Just felt like posting this song today. You’re welcome.
Pop South is pleased to welcome a discussion with Anne Sarah Rubin, Associate Professor of History at the University of Maryland Baltimore County, on her new book Through the Heart of Dixie: Sherman’s March and American Memory. This is Rubin’s second Civil War-related monograph, the first being A Shattered Nation: The Rise and Fall of the Confederacy, 1861-1868.
PS: What drew you to write a book about Sherman’s March?
It came from a confluence of events when I was back in graduate school: I read and loved Charles Royster’s The Destructive War, where he analyzed the ways that Americans become accepting of a different, more devastating to civilians, sort of war. I saw Ross McElwee’s Sherman’s March, which made me think a lot about the reasons that this one event continued to resonate. I also heard about and ultimately read James Reston’s Sherman’s March and Vietnam which didn’t ring true to me. And finally, the opportunity to really engage critically with Gone with the Wind, one of the great Southern novels, was irresistible.
PS: How is your book different from other books on the March?
I think my book is different because it doesn’t simply retell the story of the March, but rather tries to get at the ways that Americans ascribed meaning to this event. To that end I look at the March and its aftermath from a range of perspectives: Southern white civilians, African Americans, Union veterans, and travelers. I also see how perceptions and portrayals of the March changed over time, from 1864-65 up through the present day.
The other difference is broader, and more about the ways that historians talk about “memory.” I didn’t want this to be a book that argues that there is one story of Sherman’s March and that lots of the stories people told were false and here’s why. Rather, I was interested in why certain narratives persisted and others didn’t. So I consciously shifted away from the language of “memory” to the language of “storytelling.”
PS: For the readers of Pop South, can you talk about the various sources of popular culture that you drew upon? Is there anything specific that really grabbed your attention?
I had a great time doing that research—I looked at fiction, poetry, films, photography, art, and music. The novels about Sherman’s March were generally pretty formulaic—lots of 19th century “romance of reunion,” although some of the 20th century novels, like those by Cynthia Bass and E. L. Doctorow were very powerful.
I liked working with Herman Melville’s two poems about the March, “The March to the Sea” and “The Frenzy in the Wake.” He’s able to show two completely different views of the same events, and it tied in so well with what I was doing. I also became really interested in George Barnard’s photographs, and the ways he did—or didn’t—represent the March.
PS: Your book explores some of the misconceptions surrounding Sherman’s March? What is the biggest misconception about this event?
I think the biggest misconception is that the March mowed down everything in its path, and left Georgia, South Carolina, and North Carolina as smoking ruins. It was much more narrowly focused. Whenever I give talks I always say the same thing: “It’s a mistake to imagine the March as mowing down everything in its path; rather it’s better to think of it as rows of stitches, with untouched spaces in between.”
PS: Tell readers about your website Sherman’s March and America: Mapping Memory.
I wanted to explore new innovations in digital history—I had worked on a large digital project in Grad school, and wanted to get back to it. Specifically, I wanted to use digital media in historiographical ways, making the same kind of arguments in my book, making ideas about memory visible. Fortunately, we have an amazingly talented group of visual artists/animators at the IRC who have been working on some of these kinds of projects or questions for years. Through a collaboration with Dan Bailey, and especially Kelley Bell, a professor in Visual Arts, we came up with a scheme for all of this, funded by an ACLS digital innovation grant and then UMBC.
We decided to use maps as our guiding metaphor and interface. The maps would be a way into the myriad strands of memory. But I didn’t want just one map—I wanted several, in order to represent the different kinds of accounts I was using. Then I could get the multiple perspectives across in a visual and intuitive way. The idea of a journey seems a natural metaphor for the kind of exploration and excavation I’m doing in the larger project. We ultimately settled on five different maps, each with a different look and feel:
- The Sherman or Fact Map, which lays out the basic events of the march.
- The Civilians Map, for events involving African Americans and Southern civilians.
- The Soldiers Map, for events told from the perspective of veterans.
- The Tourism Map, which is about tourism and travel accounts.
- Finally, the Fiction Map, which plots places both real and imagined.
