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.

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The Ongoing “Allure” of the Antebellum South

Pop South welcomes this post by Joshua Rothman, professor of history at the University of Alabama.

Still shot from Gone with the Wind.
Still shot from Gone with the Wind.

Although I feel very fortunate to have a job where I actually get paid to teach courses on the American South, slavery, and memory to college students, there is one thing about being a professor of southern history that gets more grating every time I do it. Roughly once a year, I make myself (and my students) watch Gone with the Wind (GWTW). I could assign the book, of course, but the film really is the elephant in the room where American popular cultural memories of slavery reside.

Even now, seventy-five years after its release in 1939, the images of the intrepid belle Scarlett O’Hara, the embattled and torched city of Atlanta, the sympathetic scoundrel Rhett Butler, and the heartless Yankee invaders form the core of how a significant number of Americans, and particularly white Americans, imagine the South to have looked and operated during the era of the Civil War. And in my more generous moments, I concede that it’s not hard to understand why.

Hattie McDaniel as "Mammy" in GWTW.
Hattie McDaniel as “Mammy” in GWTW.

The film is sweeping and epic in its scope, drenched in color, and filled with so many iconic lines of dialog, characters, and screenshots that after a while it simply washes over you. It becomes beautiful, seductive and, superficially at least, nearly immune to critical engagement. There’s just one problem, of course. The film is racist as hell. The legendary performances of Hattie McDaniel and Butterfly McQueen notwithstanding, a clear-eyed viewer recognizes GWTW as a fantastical reading of the lives of the richest people in the antebellum South that one can only believe and fall in love with by denying how the real life O’Haras collectively subjected millions of black people to cruel violence and systematic exploitation to make their lives possible.

Fiddle-dee-dee indeed.

Blake Lively
Blake Lively

Which—and here I’m making a transition that I never thought I would make and did not actually think was possible—brings me to Blake Lively, a 27 year-old actress. I am uncertain of whether I ought to be proud or embarrassed to admit that before the other day I was not entirely sure who or what a Blake Lively was. Apparently she is in some television shows and movies that I have never seen, and she has parlayed that into running a “lifestyle” website called Preserve whose goals are things like “support[ing] the America we’ve always known, and the one we haven’t yet met.” It’s a site, in other words, that sells $80 t-shirts, $45 jars of sugar, and $325 floral teepees for children, all of which are “curated” for the consumer who doesn’t have enough overpriced and precious things in his or her life. It parodies itself, really, and is usually easy to ignore.

But this fall, Preserve proudly brings you the “Allure of Antebellum,” a fashion collection inspired by the “southern charm” and the “authenticity” of the “Southern belle.” These were the women, the website observes, who possessed “inherent social distinction [that] set the standards for style and appearance” and “epitomized Southern hospitality with a cultivation of beauty and grace, but even more with a captivating and magnetic sensibility.” Want a piece of that? Well, then, “embrace the season and the magic below the Mason-Dixon with styles as theatric as a Dixie drawl.”

The Allure of Antebellum. Photo credit: preserve.us
The Allure of Antebellum. Photo credit: preserve.us

The problem here isn’t the clothes. Indeed, how exactly stiletto heels, triangular earrings that look strikingly like the Star Trek insignia, and a leopard print skirt evoke belles or the antebellum South is a complete mystery, though the site claims it has something to do with “artful layering,” and I regret to inform you that that skirt is currently sold out. The problem is not even necessarily that Preserve proffers fashion purportedly inspired by a historical ruling class that sat atop its world by preying upon and slowly draining the life out of those they deemed inferiors, as arguably many fashions across time and space owe themselves to similar inspirations.

The problem is that at our current historical moment, the failures of the United States to reckon effectively with its particular legacy of slavery, and its seeming determination to perpetuate elements of that legacy in its public policy a century and a half after slavery’s demise, as evidenced most alarmingly in our criminal justice system, are glaringly on display. To glom onto that legacy culturally and materially, and to sell it back to American consumers—not merely with a total lack of self-awareness but as an aspirational virtue—may be a longstanding tradition in its own right.

