Twenty-one years ago next month I came out to Arizona State University to interview for a assistant professorship. The position called for someone who could teach the Civil War and Reconstruction, military history, and southern history. I could indeed teach all three of these courses: for the most part, I had been unable to teach those subjects at Wofford College, where I was then employed, although in retrospect this was a blessing in disguise, because it meant that I had to teach other subjects (diplomatic history, cultural and intellectual history, women’s history, and, of course, western civ) that have stood me in good stead in being an American historian. Of the three areas cited in the ASU advertisement, the one that caused me to think the most was southern history. True, I had spent ten years in the South (Virginia, Tennessee, and South Carolina), and I had studied much history that usually fell under the umbrella of southern history. My diverse experiences had cautioned me against accepting any simple stereotype of the South. My greatest concern was that people in the Southwest might not find the history of the Southeast very compelling, especially unless I linked it to race relations. Even then when I taught such a course, it did not draw large numbers. As I redefined my areas of specialization to comport more correctly with my interests (something that comes with tenure), I left southern history behind as an independent course, although my understanding of southern history is evident in my current areas of interest (as is my interest in the history of the Northeast, but that’s a subject for another day).
When I lived in the South, the Civil War loomed large in the minds of many white southerners, but by no means could southern history be confused with the history of the Confederacy. At the University of Virginia I learned far more about Jefferson and Madison than about Davis and Lee; Tennesseans took at least as much pride in Andrew Jackson and James Polk as they did in Andrew Johnson, and folks in East Tennessee held a different perspective on the Civil War in any case. And, as much as the early history of Wofford College was shaped by two decisions (investing in Confederate war bonds as well as driving away to Duke, Vanderbilt, and other places individuals who could have contributed to Wofford’s early development), I was more conscious of Reconstruction than the war itself (Spartanburg County was the center of KKK activity in 1870-71, and it was in the upcountry that President Ulysses S. Grant suspended the writ of habeas corpus and went after the terrorists).
This background offers a long introduction to something I’ve seen more clearly since I’ve come out west and become more involved in discussions about history and the American Civil War: the tendency of some white southerners to confuse “southern history” and “the South” with “Civil War history” and “the Confederacy.” One can add to that the commonplace blurring of the terms “southerner” and “white southerner,” as well as the assumption in some quarters that most (white) southerners embrace Confederate heritage. I’m not the only person to note this, of course, although I rarely see it discussed deliberately outside the blogosphere. But southern history is as much about Jamestown and Williamsburg and Washington and Jefferson as it is about secession and war (although it might also be a good idea to remember that southern history is also more than the history of Virginia), and that Martin Luther King, Jr., is as much part of southern history as is Robert E. Lee. Yes, race relations are a central theme in southern history, but there are other themes as well, including the changing demography of the region (especially in migration patterns in and out). The term “southerner” should include all southerners, regardless of race or ancestry, and there are southerners who have no connection to the Civil War.
Here’s my question: why don’t more self-identified southerners make this point? Some do, and that’s important, but one still sees “southern heritage” confused with “Confederate heritage.” One of the most interesting aspects of the debate over the “secession ball” in South Carolina was that there were southerners who made it clear that they objected to “southerner” being reduced to being a few white folks who like to raise a rebel yell and celebrate a war against the United States while proclaiming their American patriotism. This evidence of diversity and identity is important. It would be a shame if people outside the South who know little about the South reduced the region and its people to a set of cardboard stereotypes (usually crafted with an eye toward making the observer feel self-satisfied and smug, even virtuous and superior). But it is up to southerners themselves to testify to their diversity, their inclusiveness, and their refusal to be reduced to such stereotypes, especially when people who largely fit those stereotypes claim to speak for “the real South” and conflate “southern heritage” with the Confederacy. Then you won’t have Yankees such as me holding forth on these issues. 🙂
I look with fondness upon my years in the South(east). I have by no means ruled out a return to the area. We’ll see. But, while I don’t claim to be a southerner, I am reminded daily of my southern connections. I hope that southerners choose to play their part in the battle for southern identity and southern history with the same fervor as did those people who once claimed to fight for southern rights.