Why South Carolina must remove the Confederate Battle Flag from Capitol Grounds

Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, SC. Photo credit: Post and Courier.
Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, SC. Photo credit: Post and Courier.

The terror and murder of innocents in Charleston’s Emanuel AME church a few days ago has rightfully sparked a discussion of our country’s problem with race–especially the fact that on a daily basis, black people are targets of white hatred.  And, in the case of 21 year-old Dylann Roof, a white racist from Eastover, South Carolina, his hatred led him to plot and murder nine individuals gathered for prayer in their own church.  They were:

Cynthia Hurd, 54
Susie Johnson, 87
Ethel Lance, 70
Rev. DePayne Middleton-Doctor, 49
The Honorable Rev. Clementa Pinckney, 41
Tywanza Sanders, 26
Rev. Daniel Simmons, Sr., 74
Rev. Sharonda Singleton, 49
Myra Thompson, 49

Say their names.  This is a constant refrain, because this story isn’t just about the murderer, it’s as much about those who were killed and the devastation that their families and community are left to deal with.

Enough of this.
Enough of this.

It is also time that South Carolina, in particular, remove one of the most divisive symbols on its Capitol grounds–the Confederate battle flag.  It’s the same flag that Dylann Roof sported on the front plate of his car and one, among other white supremacist flags, that he swore allegiance to.

Governor Nikki Haley feigns surprise at how someone could enter a place of worship to kill people, while also suggesting that this flag is a-okay with business CEOs.

First, Gov. Haley needs to get her head out of the sand. This wasn’t simply an attack on people of faith.  It was an act of racial terror on a specific church.  Anyone with a bare bones understanding of the state’s history, which should include Haley, knows exactly why Roof targeted Emanuel AME.

Second, whether or not CEOs have a problem with the Confederate battle flag on capitol grounds is beside the point. The South Carolina State House is the people’s house.  It doesn’t belong to the CEO of Volvo or any other business considering locating a factory in South Carolina. It belongs to all of South Carolina’s citizens, not just the ones who are clinging to a relic of white supremacy.

The Honorable Rev. Clementa Pinckney
The Honorable Rev. Clementa Pinckney

So that flag, the one that inspires racial hatred and murder and hopes of a race war, has no place on the grounds of state government. Shamefully, it flew even as The Honorable Senator Clementa Pinckney, murdered in the church he pastored, was being eulogized inside the senate chamber where he once served.

It insults his service to South Carolina. It insults all those who were murdered as they worshipped. It insults black and white citizens of the state alike, and it must come down.

It’s a small gesture and not a salve for all that is wrong, but it might begin a process of racial healing that is much needed right now.

The Prancing Elites: Navigating the Landscape of Love and Hate

The Prancing Elites of Mobile, Alabama
The Prancing Elites of Mobile, Alabama

When I moved to south Mississippi in 1991, I joined a diverse community of gay people.  One of the most fascinating individuals I ever encountered was a black man known throughout the community as Miss Bootnanny.  She stood 6′ 5″ tall and when I saw her, it was usually at the little gay bar in Hattiesburg called Le Bistro–affectionately known as the Cha Cha Palace or simply “the Cha Cha.”

Taken circa 2000.
Taken circa 2000.

The ‘Burg was not a large enough city to have segregated gay bars–by gender or race–so we ALL went to the Cha Cha. Miss Bootnanny’s story, the little bit I gathered, was that she had been a drum major at Jackson State University, that out of drag she worked for a local garden center, and on any day you might see her twirling her baton on a public street or in the parking lot of the Sunflower grocery store.

While I never actually saw Bootnanny during the day to confirm the latter, she left no doubt that she had once led a marching band and knew how to twirl batons.  Her talent extended to fire, as I learned when I watched in amazement as she twirled flaming machetes, an impressive talent, to say the least. On a “normal” weekend at the Cha Cha, though, she always made an entrance.

One night, it went like this:  I was standing around chatting with friends when all of a sudden there was a commotion and we all stopped to look, because Miss Bootnanny had arrived. In she walked, dressed in a sparkling, sequined onesie, carrying one of those flag corps flags. She marched her way around the entire bar hoisting it into the air like the Pied Piper of Fabulous, which she was. (Note: Currently seeking a photo of Miss Bootnanny to add to this piece.)

