The bringing down of a nineteenth century moment dedicated to white supremacy and terrorism in New Orleans last week has reminded all of us of the ways in which Civil War and Reconstruction still loom large in American memory. Arguing over old neo-Confederate monuments, or state support for flying the Confederate flag, has a new lease on life in both an “Age of Trump” and an “Age of Black Lives Matter.” That the nation is at a crossroads of race and memory right now—just as the United States wrestles with both the legacy of Barack Obama and the presidency of Donald Trump—is not a surprise. But events since the Charleston massacre of 2015 prove that the debate over memory in American society is never-ending.
Guest Post by Richard King
Though Southern writing and music, of whatever sort, remain among the significant achievements of US cultural history, the region has much less often been associated with the visual arts, especially painting and sculpture. That is why the death of William A. “Bill” Christenberry (b. 1936) on November 28, 2016 deserves to be remembered. A long-time resident of Washington, DC and faculty member at Corcoran School of Art, Christenberry’s art was rooted in Hale County, Alabama, where he grew up. But Hale was also the country which writer James Agee and photographer Walker Evans visited on assignment from Fortune magazine in the mid-1930s. The result of that stay in the Alabama Black Belt was an unclassifiable book, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1941), which contained around thirty photographs by Evans, followed by an intricate, eloquent and at times unreadable text by Agee. It was a public confession, a documentary in word and image, even a treatise on visual aesthetics and the ethics of investigative journalism.[i]
I find myself, day to day, thinking harder about the purpose of teaching during an age of social tumult. Having been fortunate enough to teach two different courses on the American South at the University of South Carolina in the last year—Contemporary South for Southern Studies and now the New South for History—I’ve had to confront these pedagogical issues time and again. In particular, these questions of how to teach history during the era of Black Lives Matter relate to broader questions of the purpose and “utility” of teaching and learning history. At the same time, public discourse about American history and race relations depends a great deal on having a populace that has some basic understanding of the long story of racial formation in the United States.
As I get ready for another fall semester at the University of South Carolina—finishing a dissertation and teaching a course on “the New South” of late 19th century and 20th century America—I decided to finally complete a book I have longed to read on my coffee table. James McBride’s Kill ‘Em and Leave: Searching for James Brown and the American Soul was released to considerable fanfare earlier this year. About the life and legacy of the musical legend, McBride’s book is a meditation on African American life during and after the age of segregation and Jim Crow (which, by the way, is a reminder that Tim Lacy’s series on Jesse Jackson is another reflection on that history). But beyond that, Kill ‘Em and Leave should leave any reader—certainly any historian—thinking about the places within America left behind by modern American history.
The most recent post by Ben Alpers about September 11, 2001 and the shadow it casts over recent history has prompted me to think about the recent history of the American South, a region near and dear to my heart. More specifically, it has me thinking about the role of magazines in attempting to craft a different perception of the American South, compared to what most Americans are used to thinking about. Magazines as sources of intellectual debate and ferment are, of course, a tradition of the field. One could not imagine saying much about the history of the United States after 1960 from an intellectual perspective without citing, for example, The New York Review of Books or Commentary. Indeed, one of the plenary sessions at this year’s S-USIH conference covers the history of “little magazines.” Likewise, it will be difficult to write or talk about the intellectual history of the American South since the 1980s without mentioning magazines such as Oxford American, or for that matter, several other periodicals I like to think of as “little magazines of the South.”
The last few weeks for me have been occupied by creating a syllabus for a course titled “The Contemporary South.” It is a dream opportunity for me, and one that I hope only further heightens my excitement about teaching in the classroom. Today I wish to toss around ideas I have had for what I will call “dream intellectual history courses”—in other words, the kind of classes I want to teach down the road once I have my Ph.D. in hand. These are class ideas I’d have for graduate seminars, although they could also be adapted for upper-division history courses for undergraduates. What follows are five of my ideas. I hope to see yours in the comments section!
Since I started here at the Society of U.S. Intellectual Historians’ blog in the summer of 2013 as a guest poster, I have come back time again to questions of the race and the South in the American mind. Even then, though, I had no expectation that such talk would eventually lead to analyzing the deaths of nine churchgoers in Charleston, South Carolina, or a now-year long “Black Lives Matter” campaign. Closer to home for me, Columbia, South Carolina just experienced a Ku Klux Klan rally on July 18 (which, coincidentally, was the 152nd anniversary of the African American 54th Massachusetts’ Regiment charge on Fort Wagner). Held to uphold the “heritage” idea behind flying the Confederate flag, the group that converged on the Statehouse—outnumbered by counter-protestors, including the African American group Black Educators for Justice, which held their own rally earlier that day—the mixed group of Klansmen and women, along with Neo-Nazis, needed police protection to ensure their own security. No doubt the Klan has seen better days, especially in the South.
Last week historians and scholars of the American South were saddened to hear about the passing of Michael O’Brien (1948-2015). O’Brien, the premier intellectual historian of the American South for a generation, leaves behind a remarkable corpus of work on the American South, the United States, and intellectual history in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The field of U.S. Intellectual History, and especially that of the American South, feels less whole with him gone.
Recent weeks have seen the release of numerous new works on the South, Southern Studies, and how regionalism still matters. The rise in writings about the American South isn’t just limited to the academy, although that will be the crux of my piece today. For instance, James Fallows has been writing a fascinating series on Mississippi in recent weeks, seeking to write about the state, and the South in general, in a respectful manner. Fallows noted in his most recent post that “there’s an all-but-irresistible freak-show undertone to a lot of reports from Mississippi. These Southerners! Can you believe them?” The South, of course, features in the background of the recent piece on reparations by Ta-Nehisi Coates, but it’s worth noting that the essay itself also focuses heavily on Chicago. Mr. Coates’ goal, in that regard, was to talk about more recent problems facing African Americans after slavery, offering a national narrative for a national problem. (By the way, there’s a fascinating piece by Randall Kennedy in the most recent issue of Harper’s magazine, which I think is a nice corollary to the Coates reparations article. It’s behind a paywall, but I’d highly recommend getting a copy to read this essay.)
Last week I began a series of posts on the American South and how it was perceived by groups of American intellectuals. Today I’ll begin by teasing out a few thoughts on the relationship between the American Left and the American South. Now, both those terms are fraught with considerable internal dynamics that can, if not careful, be ignored by just saying “the Left” or “the South”. For the sake of this post, I’ll try to stay within a post-1965 time frame and tease out some trends amongst American leftist intellectuals, writers, and activists as they addressed what they thought of as the South. As this series continues, I’ll demonstrate that Leftists used the South for a variety of purposes. At the same time, they gave the South several meanings. It was both a place of considerable challenge for Left-wing agitation, and also a place of considerable potential. Finally, it’s important to consider the South’s own internal left-wing movements and organizations, and that will be the focus of my essay today. While often small in number, they still present some food for thought in regards to how we consider the history of the New Left and other Left movements in the 1960s and beyond. Their relationship to larger Left organizations is also important.