But it is more than in bad taste. It’s rubbing it in.

scarlett-ohara1Historical sensibility does not seem to be the strong suit of Preserve, and I would venture that whoever conceived the “Allure of Antebellum” campaign and wrote its insipid ad copy had no malicious intent. But even casual ignorance and unintentional callousness deserve to be called out. It’s long past time to leave Scarlett O’Hara behind.

Headin’ South on the Dixie Highway

dixiehighwayPop South spoke with Tammy Ingram, Assistant Professor of History at the College of Charleston, a couple of months ago about her new book Dixie Highway: Road Building and the Making of the Modern South.  If you’re traveling between Michigan and Miami this summer, you might actually be driving on portions of the Dixie Highway.  Read about this road that connected North and South causing some to refer to it as the “Dixie Peaceway.”

PS: Briefly, what is the Dixie Highway?

“The Dixie Highway was the first modern interstate highway system in the country, and it lasted from approximately 1915 to 1925. It was originally planned as a single route between Chicago and Miami Beach, but a fierce routing competition transformed it into an ambitious and sophisticated network of nearly 6000 miles of roads looping through the Midwest and South from the Canadian border all the way to Miami Beach.”

PS: How did the Dixie Highway change the South?

“The obvious ways that the Dixie Highway changed the South were economic: It gave farmers easier and more flexible marketing options for their crops, allowed rural southerners access to larger towns and cities, facilitated the Great Migration of rural African Americans, and opened up the South to new tourist-related businesses. It changed the ways in which people moved around in the South. Before the Dixie Highway, roads were entirely local in both scope and governance. But the Dixie Highway challenged that model by making automobile travel an alternative to railroads for long distance trade and travel. In doing so, the Dixie also transformed southern—and national—politics by centralizing control over massive public works projects. During the brief lifespan of the Dixie Highway, road building shifted from the jurisdiction of local authorities into the hands of state and federal bureaucrats who wielded tremendous political power and controlled massive budgets.”

PS: Since this is a blog on the South in pop culture, can you tell us about the ways that the DH entered into American popular culture?

The DH also made it into popular song. Image credit: IN Harmony Sheet Music Collection, Indiana University
The DH also made it into popular song. Image credit: IN Harmony Sheet Music Collection, Indiana University

“Although many people have never heard of the Dixie Highway, a century ago it helped to create the modern automobile tourism industry. Gas stations, roadside motels, and tourist attractions were unheard of in most of the country—and certainly in the South—before the Dixie Highway, but by the mid-1920s they lined the route from Michigan to Miami Beach.

The highway also helped to turn the South itself into a destination instead of just an obstacle for wealthy northern and Midwestern tourists bound for Florida resorts. Enterprising southerners marketed everything from antebellum mansions to peach and cotton farms to automobile tourists, and northern businesses named (or in some cases, re-named) their establishments in honor of the Dixie Highway. “Dixie” motels and gas stations in Michigan, Illinois, Indiana, and Ohio were commonplace. So were songs, postcards, magazines, and road maps that advertised (and celebrated) the Dixie Highway.”

 

 

PS: As a native Georgian, how do you think being a southerner adds to your perspective on the Dixie Highway?

“I learned how to drive on narrow, rural dirt roads that were not entirely unlike those that comprised the original route of the Dixie Highway. Navigating those roads could be difficult even in the best of weather. When it rained, some of the roads were impassable. We obviously also had modern, paved roads in South Georgia by the 1980s, but we were isolated in other ways: We were among the last places to get things like cable television and even dial-up internet, and the only tourists who ever passed through town were on their way to the beaches in the Florida panhandle. When I discovered the Dixie Highway while doing research for my original dissertation topic on the Great Migration, I think I was drawn to it because the struggles rural people were facing at the turn of the twentieth century felt a little bit familiar to me.”

PS: What projects are you working on next that followers of Pop South would find interesting?

