Let’s talk about this today.
I have not had the question posed to me here, but I have often in other venues been asked if I hated the South. More often I am simply accused of so doing. I need a bit of a break from the spreadsheets, so today I want to talk about that.
As I said back in this blog’s infancy, I consider the South to amount to the major slave states of 1860. The region does not make sense to me any other way. Nothing else unifies Appalachia, the Chesapeake Tidewater, the Carolina lowcountry, the Gulf Coast, the Mississippi Delta, Texas, Kentucky, and all the rest of the typically Southern states and exclude equally Southern, in geographic terms, states like California. We can talk around it, but the main things that separate them from the rest of the nation either amount to slavery itself or traits deeply intertwined with it.
In the recent demographic posts, I’ve noted frequently just how profoundly the North and South differed and that difference boils down in each case to slavery. The South had vastly more black people, but they hardly moved there like European immigrants moved to the North. Rather they came to the South as slaves and most stayed there as slaves. The concentration of black Americans in the South came about due to slavery and persisted due to slavery, with a side helping of vicious Northern racism. That in turn wedded the South still more deeply to slavery as the only means white Southerners saw to keep control of their huge black population. I don’t think one can speak of the demographics without slavery or slavery without the demographics.
And the South, mostly, went to war to keep its slaves. It spent six hundred thousand or so (we don’t know exactly how many) lives to keep ownership of those four million.
Those are terrible, ugly things to say. I understand how a person would take offense to hearing them. I would not want to hear that my ancestors thought lynching, segregation, or slavery formed a major part of their regional identity. I would probably take special umbrage at hearing it from people who had similar, if not quite so extensive, histories of racism in their own regional pasts. Emotions work that way and Southerners have the same brain software as the rest of us.
The previous paragraphs have listed Southern sins. But they also list American sins. While the South practiced slavery with unrivaled enthusiasm, the institution hung on in most parts of the North into the 1840s and a small residual of “apprentices for life” still toiled in New Jersey in 1860. The South made protection for slavery contingent on its joining America to begin with, but the rest of the nation also let it do that and plenty of Northern conservatives, including men we think of as antislavery like Abraham Lincoln, committed themselves quite strongly to protecting it right up into the war.
Despite the Confederacy’s best efforts, we cannot separate Southern history from American history. Slavery deeply shaped the South, but it shaped the North too. For most of the nation’s early history, Southerners and Southern interests dominated national politics. Our concepts of freedom, citizenship, policing, and everything else baked in that same mix with chattel slavery. At least into the mid-1840s, the United States more had slavery and tolerated freedom than it had freedom and tolerated slavery. The nation has yet to really come to grips with that, or with the ways it happily continued the worst of slavery’s legacies openly for another century and covertly, to a lesser degree, even to the present day.
How can a nation deal with that? Every country of any age has parts of its history no one would mention with pride. The United States has slavery, stealing land from and haphazardly exterminating the Indians, and more sins I could mention. But few come close to slavery when it comes to pervading everything about America. Yet we still have people proudly waving the flags of the nation that fought to preserve slavery against the threat posed to it by the election of a Republican. We still have people who deny that fact and insist that the Confederacy was benign, or somehow only accidentally associated with slavery. That can’t be the best way to deal with the shameful chapters of our national past, though I can’t say we invented it or are alone in practicing it. Few nations care to honestly face the lesser deeds of their past generations.
Except Germany. One can, I have read, hardly fly a German flag (the modern one, not the Nazi flags) on one’s lawn without drawing troubled looks. I don’t think all of the ways Germany has grappled with its national past work well. National bans on the display of flags do not seem like an answer. But neither is upholding the Confederacy as a noble cause tragically lost, unless one actually thinks that black people ought to live as slaves. Doubtless some people actually think that. More find sympathy for the Confederacy through the connections between their views of government and either the Confederates’ actual or imagined beliefs. They’re ignoring how the Confederates and their antecedents formed those beliefs almost exclusively in defense of slavery, but humans of all stripes have great skill at ignoring unpleasant facts.
Why can’t the South take more of the German example, though? Why can’t America in general? My own history education involved very little save a dry, clinical discussion of slavery which stripped from it most of its horrors. I have no doubt others had better luck, including many in the South. But admitting Southern history as American history also implicates us all and I imagine most don’t rush for that distinction.
I wrote that last paragraph so I could write this one, though. I never expected to see a black president in my lifetime. I estimated that at least a hundred years from now. I never dreamed that one would win the White House with electoral votes from two former Confederate states, let alone one that flipped from the Democrats to the Republicans almost immediately after Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights and Voting Rights acts and never previously came back. All of the previous could give the impression that the South acts like a hivemind, frozen in amber in 1860.
The South does not. Even during Reconstruction, some white Southerners took up the cause of the former slaves, including some who fought devotedly for the Confederacy just before. A region’s norm does not constitute a kind of irresistible edict which all residents must follow. Rather they choose just as much as anybody what norms they adopt and which they reject. However much the region has long been the Mount Olympus of the American right, especially its uglier parts, it has also always had its own movements toward equality and social justice. Those movements have in their own ways both contributed meaningfully to the broader American tradition and at times exceeded the devotion of otherwise similar movements in more Northern climes.
Just like everywhere else, living people fill the South instead of stereotype clones. They have their own particular cultures within broader regional and national cultures which have all the same dynamism that any living culture has. If the era of flying Confederate flags in defiance of integration has not quite fully passed into history, it has clearly gone pretty far along that path. The 1960s saw mass rallies that abounded with Confederate flags, fire hoses, and the occasional lynching. (The fairly vicious, if not quite so often openly brutal, ways Northern locales preserved their own segregation don’t get quite the same press in white America despite coming a good decade after the South started settling down.)
The sense I have of the region as an outsider, and what I hear from Southern friends and writers I trust, doesn’t much resemble that today. It seems increasingly common that people obnoxiously waving their Confederate flags around and championing secession or defending slavery and segregation receive the kind of reception that I have seen to the same in my rather less than progressive corner of the North: At best we see such people as cranks and more often have some concern about their intentions toward any local minority, whether skin color, religious, or sexual.
Maybe we picked up some lessons from the Germans after all. Nationally, the United States has rarely stood out as an early adopter or fast learner. The Germans had twelve horrible years to atone for. We have centuries to make right. I wish we would go faster, but we did start settling accounts from much further in the red.
Do I hate the South? After writing all of that, I don’t know. The question involves not just the region’s past, but also all manner of confounding present day politics. I definitely hate certain things about the South in both contexts. Liberally inclined gay atheists such as myself have plenty of reason to look askance across the Mason-Dixon Line. But I hate the same bone-deep social conservatism when I look out my window and see it in Michigan and I hardly consider my particular community all that racially progressive either.
It makes no sense to me to hold modern Germany responsible for Hitler. Why would I hold the modern South responsible for Jeff Davis or Lester Maddox? That only makes sense in the limited contexts of Southerners trying to carry on their work, who do not speak for the whole South any more than a yahoo in a pickup with a rebel flag on it (which I have seen in my hometown) speaks for the whole North.