Disrupting the North/South Binary: A Deconstruction of Two Social Studies Textbooks' Portrayal of the Reconstruction Era in America (1861-1877)

By Schramm-Pate, Susan L. | Journal of Curriculum Theorizing, Summer 2006 | Go to article overview

Disrupting the North/South Binary: A Deconstruction of Two Social Studies Textbooks' Portrayal of the Reconstruction Era in America (1861-1877)


Schramm-Pate, Susan L., Journal of Curriculum Theorizing


Introduction

In American social studies textbooks, the chapters about the critical period between 1861-1877 in our nation's history often characterizes life in the United States dichotomously between the northern states and the southern states. The North is illustrated as increasingly urban, commercial, and industrial while the South is described as largely rural and agricultural. Bifurcated borders delineated by race, class, gender, and the Mason Dixon Line code the North and the South as fixed and separate neglecting both the historical and contemporary heterogeneity of human interactions and lives. While the term "state's rights" is frequently cited as the central debate between the North and South in the mid-nineteenth century, the bifurcating focal point of the political crisis leading up to the costliest and bloodiest conflict in America up to that time is the "peculiar institution" of slavery. Northerners are depicted as generally wanting to abolish slavery all together or at least limit the spread of slavery to the new territories of Arkansas, Kansas, Missouri, Nebraska, and Texas in the West, while southerners generally are depicted as wanting to maintain and even expand the institution of slavery.

These bipolar depictions serve to represent the South as the origin of racism in America, from which it supposedly spread like an infection to the North (Schramm- Pate & Carlson, 2003). Racism has been represented as the result of a deficiency in southern character, one of many. This hegemonic representation of southern character places the North on the moral and cultural high ground. Resentment of the northern "Other" and of hegemonic representations of southern culture and identity is consistently played out though social studies textbooks.

In Power and Criticism, Cleo Cherryholmes (1988) observed that sentences, pictures, charts, and graphs in school textbooks implicitly present meanings as fixed and stable. The tendency to treat the bifurcation of the North and South simplistically and the canonization of racism as being uniquely "southern" is one of the weaknesses that mars social studies textbooks. This trend can be traced to the pages of social studies textbooks where Confederate bifurcated signifiers are narrowly "read" as the definitive property of particular groups based on ethnic origins: the culture and meaning of style of the White, planter class during the antebellum era and its decedents in the "New South" versus the culture and style of minority black southerners and the vestiges of oppression, racism, and cruelty.

Further, the construction of a national identity in America historically has occurred by bifurcating Americans into two identity groups, one northern and one southern, one hegemonic and the other subordinate. In order for northern industrial culture to establish its hegemony over the American character, it required its Other, always interrupting and impeding the inevitable march of social and economic "progress." So, with the help of social studies textbooks, in many ways the South has been unable to establish its own identity apart from its controlling alter ego, the North.

In this paper, I focus on interrupting the North/South binary as I look at two chapters on the Reconstruction era (1861-1877) in two separate social studies textbooks from the 1950s and 1960s (one used in South Carolina and one used in Ohio) to reveal Confederate bifurcated signifiers through a broader understanding of cultural hybridity. According to Michael Apple and Linda Christian-Smith (1991),

   Texts are really messages to and about the future.
   As part of a curriculum, they participate in creating
   what a society has recognized as legitimate and truthful. (p. 4)

The notion that the critique and gratuitous opposition of Confederate significations, signs, and symbols is the exclusive property of the North is illegitimate and not empirically based. …

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