Sunlit Water

July 7, 2006

Old Times There Are Not Forgotten

Filed under: Culture — by teofilo @ 10:38 pm

Lest the previous post give the impression that I hate the South (and yes, Delaware is the South), I figure I should provide a corrective.

A White Bear (another of my favorite blog people) recently had a fascinating post about race and the South, focusing on her southern family and how racist they are. She talks about her white mother being raised by a black mammy even though her family was poor, and about how her relatives would regularly weave astonishingly virulent racism into casual conversation. There’s a lot of interesting stuff in her post, and I’m not going to single out anything in particular to quote.What I found most interesting, however, was how different her impressions of the South are from mine. I also have white southern relatives, though they’re significantly more distant from me than AWB’s are from her, and my experience of them has been nothing like this. I’ve only been there to see them once, when we had a big family reunion in Tennessee a few years ago, but that was a major event where we saw relatives pretty much all day long for about a week. In all that time, though, the only time I heard anyone mention race was when we asked what the letters after the names of certain churches meant and they responded matter-of-factly that those were black denominations. Nothing like the constant use of racial epithets and gleeful disdain for “cuhluds” that AWB remembers of her grandfather.

So what’s the difference? Why does AWB’s white southern family seem so different from mine? I can think of a few possible explanations.

One is familiarity. As I mentioned, my relatives are quite distantly related to me, and I’ve only met most of them once. Perhaps they are more openly racist when they’re just among intimates, as AWB’s grandfather was when visiting her. This is certainly a possibility, but the impression I get from AWB’s description is that her relatives were like that all the time, not bothering to conceal their racism even from casual acquaintances, so I doubt this is it.

Another possible answer is regional difference. AWB’s family comes from the Deep South, specifically the Gulf coast of Alabama, while mine is from western Tennessee, part of what’s locally known as the “Mid-South.” The South is a large and varied area of the country, and it could well be that racial attitudes and the willingness to express them publicly vary from place to place. This seems quite likely to be at least a part of the answer, but I haven’t been to enough places in the South to really judge its validity. So maybe.

A third possibility, and the one I find most compelling, is class. AWB mentions that her mom grew up quite poor, despite the mammy, and there is a well-known theory that poor southern whites supported slavery and later segregation because it gave them an automatic status boost: they may have been poor, but at least they were better (not just better off, but better) than the blacks. It makes sense, at least to me, that this attitude would continue to the present day in an increased willingness to be openly racist among poor people who find alleged racial superiority to be their only source of pride.

My family, on the other hand, was different. They had owned slaves and had been part of the southern aristocracy before the Civil War (although this particular branch appears to have been pretty near the bottom of it). In fact, it was the destruction of their plantation house by the Yankees during the war and the subsequent loss of all their wealth that led some of them to go west afterward to try to start over. Perhaps the relatives I met in Tennessee didn’t talk about race because it didn’t matter that much to them; they didn’t need racial superiority to feel pride because they had their distinguished ancestry. I’m sure many (probably most) of them were racist in the past, and some of them surely still are, but if so they keep it to themselves.

One of the things that struck me about the South when I was there was how important history was. Not just things like monuments at battlefields and highways named after Confederate generals (although there were definitely those), but little things. Local history and genealogy were everywhere. Even in small towns the public libraries had genealogy sections, and people knew their families back many generations. They particularly knew the parts of their family histories they were proud of: who had plantations where, who served under which general in the Civil War. Although those aren’t things I would be proud of, they served to give people a heritage and a sense of where they fit in the world. Without them other, more dangerous, ideas could fill that void.


1 Comment »

  1. Methinks all three of your theories are correct at once, Teo.

    Comment by A White Bear — July 8, 2006 @ 12:58 am |Reply

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