Knowing Their Place: Three Black Writers and the Postmodern South

Article excerpt

The year 2002 must have been an enigma to professional Southwatchers. On December 5, celebrating South Carolina Senator Strom Thurmond's 100th birthday, Mississippian Trent Lott uttered words that soon led to his resignation as Republican majority leader of the U.S. Senate. Noting that in 1948 Mississippi had proudly voted for segregationist Thurmond in his presidential bid, he added that if Thurmond had won we "wouldn't have had all these problems over all these years." According to Lott's hometown newspaper, the Jackson Clarion-Ledger, the words echoed what he said on November 3, 1980: "You know, if we had elected this man 30 years ago, we wouldn't be in the mess we are today." Homespun toast-making though it was, Lott's speech seemed a throwback to a pre-civil rights era South that many assumed and hoped no longer is.

Yet even as Lott was embroiled in this controversy, H. K. Edgerton, a black North Carolinian and former president of the Asheville NAACP, was halfway through his 1300-mile, self-proclaimed March Across Dixie from Asheville to Houston. Setting out on October 14, dressed in Confederate military uniform and carrying a Confederate flag, Edgerton was marching in support of the message "Heritage Not Hate," of the rightfulness of the Confederacy's cause, and of southern symbols long believed by critics to condone racial exclusion. Interviewed earlier in the year by Ron Holland, editor of the Dixie Daily News, he explained: "if we Southerners don't stand together we will lose our culture, heritage, religion and region to outsiders who sadly have no appreciation of the unique culture of being Southern" (Holland). Young blacks, he bemoaned in the Asheville Tribune, have been wrongly taught about their history, including the institution of slavery: "God and his infinite wisdom brought these people here. He brought about a love between master and slave that has never happened before.... the only one who cared about the African was the man in the south" (Davis).

How then, in the year 2002, was one to read the postmodern South? In a retro manner of 1865 (Lott) or as a contemporary, hyperreal fantasy (Edgerton)? Despite their apparent differences, Lott and Edgerton had something in common. Each man seemed to inhabit a South of his own construction, personal memory having diverged from public history most dramatically. For his part, Lott was puzzled that his off-hand, convivial praise of Thurmond's segregationist campaign was offensive to anyone. His was an astonishing lapse of memory, dismissive of the white burden of defensive self-consciousness about the South's pained and tragic history. Emptying language of substantive historical reference, Lott believed his remarks could not be offensive simply because he said they weren't. Edgerton, for his part, enacted a stunning appropriation of traditional white cultural symbols. The Confederate flag and uniform, with their origin in defense of states rights (including the constitutional right to own private property such as chattel slaves), once belonged to a cultural system of meaning that was fixed and hierarchical, excluding blacks from social, political, and economic power as the marginalized Other.

Whatever Edgerton's motives, his appropriation of Confederate history evinces a postmodern impulse to construct rather than explain the culture of the South, to replace once stable symbols with their simulacra, or false copies, once the original no longer exists in its first purity. As a consequence, that objectivistic and abstract entity we call the idea of the South has collapsed. No longer anchored to a collective public tradition, it no longer binds us with a monolithic narrative. Expressed as individual social creation, as seen in Lott's vacuous and Edgerton's revisionist constructions, the South is not so much a place as an amorphous cultural space where history yields to symbolic simulations that have no stable correspondence to reality. If one recalls the controlling power the idea of the South held over Strom Thurmond in 1948, or in the symbolic axe handles promoted by Lester Maddox in the 1960s, Lott and Edgerton both show that public symbols of the southern past no longer rigidly organize individual perception. …