And yet, I know that her life could not have been easy despite those moments of pure joy. Growing up black in America is difficult enough. And while I have written elsewhere that gay acceptance can be found in the rural Deep South, I know very well that there are limitations–particularly when LGBT expressions are further complicated by race and evangelical religion. To say nothing of poverty.

Having one Miss Bootnanny in a small community makes her eccentric, one of “our own,” and “non-threatening.”  But when more than one come together, much less five, and demand to be seen, that’s another story entirely.

Enter the Prancing Elites–the subject of a new reality TV show currently airing on Oxygen.

prancingelites

The Prancing Elites Project follows a dance team made up of five openly-gay black men who live in Mobile, Alabama, and model themselves after the J-Settes–the all-female dance team that performs with the Jackson State University marching band. The Elites wear make-up and dress like the J-Settes, too.

The Prancing Elites live to dance–whether that’s in the stands while a marching band plays, being part of a parade (any parade), or performing for a New Year’s Eve party full of white folks. The latter has elicited some harsh criticism on YouTube, which makes one long for the voice of Langston Hughes to offer his critique of the ways of these white folks.

You may have also seen The Elites on America’s Got Talent or a talk show called The Real.  Yet in their new reality show on Oxygen, the realness is not just the love showered on the Prancing Elites from across the nation, a result of the media attention they’ve received.  It’s also the hateful responses from both black and white members of their local community and, in some cases, even close relatives.

And while they put on a brave face, and even regard their passion for dance and being openly gay as part of a longer tradition of southern civil rights, one can quickly discern that navigating this landscape of love and hate can be difficult for these young men to endure, as they must carry the added weight of being black and gay in a region that so often despises both.

When I watch the Prancing Elites, I have several reactions.

I fear for their safety.  I feel the pain of rejection of a  community that uses religion to justify its hate and disapproval.  And yet, I admire their courage to stand up to the bigotry of racists and homophobes.

I cheer them on in their bid to change the world for the better not by leaving the South, but by remaining here and trying to make a difference for those who want to follow in their dance steps. And I am buoyed by their confidence and the positive reactions they get from the same community.

I hope they squeeze all they can from the fame rollercoaster before the cameras go away and, in the process, help to make a better way for those like Miss Bootnanny who, all those years ago, simply wanted to be herself.

RuPaul’s Drag Race Season 7: All Hail the Southern Queens!

Ginger Minj, cross-dresser for Christ.
Ginger Minj, “cross-dresser for Christ” from Leesburg, Florida.

I’ve written about RuPaul’s Drag Race here before, exploring the fabulosity that drag queens from the South bring to the larger drag world.  Southern queens are pros at drag performance, because they’ve often had great role models in straight southern women who also love big hair, wear tons of makeup, and compete in pageants.

Kennedy Davenport from Dallas, Texas.
Kennedy Davenport from Dallas, Texas.

On this season’s Drag Race, there are two southern standouts–Kennedy Davenport from Dallas, Texas, and Ginger Minj from Leesburg, Florida, who proudly proclaims that she’s a “cross-dresser for Christ” and recently told the Orlando Sentinel that she based Ginger on “strong, funny, outgoing churchwomen I spent my life around,” adding “She’s very Southern.”

Both are talented performers in their own right (Kennedy Davenport was a contestant on America’s Got Talent), but I live for the unadulterated comments they make during interviews out of drag. It’s very often the humor, or simply a turn of phrase, that fellow southerners who enjoy drag instinctively get.

I’m biased, but I believe the southern queens on RPDR are often the most talented, funniest, and polished.  Last year’s winner, Bianca Del Rio, hails from New Orleans.  One of the most popular contestants from the show has been Alyssa Edwards, also from Texas. And she didn’t even win the contest!

Regardless of who becomes the next Drag Superstar, we all win when southern queens are in the mix.

Note: All told, there are actually four southern queens. Violet Chachki, is from Atlanta but does not present herself as “southern.” Jaidynn Diore Fierce, is also on the show. She hails from Nashville, Tennessee.

 

Me and Jeff Davis are Finis: The Price of Confederate Heritage

moijefferson-davis-portrait

My journey through the culture of the Lost Cause and what had been (still is?) the cult of Jefferson Davis came full circle years after my initial visit to Beauvoir upon learning about the creation of the Jefferson Davis Presidential Library. This project was initiated by the Mississippi Sons of Confederate Veterans (SCV), which owns and operates the site, and through its lobbying efforts became a financial beneficiary of the State of Mississippi. On their own, the Sons were not successful in their efforts to raise money for the library. In fact, the money they raised was not enough to renovate the house, much less build a presidential library.

