Academic journal article The Southern Literary Journal

Expanding the Limits: The Intersection of Race and Region

Academic journal article The Southern Literary Journal

Expanding the Limits: The Intersection of Race and Region

Article excerpt

In a recent newspaper interview, the distinguished historian John Hope Franklin discussed the origins of his classic study, From Slavery to Freedom (1947), now in its sixth edition. He talked about the need for the text in the 1940s and of writing it while also teaching five classes at Durham's segregated North Carolina College. In pointing to the phenomenal success of the paperback edition during the 1960s, Franklin remarked, "I haven't taught [black history] in thirty years ... I teach history of the South." (1)

Though the historical presence of blacks in the actual or imagined South has forwarded more than one idea of the region, that presence is perhaps more problematical today when there is an ongoing attempt to link the region to concepts more in keeping with the slick media image of the "Sunbelt." Downplaying the presence of blacks may be a way of simultaneously asserting changed conditions in the region and denying one significant catalyst for those changes.

Though there are sociologists of the South who choose to write only about white Southerners in isolation from matters of race by referring to them as an "ethnic" group or entity, that tendency implies a fresh attempt to define the region and its culture without one of the major components. The matter of race is undermined, dismissed as somehow applicable only to blacks and inapplicable to new considerations of the region. The tendency toward exclusion has not remained applicable only to individuals, but has become one of the primary ways of defining the region and its culture, not only for cultural insiders but for outsiders as well. ("Slavery" and a "slave-based economy" historically provided a primary means for cultural outsiders to define the region, and for cultural insiders to justify both self-perception and social order.) Presumption of racial affinity, commonality in the dominant view of the South as a region has meant that difference, not diversity, is at issue. One result has been curious: whites in the South became simply "Southerners" without a racial designation, but blacks in the South became simply "blacks" without a regional designation.

There are still manifestations of this phenomenon today, as suggested by John Hope Franklin's reference to teaching the history of the South as opposed to the history of blacks, or more particularly by the labeling of those scholars who study the slaves as working in the field of black history and culture, whereas those who study the owners are characterized as working in the field of southern history and culture. In the same way, those who study the roots of blues and jazz are seen as working in black musicology, while those who study the roots of country and bluegrass as working in southern musicology.

More invidious is the carefully reasoned, nonpartisan scholarly work reexamining the idea of the South by emphasizing memory and the process of remembering as crucial to understanding the region--but which suffers itself from a severe lapse of memory. For example, Richard Gray in Writing the South: Ideas of an American Region 1986) states: "The main aim of this book is to [present] ... the various ways in which people from below the Mason-Dixon line have tried to forge the uncreated conscience of their region." (2) He then adds that his three hundred-plus page book "offers no more than a series of notes towards a definition of the Southern idea." Yet, in the entire book there is only one mention of a black writer: a listing of Charles Chesnutt's name as example of an interest in "the idea of the `tragic mulatto'" that predates William Faulkner's. (3)

Gray's approach is an example not only of the continued omission of black Southerners, but also of the more serious misreading of the culture and its artifacts that explains the omission. He ends his discussion of Walker Percy with the following: "Perhaps the last word should be given to Percy's black characters, however, since blacks occupy the margins of his stories, just as they do in traditional Southern writing. …

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