Tammy Ingram, author of a new book on the Dixie Highway. Photo credit: College of Charleston
Tammy Ingram, author of a new book on the Dixie Highway. Photo credit: College of Charleston

“I’m excited about my next book project, which is tentatively titled Dixie Mafia: Sex, Race, and Organized Crime in the Sunbelt South. It covers a wide array of organized crime activities in the postwar South, but it focuses on a story that has long fascinated me: The murder of Albert Patterson in Phenix City, Alabama in 1954. Like many other small towns situated near military bases, Phenix City’s main industry in those days was vice: Mobsters made tens of millions of dollars a year on gambling and prostitution, and local law enforcement and city leaders were getting a cut of the profits in exchange for their cooperation. Patterson became a target for the mob because he ran for attorney general and promised to go after them. But they went after him, instead. It’s a fascinating story, and all the more so when you consider it within the context of the Civil Rights Movement and the Cold War.”

 

For Whom The (Southern) Belle Tolls

The true southern belle from GWTW was Melanie Hamilton Wilkes, played by Olivia deHavilland
The true southern belle from GWTW was Melanie Hamilton Wilkes, played by Olivia deHavilland

It seems fitting that after posting a blog about pop culture’s southern gentleman that I should talk about his counterpart, the southern belle.  What follows is an edited version of an early blog I wrote for another site.

A few years ago TLC, the channel that still airs Here Comes Honey Boo Boo, brought us a show called Bama Belles.  It seems unlikely that “belle” is an appellation anyone would apply to women who don camouflage to hunt or are ready to start a bar fight. Still, the conscious decision by the show’s producers to make “belles” part of the show’s title offers an opportunity to consider the evolution of the term that is now used to describe the women on this show. (Update: Bama Belles was cancelled after only a few episodes.)

“Belle” was originally applied to white women of the southern planter class and a woman who was classified as such was as much a creation of antebellum sentimental literature as she was real.  During the nineteenth century, authors North and South placed her at the center of the plantation legend and idealized her as one who was as delicate as she was strong, and as feminine as she was a dominant figure of the plantation.  Novelists and playwrights of the twentieth century, too, have made the southern belle central characters in their narratives.  The most famous of these was Scarlett O’Hara, the protagonist in Margaret Mitchell’s 1936 epic Gone with the Wind.  Scarlett, however, was more modern than her predecessors, which is one of the reasons women around the world found her appealing.

Debutantes in Charlotte, NC, 1951.
Debutantes in Charlotte, NC, 1951.

Mid-twentieth-century southern debutantes also donned the title of “belle.” No longer plantation mistresses, these belles were still members of the South’s white social elite. For its July 9, 1951 issue, Life magazine featured Charlotte, North Carolina, debutantes with the caption that they looked “as gracious as any ante-bellum belles,” a clear reference to their Old South antecedents.  Being a debutante or a pageant queen has often qualified southern women as belles, and no fewer than a dozen southern contestants were crowned Miss America between the 1950 and 1980, which in its own way helped to perpetuate the image of southern women as belles. Then, in the 1980s, debutante and pageant queen came together in Delta Burke’s portrayal of Suzanne Sugarbaker on television’s Designing Women.

Delta Burke's Suzanne Sugarbaker offered a modern take on southern belle
Delta Burke’s Suzanne Sugarbaker offered a modern take on southern belle

Over the last several years the term has been partially stripped of its “whites only” racial affiliation, illustrating how the term has evolved.  Some years ago, I was having a conversation with someone who referred to the students at Bennett College (a private, historically black liberal arts college for women in Greensboro, North Carolina) as “belles.”  Their student handbook is known as the “Bennett Belle Book,” their email is “Bellesmail,” and campus updates come in the form of “Belle Alerts.”  Admittedly, it was the first time I had heard the term applied to black women, but it made sense given the socially elite dimensions of the term.  It certainly applied to the fictional character Whitley Gilbert, an African American southern belle played by Jasmine Guy on the show A Different World (1987-1993) in a sitcom based on the fictional Hillman College.  The tradition of the black southern belle continues with the most recent addition to the cast of The Real Housewives of Atlanta, attorney Phaedra Parks.  She, too, is a self-proclaimed southern belle.  On the one hand she is modern in her approach to “belledom,” and yet she has more traditional belle credentials, such as her participation in beauty pageants and her membership in Atlanta’s Junior League.

Real Housewife of Atlanta Phaedra claims the title of southern belle, too.
Real Housewife of Atlanta Phaedra claims the title of southern belle, too.
Layla LaRue, drag performer from Texas.
Layla LaRue, drag performer from Texas.