The original.
The original opened in 1998.

So the Sons lobbied state officials, especially then Governor Kirk Fordice, who confirmed his support for Confederate history during each year of his two terms in office by officially declaring April as Confederate Heritage Month. The SCV’s lobbying efforts to garner funds for the library were rewarded in 1993 when the state gave $1.5 million in bond funds for the project. Then, two years later, Governor Fordice signed a bill giving the SCV an additional $3 million. Thus, the State of Mississippi awarded $4.5 million in taxpayer funds to a private institution to create (without a hint of irony) the Jefferson Davis Presidential Library.  Not “Confederate Presidential Library,” mind you, but Presidential Library.

This kind of state support was common in the early twentieth century.  Throughout the South, state legislatures and local governments gave today’s equivalent of millions of dollars to erect Confederate monuments, build soldiers’ and widows’ homes, and fund other Lost Cause projects.

jimcrowedAs states poured funds into creating stone likenesses of Confederate soldiers, their black citizens suffered as schools were underfunded and many lived in abject poverty.  Not much has changed in the last century.  It may be 2015, but it wreaks of 1915.

In today’s Mississippi, most minorities and poor whites must attend substandard public schools where state expenditures on public education place the state at the bottom in nationwide rankings. And yet there always seems to be money for a historic site dedicated to a pro-slavery president of a defeated Confederate nation.

This was brought into sharp relief when Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast. It nearly wiped Beauvoir from the map and destroyed the library.  But have no fear, both the Federal Emergency Management Association (FEMA) and the Mississippi Emergency Management Association (MEMA) came to the rescue. From a report from the Department of Homeland Security:

“As of May 18, 2010, Beauvoir had received a public assistance award of $17.2 million from the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency (MEMA), a FEMA grantee, for damages related to Hurricane Katrina in August 2005.”
Lost Cause Detritus: Beauvoir after Hurricane Katrina. Author photo, 2006.
Lost Cause Detritus: Beauvoir after Hurricane Katrina, 2006. Author’s photo.
Jefferson Davis Library and Museum, take two.
Jefferson Davis Library and Museum, take two.

Not only was Beauvoir restored, the library was rebuilt to the tune of $17.2 million dollars. This on top of the original $4.5 million comes to $21.7 million for the site. Let that sink in.

Understanding Jeff Davis’s role in the Confederate tradition has, for me, meant truly knowing what a hold the Lost Cause still has on the South. Are white southerners, as my colleague David Goldfield writes, “still fighting the Civil War?” Certainly some of them are.

What’s more significant, I would argue, is that the white South continues to honor, revere, and value Confederate heritage without putting up a fight at all.  It’s all around us if we look, and paid for by local, state, and even the Federal government–especially in the Deep South.

The price of Confederate heritage goes beyond the millions that were spent to commemorate it and the millions spent to preserve it. There’s a price to pay for honoring the heritage that I encountered through the memory of Jefferson Davis.  It’s a heritage that has come at the expense of African American progress and the region’s poorest citizens, black and white. It’s a heritage that has hampered race relations and civil rights. And, it’s a heritage that has hurt the region’s reputation throughout the nation.

Simply put:  Confederate heritage has cost the South too much.

Beauvoir, 2006. Author's photo.
Beauvoir, 2006. Author’s photo.

 

 

The American South at the Oscars

Let’s add Selma to this list! #Oscars2015

Pop South

12 Years a Slave 12 Years a Slave

The American South has been the subject and setting for countless films over the years and many of them have been nominated for Best Picture, and more than a few have won the Oscar.  And this year is no exception. Among the nominees for Best Picture are “12 Years a Slave,” most of which is set in Louisiana, and “Dallas Buyers Club,” set in Texas. (Update: 12 Years a Slave won Best Picture)

While the 1930s was known for movies set in the Old South, the first motion picture set in the region to receive an Oscar nomination was “I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang,” (1932) in which a wrongly-convicted James Allen (played by Paul Muni) serves time on a southern chain gang.  The next southern-based film to get an Oscar nomination was “Jezebel”…

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Me and Jeff Davis, Part VII: His Crown of Thorns

JD's crown and the Confederate Museum's story that the Pope made it.
JD’s crown of thorns

Nothing says “Christian martyr” like a crown of thorns, but did you know that Jefferson Davis had one, too?  He did.