Each map then has around 15 or 20 significant points marked. The idea is that you can toggle between the maps, and see how different people remembered or wrote about different places or events. Not every place appears on every map, but most of them are on two or three, and Atlanta, Savannah, and Milledgeville are on all five. But of course the maps alone can’t really tell the story, or make the kinds of arguments about the uses and possible abuses of memory. So what we decided to do was to create an animation or a mini-movie for each one of the map points. We pretty quickly realized that wouldn’t be feasible—too much work. So, we decided on 3-5 films per map, the rest done with single screens.
Finally, for the Georgia campaign I created a day-by-day blog of primary sources, which is now being updated less frequently for the Carolinas Campaign.
Followers of Pop South are encouraged to read Rubin’s book and to explore the terrific website that explores the March in greater depth. Check it: http://www.shermansmarch.org
A few days ago, stories on the 75th anniversary of the premiere of Gone with the Wind (GWTW) on December 15, 1939 circulated in the news media. A new anniversary edition of the film has been released, one of many that have appeared as different anniversaries of the film have been celebrated. It is a testament to the staying power of the film David Selznick produced when he brought Margaret Mitchell’s book to the big screen.
Gone with the Wind is a story that holds the “land of Cavaliers and cotton” on a pedestal, and when it arrived in theaters in 1939, it fed America’s nostalgia for the Old South then and for decades to come.
Hollywood already had terrific success with antebellum stories set against plantation backdrops. Throughout the 1930s there had been numerous films set in the Old South, many of which were successful. Some, not so much.
But it didn’t matter. Old South nostalgia was a Hollywood staple.
Among the successes were The Littlest Rebel and The Little Colonel which appeared in 1935, both of which starred child star Shirley Temple. In 1938, the most successful pretender to the GWTW throne was Jezebel, starring Bette Davis who won an Oscar as Best Actress for her performance as a “scarlet spitfire.” (The GWTW reference was intentional.)
Surprisingly less successful was So Red the Rose, a film based on the best-selling plantation novel of the same name written by Stark Young. Young’s novel, set in Natchez, Mississippi, might have been the most important plantation novel of the decade had it not been for Gone with the Wind.
This is all of way of saying that Hollywood had primed the Old South pump for years, so that by the time GWTW premiered, a lot of the groundwork for the film’s success had already been laid. Still, there can be no doubt that GWTW eclipsed all that had come before.
From the opening scenes and first few minutes of dialogue, moviegoers were whisked into the mythical South of faithful slaves, southern belles, cavalier gentlemen, cotton fields and beautiful mansions. American popular culture fed this nostalgia, too, particularly during the 1930s, and not just on the big screen. It could be found among advertising icons like Aunt Jemima, radio shows such as the Maxwell House Showboat, and through the revival of Stephen Foster’s music and the “Dixie songs” of Tin Pan Alley. The film version of Gone with the Wind had all of that helping it succeed, too.
As the film is being celebrated on its 75th anniversary, it is interesting to note the ways in which Americans are still nostalgic for the Old South represented in GWTW. In Georgia, there are tours of the facade of Tara (the film set), there are online fan clubs, a website dedicated to Scarlett touted as “the most comprehensive Gone with the Wind site on the Internet,” and you can still eat at Aunt Pitty Pat’s Porch in Atlanta.
It is important to note that Gone with the Wind is also reviled for its racism, and yet despite this it is easy to predict that when the film turns 100, there will be another anniversary edition for sale.
America’s nostalgia for the Old South is a hard thing to shake, thanks in large part to the cultural imprint this film has made.
This weekend in Atlanta, the city “too busy to hate,” there will be a meeting of the Southern Historical Association. Men and women, professors and graduate students will attend to learn about the latest scholarship on the American South, buy the latest books in the field, and visit with old (and new) friends.
There will also be a special conversation with Juanita Jones Abernathy, the widow of Dr. Ralph Abernathy, on Friday, beginning at 11:45 in Grand Salon East of the conference hotel, the Hilton Atlanta. Dr. Abernathy was co-founder of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and and advisor to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Juanita Abernathy was an equally active participant in the Civil Rights Movement, participating alongside her husband in the most significant protests of the era including the Montgomery Bus Boycott, the Selma to Montgomery March, and the Charleston Hospital Workers’ Strike of 1968.
This year marks the 80th Annual Meeting of the SHA, affectionately known as “the Southern.”