Some folks might be surprised that men, too, can be belles. Throughout the South they exist in the form of female impersonators. In fact, there are numerous regional pageants whose competitions are just as fierce as those held for women.  I served as a guest judge for at least two such pageants in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, including one for “Miss Dixie,” and can vouch for the seriousness of the contestants to offer their best impression of the southern belle.

The one feature of the southern belle that seems to have remained consistent over time—regardless of race, class, or gender—is that it is largely a social performance.

Given that, the belle clearly tolls for anyone who’s interested in the part.

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Southern progressives could learn a lesson from Julia Sugarbaker

sugarbaker
Designing Women’s Julia Sugarbaker, played by Dixie Carter.

Sometimes I feel like a lone voice in the wilderness when I write essays in an effort to counter some of negative images of the South that permeate popular culture or to contest the drivel that national journalists churn up in order to take swipes at a region they’ve never visited, much less know.

With the government shutdown, writers from The Nation to Salon to the Washington Post have all pointed their fingers at the South, especially conservative Republicans from the region, the most intransigent of which are members of the Tea Party caucus. Here, they say, the Civil War has not ended.  Here, they say, are nothing but a bunch of “Neo-Confederates.” I’m not suggesting that these journalists don’t have a point to make, but in making it, they are using a fairly broad brush that hits me and other southern progressives like a slap in the face.

This is when I wish I could muster up a rant that would make Julia Sugarbaker proud.  In the 1980s television series Designing Women, Julia Sugarbaker, played so well by the late actress Dixie Carter, knew how to rip someone a new one. In one particular episode, she lashed out at a writer from the New York Times for printing an article about dirt eating in the South.

Today, the articles about dirt eating may have subsided, but the stereotypes of the region remain.  The use of banjo music for television programs, illustrations of the Confederate battle flag for articles about the South, and so on. In one week John T. Edge might write a nice food article for the New York Times that gets all sorts of compliments (southerners do okay when it comes to food), but the next week a comedy-news show (The Daily Show or perhaps Real Time with Bill Maher) will interview a hillbilly type to make a point.

It’s tiresome and I wish Julia Sugarbaker were here to let them all know.

The Daily Show and Tired Southern Tropes

Al Madrigal
Al Madrigal

I love The Daily Show, I really do.  But when it comes to segments about the South, they often do a piss poor job of it. The latest example came from correspondent Al Madrigal who did a story on the dispute between Georgia and Tennessee regarding state borders and the water supply. (Watch the segment here.)

Georgia essentially wants and needs access to the water provided by the Tennessee River, and in typical Daily Show fashion, the actual story was less important than Madrigal’s effort to highlight the stupidity of local officials.  This is nothing new, because the show’s correspondents are often satirizing politicians.  Where it fails is in its pitiful attempt to poke fun at the South, which can be done, but with more intelligence.

Instead, it’s so lame, it’s as if the writers dialed this one in. Want to discuss the South? Incorporate banjo music and, these days, mention Honey Boo Boo.  Want to suggest that rural southerners are inbred? Incorporate a clip from Deliverance. Need to establish that people are ignorant? Mock their accents to their face or include “man on the street” interviews with people who fit the stereotype.  It was on this last point where The Daily Show showed its hand, because it was clear to anyone with a keen eye that a couple of those interviews were plants, what I’ll call “hicks for hire”.

Unknown Hinson
Unknown Hinson

First, there were the two men in camouflage: one held a shotgun, while his friend offered a bug-eyed look. These two were obviously playing to the camera. Second, there was the guy who had mutton chop sideburns, slicked back hair, and sunglasses circa-1970s Elvis. The tip off that this guy was playing to the camera was his Unknown Hinson t-shirt.  While the studio audience in New York was laughing at this guy, I knew that he was saying things Al Madrigal needed to pull the piece off. And he was probably having his own laugh at Madrigal’s expense.  Like Unknown Hinson, he was portraying a character.  Everything he said played to stereotype on purpose.

So, suffice it to say, I’m disappointed with The Daily Show’s latest attempt at satirizing the South.  As usual, the writers relied on worn out tropes about the South and not only was it not amusing, it wasn’t even funny.