Preparing my manuscript on the United Daughters of the Confederacy (UDC) often took me to the Museum of the Confederacy (MOC) in Richmond. In one final trip to search for images with which to illustrate my book, I traveled there in the spring of 2002. At the time, the MOC was hosting a special exhibit of items on loan from the Confederate Memorial Hall Museum in New Orleans, which opened in 1891 and is one of the oldest history museums in the South.

I walked through the exhibit, observing objects from several of the South’s heroes (General P.G.T. Beauregard‘s uniform, for example) and then was stopped in my tracks by the relic of all Lost Cause relics. There before me under plexiglas was a crown of thorns. Without reading the exhibit copy, I instinctively knew it was for Jeff. And, yes, I was right. Here before me rested the ultimate symbol of his martyrdom—a crown of thorns. I could hardly believe my eyes. I saw (but would not touch) the locks of his hair, and now I found myself gazing on his crown of thorns.

The martyrdom of Jeff Davis began to take shape during his imprisonment at Fort Monroe in Va.
The martyrdom of Jeff Davis began to take shape during his imprisonment at Fort Monroe in Va.

The thorny wreath, according to the Confederate Museum that owns it, was “sent to Davis by Pope Pius IX in sympathy for Davis’ post war treatment by the U.S. government while a prisoner at Fortress Monroe.” That seemed like a sacrilegious thing for a pope to do, but the representatives of the museum have yet to waiver from their story. However, the researchers at the Museum of the Confederacy documented their version, which is that his wife Varina Davis made the crown. An inventory of items donated by Varina to the Confederate Museum in New Orleans confirms that she made the crown, but I’ve yet to find out why. (Kevin Levin offers the documentation on his Civil War Memory site.)

This object, this relic of the Lost Cause, makes quite a statement about Davis as a martyr, because not every martyr gets a crown of thorns. Did the white South believe so whole-heartedly that his sacrifices were Christ-like?

I have no doubt that the early members of the UDC were on board with the “Davis as martyr” image, because it was in keeping with the stories written about women of the Confederate generation in the years following the Civil War.

Those “women of the sixties” were frequently compared to Mary and Martha of the Bible, “last at the cross and first at the grave.” Perhaps the UDC saw its role in preserving the image of Jeff Davis as similar in intent.

The crown of thorns, while made by Varina, served its purpose as the pièce de résistance in a much larger campaign by women to resurrect Davis’s image.

Check back for the final installment of Me and Jeff Davis: The Serial when I discuss the Jefferson Davis Presidential Library as well as the financial and political costs of the Lost Cause.

 

Me and Jeff Davis, Part VI: Living on Jefferson Davis Highway

Map_of_the_Jefferson_Davis_Memorial_Highway
This map does not show the alternate routes I mention here, but it offers you an idea of what the UDC had in mind.

In 1913, UDC President-General Rassie White conceived of a memorial project unlike any other. The organization’s success with monuments was evident throughout the South and in some northern cities, including Chicago. Even San Francisco had a Confederate memorial in the form of a park planted with southern trees.

But it was the opportunity to honor their man once again that led President-General White and the Daughters to suggest that a highway, named for Jefferson Davis, be created. The transcontinental route would extend from ocean to ocean and wind its way through southern states, beginning in Washington, DC, and ending in San Diego, California.

2004-D03-315There would also be two auxiliary routes: one from Davis’s birthplace in Fairview, Kentucky, to his last residence, Beauvoir, on the coast of Mississippi. Surprisingly, the other route would follow Davis’s escape route through the South to the site of his capture in Irwinsville, Georgia. Surprising, since this route ended at the place where the controversy erupted over his capture in feminine attire.

The Daughters’ did not fully succeed in completing this highway memorial, as some sections of the road were built but not connected as a continuous coast to coast route. Today, only some parts of the highway carry the Davis name. One, ironically, is U.S. 80 in Alabama, particularly the segment from Selma to Montgomery. It was indeed on this road, named for Jefferson Davis, that the Reverend Martin Luther King led the march that led to the Voting Rights Act of 1965, a story recently dramatized in the movie “Selma.”

