Academic journal article Southern Quarterly

Afterwords; or, Whistling "Dixie" on the Front Porch of My Southern Home

Academic journal article Southern Quarterly

Afterwords; or, Whistling "Dixie" on the Front Porch of My Southern Home

Article excerpt

This issue of The Southern Quarterly continues a tradition of wellresearched and useful scholarship within its purview. It can, also, stand alone as a unique and valuable contribution to American Studies more generally. Its theme, '"My Southern Home': The Lives and Literature of 19th-Century Southern Black Writers," alludes to My Southern Home: Or, The South and Its People by William Wells Brown. However, Brown's assertion of belonging and possessing, like his claims of authority, did not make much impact upon nineteenth-century readers. Despite increasing familiarity with works of African American writers, it is highly probable that many twenty-first century readers will not immediately recognize the reference. Today, as in 1880 when this book was published, "My Southern Home," "the South," and "Its People" are phrases commonly voiced by male Christians of European ancestry, who we expect to live in and die below the Mason-Dixon Line and east of the Mississippi River. Geography presides. Reverence to or haunting of ancestral origins also have value. But the "Song of the South," especially of the South in the nineteenth century, requires the voices of others, including "Ladies," "Darkies," and "Indians" to harmonize on the chorus. These others occupy the stoops, yards, and shadows of homes in Kentucky, Alabama, Virginia, and other places all of the same gracious architecture, harmonizing or humming softly, occasionally improvising riffs, poised to serve and pleased to be included. The lead singers sit in their own rocking chairs on the front porches of their own homes. If this collection does not clearly seek to place more chairs on the front porch, it does at least reveal other homes and other songs sung blue in the southern portion of the nineteenth-century United States of America.

The essays in this collection respond to a call for new verses and variations to the "Song of the South." They recall a past that should not be forgotten when we "look away at Dixie land." As editor, Sherita L. Johnson has selected contributions that sound a chorus of various, complicated and somewhat contradictory voices. She defines an editorial goal as offering a critical "survey of the experiences of African Americans, either as slaves or free people, who considered the South their home throughout the nineteenth century."1 It seems to go without questioning that to be of apparent African ancestry and to claim the South as home engendered social conflict and literary contestation. Her editorial task, she says, was to fashion individual contributions into a "survey" of "definitions of southernness that contest an imagined, pure antebellum southern culture as well as a constructed, white hegemonic post-bellum southern identity." The resultant volume would then educate and generate "discussions of the regional literature" while providing "a literary historical context for understanding the southern sense of 'place' that influenced so many African American writers throughout the twentieth century and even today."

I like the result. This is truly a collection of thoughtful, insightful, and useful research and critical commentary. Ben Schiller's introductory essay piques overwrought ideas of African American literature as resistance and of literacy having been the regular prerequisite for flights to freedom. Schiller focuses upon routine correspondence from enslaved African Americans to their Euro-American enslavers. His essay shows that literacy did not necessarily lead to physical freedom but that examination of apparently mundane letters can offer salient information and nuanced interpretations of lives lived within a complicated cultural context. Using close textual analyses, he demonstrates how "correspondents" can also become "writers" who fashioned limited but vital forms of freedom without flight or blatant rebellion.

Gabriel Briggs' consideration of Sutton E. Griggs as an example of the southern New Negro expands our understanding of cultural changes at the turn of the century, introduces an important African American writer, and, by so doing, reminds us that not all southern black writers lived near the Atlantic Ocean or achieved authority by being abolitionists or former slaves. …

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