the word or the history attached to it. It’s not just offensive. It describes a way of seeing an entire group of people–still–as subservient, dirty, dark and evil. To use it conjures those images up and does real damage, IMHO.


    1. “I almost got a masters in African-American studies. I was trying to atone for something, I think.”

      As long as I’m being cranky, I’ll take issue with this, too. I know you can describe only your experience, but I cringe at the inference some will make that other white academics seek graduate degrees in African American studies out of a sense of atonement. My PhD is in African American Studies, and my reasons are *not* about atonement or guilt. I don’t even know if I can describe why I chose to study African American lit, but I once told someone it “sings” to me. Even the clompy uplift literature of the late 19th century does.


  12. I agree that we all have a complicated history, and especially in this country with regard to race. I read The Warmth of Other Suns, a fantastic book about the migrations northward, and it’s clear that racism and discrimination in Chicago had a huge and largely terrible influence on the way African Americans lived once they got here, and they way they live now. It’s the *pride* in the history, or even the desire to have pride, that I don’t get. I don’t feel much need to be proud of the behavior of even my own grandparents, and no need at all to be proud of the great-great-grandparents of people who happened to live where I am living right now. That doesn’t mean that I don’t try to see them as real people with good qualities as well as bad (I try to think about people in all places at all points in history in that way). But I’m not attached to making them into heroes, like the Confederate flag-types seem to. That a tour guide at an official site would talk about the War of Northern Aggression, out of what seems to be the need to be proud of Southerners for “taking a stand” or whatever, is just baffling.


  13. I grew up in the south as a child, and have lived in Atlanta for the past six years. I’ve never heard of the War of Northern Aggression.

    Southerners are not ashamed of their racism, so they express it with pride. Northerners feel guilty that they are racist, so they try to hide it. But they are every bit as racist. That’s the only difference I’ve ever noticed. The most segregated/racist areas of the country I have ever lived in were St. Louis and Detroit. In St. Louis in the late 90s, I went to a white suburb to see a movie. My friend and I were heckled and though lots of people witnessed it, no one did anything to help us.

    Atlanta, where I live, is far more integrated than where I lived in Philadelphia for ten years. Our suburbs have huge amounts of African Americans. I lived in 2 very close in suburbs of Philadelphia– there were virtually no people of color, and no African Americans.

    Paula Deen is an idiot. But plenty of northerners are internally nodding their head at her words. They just are politically correct enough to not say it out loud.


    1. Comparing Atlanta to Philadelphia/Detroit/St. Louis is not an entirely fair way to compare North vs. South. You should try to pick some place decent in the north.


    2. “They just are politically correct enough to not say it out loud.”

      Also no, just no.

      I don’t think that’s political correctness. That’s civility and respect. We all go through life thinking horrible things about people. My poor 13 year old spends 6 hours a day at schoolin her critical, mean-spirited little 13 year old head, keeping her mouth shut about all her thoughts, and when she comes home she spills it all out at home. She doesn’t say what she thinks because though she has all these mean thoughts, she knows that she respects the people around her enough not to say them out loud. She’s very mature for a 13 year old, even if I have to deal with the crap when she gets home.

      To speak those kinds of things out loud when you know the people you’re talking about find your language vile is a profound lack of respect. Maybe in the north people are “too politically correct” to say those things, but maybe what it really is is that in their hearts they know that African Americans deserve respect; even if hundreds of years of racism have immersed whites in ideologies and language that are despicable, the very fact that we self-censor means we are committed to a future where those ideologies and language are not common, and some day our children and grandchildren will grow up without them.

      I don’t really give a crap if Deen was fired or not or whatever. I try to think about food personalities and celebrity chefs as little as possible.


  14. “Atlanta, where I live, is far more integrated than where I lived in Philadelphia for ten years.”

    One of our local peculiarities is that our campus in Texas has more mixed student couples than I think I’ve ever seen in my entire life. There was a post on City Data some years ago where somebody was asking a question that went something like this, my daughter is heading to [name of the big college in our town] and she’s going to be living with her Hispanic boyfriend. Will that be a problem? The answer the poster got was that having a Hispanic boyfriend was not going to be a problem locally, but that living with a boyfriend would raise eyebrows. I think that’s basically correct.

    I personally wonder whether the Food Network’s main problems with Paula Deen aren’t that she’s old and diabetic.


  15. True story: my dentist’s office has a photo history of our town in his waiting room. One of the photos is of a big watermelon feed hosted by the Klan in the early 1920s. As I recall, the photo shows a bunch of hooded Klansmen (not sure how they ate watermelon while in costume) as well as regular citizens in street clothes. One of my carry-aways from that photo was that (along with what it is most famous for), the Klan also had a role as a normal civic organization, a sort of hooded Rotary.


    1. “the Klan also had a role as a normal civic organization”

      I get what you’re trying to say, but … no, just no.

      “(not sure how they ate watermelon while in costume)”

      Shoutout to the hilarious (and completely unnecessary) Django scene.


  16. Explain the South? I think Ulrich Phillips has done that. (See “The Central Theme of Southern History”)


  17. Wendy said:

    “To speak those kinds of things out loud when you know the people you’re talking about find your language vile is a profound lack of respect. Maybe in the north people are “too politically correct” to say those things, but maybe what it really is is that in their hearts they know that African Americans deserve respect; even if hundreds of years of racism have immersed whites in ideologies and language that are despicable, the very fact that we self-censor means we are committed to a future where those ideologies and language are not common, and some day our children and grandchildren will grow up without them.”

    I think class and class signaling plays an underappreciated role in all of this. I was trying to find a quote from a Florence King memoir earlier this morning and couldn’t find it. To summarize from memory: it’s probably 1940 something in Washington DC (a culturally Southern city at the time–very different from today’s DC) and little Florence and her grandmother (a Virginia lady who is trying to make Florence a lady after failing with her mother) are in a store buying some candy to watch at the movies. The grandma wants to buy the small licorice candies shaped like babies that are popularly known as “n—– babies.” Problem is, as a lady, Florence’s grandmother cannot bring herself to pronounce the standard name for the candy. So she asks the store keeper to give her a bag of babies. There was already a fairly strong taboo against the n-word, at least for a person of the grandmother’s class and sex.

    It looks like you can still buy the candies, by the way.



    It’s a bit fuzzy to what extent our linguistic taboos are praise-worthy and gestures of respect, and to what extent those taboos are actually a sort of sifting device by which white people are able to categorize their kind into trashy and not trashy.


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