Southern History as U.S. History

Article excerpt

WHAT IS SOUTHERN HISTORY? MORE TO THE POINT, WHAT IS "THE South"? It is a place defined as much by social, cultural, and political dynamics as it is by geography. I am reminded of that fact every time my scholarship is linked to my identity. When people find out that I am a southern historian, they invariably ask whether I am from the South. Actually, the question is less about my identity than the region's identity. Those outside academia are inquiring about my credentials to write about the South, which they see as utterly exotic or intimately familiar, depending on their own backgrounds. Either way, they construe the South as a place so mystifying that only insiders could fathom its secrets. My identity thus serves as the most important line on my curriculum vitae, establishing the expertise they consider necessary to study a unique region. For those inside academia, the question is informed by historiographical traditions drenched in southern exceptionalism, in which regional distinctiveness moves the South outside the major historical currents in U.S. history. Those presumptions put native daughters and sons in an academic bind, positioning them as either the best analysts of the region (because of their familiarity with this exceptional region) or the worst (because of their familiarity with this exceptional region). In the academic context, moreover, the privileges of southern exceptionalism are decidedly limited. For many professional historians, the South's unique identity relegates its historians to a subfield perceived to be as provincial and backward as the region itself. Southern historians study a particular place that is so different from the rest of the United States that it cannot represent the national experience.

Or can it? In this essay, I take issue with conceptions of the South and southern history that separate the region from the rest of the United States. I argue that southern distinctiveness exists more as a cultural and historiographical construct than as a useful description of southern history. In fact, many of the issues associated with the South in the historiography were actually national in scope. White southern slaveholders embedded slavery within the governing structures of the new republic, ensuring that the issue would remain a national one, even after northern states abolished the institution. At the same founding moment, black southerners also put slavery and racial inequality on the national agenda by highlighting the difference between the reality of their lives and the Revolutionary ideals of freedom and equality for all. In both instances, southerners turned regional concerns into national issues. But if slavery and racial inequality took particularly extreme forms in the South, they were never uniquely southern. Even as the nation teetered on the brink of civil war, support for slavery continued to cut across regional boundaries. If anything, region had even less to do with questions of racial equality. That was particularly evident during Reconstruction. Southern states, whose electorate included African American men, backed the Reconstruction amendments more enthusiastically than many northern states where the electorate was composed largely of white men with entrenched racial biases. Much later, in the twentieth century, as riots erupted in northern cities following Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination, it became less and less possible to pretend that racial inequality was just a southern problem. In these instances, as in so many others, the dynamics of southern history are inseparable from central themes in U.S. history.

That is why southern historians are often called on to represent U.S. history. In the past thirty years, half of the presidents of the Organization of American Historians (OAH) have worked in the field of southern history, a percentage far out of proportion to the South's share of the nation's population. In that same period, eight presidents of the Southern Historical Association have also served as presidents of the OAH. …