The other route, U.S. 1 in Virginia, also carries the name Jefferson Davis Highway. It was through this section of the memorial that I again crossed paths, literally, with the memory of the Confederate president.

In 2001, I moved to Arlington, Virginia.  Friends of mine directed me to some apartments in the area known as Crystal City, adjacent to National Airport (I’m one of those who still resists the name change to Reagan National for good reason.)  Because I had to make a quick decision, I settled on an apartment in this section of Arlington.

jdhwyMy new address, and a big surprise to me, was none other than Jeff Davis Highway. As serendipity would have it, it was there, with a Jeff Davis address, that I put the finishing touches on the manuscript that became Dixie’s Daughters.

For more information on this highway, see: Richard F. Weingroff, “Jefferson Davis Memorial Highway,” U.S. Department of Transportation, Federal Highway Administration website, http://www.fhwa.dot.gov/infastructure/jdavis.htm

My Lost Cause journey with Jeff continues.  Come back next week for Part VII and the story of Jeff Davis and his crown of thorns.

 

Me and Jeff Davis, Part V: Massing Flags for Jeff’s Birthday

jdmassingSince 1965, the year the Voting Rights Act was passed, the headquarters of the United Daughters of the Confederacy (UDC) in Richmond, Virginia, has hosted an annual ceremony known as the “Massing of the Flags.” The event, held each June, commemorates the birthday of Confederate President Jefferson Davis. It is the one time each year that the UDC opens its doors to the public, and in my many research trips to the city, I was told that it would be interesting for me to attend this event.

In 2000, my curiosity led me to Richmond to find out what massing of the flags–Confederate style–meant. As I approached the headquarters I saw men in reproduction Confederate uniforms and women in dresses that cascaded over hoop skirts. It was a sign of things to come.

Headquarters of the UDC in Richmond, VA.
Headquarters of the UDC in Richmond, VA.

Entering the building, one walks into the large central room where the ceremony is held. Stretching along the wall directly opposite the entrance is a row of chairs, reminiscent of Masonic chairs, which at one time likely hosted the officers of the Daughters’ general organization. Above the chairs on the wall is the UDC motto “Think, Love, Pray, Dare, Live” represented on a five-pointed star with a cotton boll at the center.

I took a seat on the right side of the aisle and waited for the day’s activities to begin. Leading the audience in prayer, the minister did what Lost Cause devotees of a century earlier had done—paid homage to Jefferson Davis by likening his sacrifices for the South to those of Christ for humanity. Another speaker led the crowd in a rousing rebel yell, followed by the singing of “Dixie.” The day’s speech, like every year’s ceremony, focused on some aspect of Davis’s life and career. Then, I learned about massing flags.

Image credit: Virginia UDC website.
Image credit: Virginia UDC website.

State by state (not all of which we know to be Confederate, like California) was represented by a man and woman dressed in period attire. The man carried the state’s flag, as commentary about the state’s sacrifices, commitment to, or sympathy with the Confederate cause was read aloud.

Chests swelled with pride and the ceremony was observed by many others dressed in period attire, dabbing their eyes with handkerchiefs as the parade of flags passed by. Lest you think this was a ceremony of the aged, the Children of the Confederacy (the UDC’s official youth auxiliary) was also represented, just as in commemorations past.

Wells made national papers again in 2011 when an image of her appeared in USA Today as one of several South Carolinians participating in a Secession Ball.
Wells made national papers again in 2011 when an image of her appeared in USA Today as one of several South Carolinians participating in a Secession Ball.

This particular commemoration was marked with a speech by June Murray Wells, then president-general of the entire UDC organization. A resident of Charleston, South Carolina, Wells’ presence at that year’s massing came on the heels of the fight over the Confederate battle flag that flew atop the South Carolina State House in Columbia, which was subsequently removed.

In her speech recounting the year’s battles, however, Murray stayed true to Lost Cause form and painted the eventual outcome as a moral victory for Confederate organizations. She noted with pride that the flag, no longer flying out of view on top of the capitol, now appeared more visible to the state’s citizens, as it waved from a thirty-foot flagpole that stood directly in front of the building. “The pole is lit at night,” she told the enthusiastic crowd, and, she chuckled “should anyone try to remove the flag, it has an electric charge.”

That day Jefferson Davis’s birthday was marked in true Lost Cause fashion. A man who was a white supremacist was honored through modern day racist rhetoric. The NAACP, whose members Wells referred to as “that crowd,” and its boycott of South Carolina was, for those gathered to honor Davis, about “us” versus “them,” of white versus black.

And in their minds, the Confederate forces had won.

In Part VI of Me and Jeff Davis, I’ll talk about living on Jefferson Davis Highway.

Me and Jeff Davis, Part IV: A Confederate Hair Bonanza

I have privately shared my story of Jefferson Davis’s hair with friends and colleagues over the years and felt it was time that I came out so I can reveal it to others.

A hair wreath in honor of a Union soldier.
A hair wreath in honor of a Union soldier.

Historians who have studied Civil War memory, myself included, rarely make mention of its relation to Victorian culture. There are obvious connections, which I encountered regularly—particularly the Victorian passion for collecting human hair—hair as relic, hair as keepsake, hair as jewelry, and as sacred memento.

58614966One particularly fascinating story involved the display of a “hair wreath” at the Cotton States Exposition in Atlanta in 1895. Jeff Davis’s hair was at the center of this wreath and was interwoven with the hair of several other Confederate heroes including Robert E. Lee, Raphael Semmes, Frank Cheatham, Nathan Bedford Forrest, D. H. Hill, Joseph E. Johnston, Edmund Kirby Smith, Bushrod Johnson, and James Longstreet–making it a literal treasure trove of Confederate hair. (I was unable to locate an image of the hair wreath.  My apologies.)

Reading about hair is one thing.  Encountering it firsthand is quite another.  While I was working through a manuscript collection at Duke University, which contained the papers of a well-known UDC leader, I came across an envelope marked “Jeff Davis’ Hair.” This was, indeed, an archival moment. I paused, held my breath, and looked around to see if anyone had noticed what I had just found. I’m not sure why, but I thought someone might grab it and make a mad dash for the door.

I nervously lifted the fold of the envelope that revealed, honest to goodness it did . . . hair! I felt confident that this was indeed a lock of Davis’s hair, the older Davis to be sure, because it was gray.  It had to be his: these were the Clement Clay Papers and the UDC member I was researching was Virginia Clay Clopton, a dear friend and frequent correspondent of the former Confederate president.

Did he clip it and send it to her himself, I wondered? When he got his hair cut, did he have a servant sweep up the locks to send to special friends? I didn’t notify anyone of my find at the time, and though shaken I continued my research when, what seemed a nanosecond later, I came to another envelope, similarly marked, and yes, hair again! Virginia was special, indeed.

For $4,000 you may have this single strand of Jeff's hair.
For $4,000 you may have this single strand of Jeff’s hair.

As I came to learn, Confederate hair is a valuable commodity. The online auction site eBay has a category called “historic hair and hair collectibles.” Samples of Jeff’s hair are currently being auctioned in a range from $125 for a single “authenticated” strand, to $299 for 8 strands collected while he was imprisoned at Fort Monroe in Virginia, to $4,000 for an authenticated strand from the Upper Deck Company called “A Piece of History Hair Cuts.” Upper Deck is known for its sports-related trading cards, but branched out in 2008 with these hair collectibles you see to the right. I have no idea what makes this strand “authentic” and more valuable than the one that cost $125.

And so, friends, what this means is that the locks of Jeff Davis’s hair I encountered in the archives was a veritable Confederate hair bonanza that could have paid off my college loans!  Alas, I am not a thief.

Next week, in Part V of “Me and Jeff Davis,” I’ll discuss the annual ritual in Richmond, Virginia, celebrating Davis’s natal day in a ceremony known as the “Massing of the Flags.”

 

 

 

Sombreros and Motorcycles with Nicole King

sombreroscoverFor this installment of Porch Talk, Pop South interviews Nicole King, Associate Professor of American Studies at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, about her new book Sombreros and Motorcycles in a Newer South.  In it, she examines two iconic tourist attractions in South Carolina–South of the Border and Atlantic Beach’s Bikefest (also known as “Black Bike Week.”)

PS: Your book Sombreros and Motorcycles in a Newer South you investigate the cultural meanings embedded in two very different tourist attractions, both of which are located in South Carolina—South of the Border and Atlantic Beach’s Bikefest.  What drew you to study these two places?

I am drawn to overlooked places that have escaped scholarly attention. Both South of the Border —a Jewish-owned roadside attraction—and Atlantic Beach—a historically black seaside resort—were independently owned tourist sites that developed during the post-World War II rise of consumer culture and have managed to sustain their businesses and built environments outside of the corporate model of tourism. They both possess a distinct retro and individual aesthetic because of their independent histories during the rise of mass-produced consumer culture. Both places experienced their heydays during the period of segregated leisure culture in the South and dealt with desegregation and shifts in southern politics in interesting ways that speak to the importance of leisure culture as a defining aspect of southern culture and identity.

border_signAlso, I grew up in Conway, South Carolina, which is within an hour of both South of the Border and Atlantic Beach. I worked in the tourism industry throughout high school. Both places drew me in with a fascinating built environment that was distinct from the mass-produced tourist destinations in Myrtle Beach. Essentially, I became obsessed with the question: Why do these places look the way they do? What are their stories?

PS: You see these two tourist sites as representative of what you call a “Newer South.”  Explain what that term means to you.

The Newer South entails the refashioning of older regional constructions as they move into the twenty-first century. Like the songs by the Drive-by Truckers or, the independent films of Ray McKinnon, or the recreation of the Confederate flag in the colors of African liberation by young fashion entrepreneurs in Charleston, SC, the “Newer South” explores the “duality of the southern thing.” To me this duality includes a new generation of southerners coming to terms with the past horrors of the region’s past (slavery and Jim Crow) while also moving forward with a more diverse and progressive view on the region’s more postmodern identity—meaning that identity is constantly being refashioned in more hybrid and performative ways. In a historical sense, the Newer South also encompasses a shift in economics from the New South of manufacturing towards the current dominance of the service industries in the region.

PS: What does South of the Border tell us about southern history and culture?

Alan Schafer
Alan Schafer

South of Border represents the constantly changing aspect of southern history and culture on the physical and metaphorical “borderlines.” Alan Schafer, who created and ran the roadside attraction until his death in 2001, used his hybrid Jewish-southern identity to build a diverse base for his business and push social and political boundaries. Schafer was constantly changing and expanding his roadside attraction located just south of the North-Carolina/South Carolina border and working with recently enfranchised African Americans. On the other hand, South of the Border presents the refashioned racism of the Newer South with the mascot of Pedro, a problematic cartoon-like stereotype that essentializes the complexity of Latinos into a singular “lazy Mexican” stereotype. The South of the Border roadside attraction tells us about the good and bad of southern history and culture as it moves into the twenty-first century (still owned and operated by the Schafer family).

PS: How about Atlantic Beach’s Bikefest?

The Atlantic Beach Bikesfest, which began in 1980 as a motorcycle festival for African Americans during Memorial Day weekend in the Grand Strand mecca of coastal tourism in South Carolina, also represents the refashioned racism of southern culture. Following the South’s more blatant racism, which the Civil Right Movement fought against, the more subtle prejudices of the late-twentieth century see the rise of a supposedly post-racial “family values” that is still uses to oppress minorities. The regulation of the freedom of African Americans is apparent in how the City of Myrtle Beach and some local businesses attempted to limit and even bar black bodies from public streets and accommodations during the Bikefest. Because the city treated the black motorcyclists at Atlantic Beach Bikefest differently than they did the white bikers there a week earlier for a Harley Davidson festival—the black bikers had limited access to roads and hotels—the NAACP was able to file a successful discrimination lawsuits against businesses that treated blacks differently. The controversy surrounding this new form of racism played out within the realm of tourism—the new number one industry in South Carolina—and speaks to the importance of personal expression and freedom in leisure and popular culture as well. The young black motorcycle enthusiasts at Bikefest represent a subculture with its own distinct aesthetic—fast neon speedbikes—that is distinct from the history of white motorcycle subcultures.

PS: This blog examines the South in popular culture. Where do you think your book intersects with popular culture and ideas of the region?

The book speaks to the important social and political aspects of tourism as one form of popular culture. However, the overarching power dynamics of popular culture are also complex. There is not a top down model where producers simply control and manipulate consumers. The lines between producers and consumers of popular culture are blurring in the twenty-first century. We need to explore the intertwined mechanisms of control and resistance found in popular culture.

Author Nicole King
Author Nicole King

Furthermore, recreation and entertainment are now big business in the South and must be considered an important aspect of southern culture. We overlook the messages and collective meanings of popular culture at our peril. The images and experiences we produce/consume, even while on vacation, matter.