During the 1970s, The Dukes of Hazzard was one of the most popular shows on American television, and while Bo and Luke Duke (played by John Schneider and Tom Wopat, respectively) were technically the stars of the show, the real star was their car. The 1969 orange Dodge Charger sped through the back roads of Georgia, leaping over hay bales, creeks, or other cars, nearly always getting “the boys” out of a jam. It was one of the most iconic vehicles ever to hit the small screen and its name was “the General Lee,” a nod to the most beloved of white Southern heroes, Robert E. Lee. And emblazoned on the roof was a large Confederate battle flag.
Well, no more.
In a new commercial for Autotrader.com, the “Duke boys” are back and so is their car. They are driving the hell out of that Dodge Charger to escape “the law,” but the car can’t seem to outrun these new police vehicles, so Luke pulls out his phone to search for a newer, faster, car on Autotrader.com.
But something is obviously missing. The “General Lee” has been stripped of its battle flag–at least the camera doesn’t allow you to see it. And the commercial lets us know that Autotrader ad execs also know that even while they wanted to use such an iconic car to advertise their business, that flag is a divisive symbol.
Who is their target audience for this commercial? According to an article on Bulldog Reporter, a website for public relations professionals, the commercial uses nostalgia to draw in people who, when they were kids, were tuned into The Dukes of Hazzard. I get that. They are also targeting consumers who like muscle cars. I get that, too. Yet, the article says nothing about the absence of the flag, which they’d just as soon not draw attention to.
In a separate Autotrader article, the writer tells the story of a how former NBA player, Jalen Rose, owned one of the many “General Lee” cars that exist. Rose, an African American, planned to sell the car at auction. As the article points out, he removed the flag “for obvious reasons.” It seems as though Autotrader doesn’t really want to discuss what those reasons are although, to save face, it does want you to know that at least one black man owned one of these cars.
So, we might think Autotrader was smart enough not to allow its brand to be tarnished by the battle flag, but has the company really fooled anyone?
Just as the car is associated with the television show, the battle flag is associated with the car–as well as having some unsavory historical ties to slavery and segregation. Fans of the show are unlikely to appreciate that the flag is hidden from view, while those who know its place in pop culture–and history–recognize that it’s gone missing.
And none of us are fools.
Pop 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?
“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?
“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.”
I enjoy a good drag performance and southern queens are among the best. Some of the best-known drag performers in the U.S. are from the South. RuPaul (Atlanta, GA), Lady Bunny (Chattanooga, TN), and Lypsinka (Hazlehurst, MS) hold celebrity status in the world of drag. RuPaul achieved superstar status in the mid-1990s with his hit song “Supermodel (of the World)” and a short-lived talk show on VH1. He is once again riding high with RuPaul’s Drag Race.
Drag Race has featured many a southern drag queen in its competition to find “America’s next drag superstar” and this year is no exception. In fact, Bianca Del Rio (Roy Haylock), the winner of this year’s competition hails from New Orleans, but currently lives in New York (or better yet, hotel rooms since she is now performing around the country and out of it, too.)
I attended my very first drag show in 1990 in Greensboro, North Carolina, at the now defunct, but long-lived club known as The Palms. I was quite nervous about it and I learned my first lesson in drag shows–do not sit near the stage or you’ll likely be drawn into the performance. In my case, I sat at a table near the dance floor and before I knew it a very tall and plus-sized performer, who was offering her illusion of Madonna (circa Blonde Ambition Tour), walked over and grabbed one of my hands and placed it on one of her–cough, cough–cones. As nervous as I was about that interaction, needless to say, I was henceforth hooked on drag–especially southern drag performance.
I went back to The Palms after that and saw drag illusions of Patsy Cline, Tammy Wynette, and Dolly Parton–gay icons all–who were staples in the pantheon of southern drag performance. (Dolly still is.) When I moved to Mississippi a year after the cone incident, I became familiar with an entire world of drag performers with names like Misty Love, Rose Petal, Deli Delmonte, and Katrina Del Ray. I even judged a couple of pageants, including Miss Dixie and Miss Sweetheart.
Drag pageants in the South mirror beauty pageants for those born biologically female. There’s usually a talent portion, an evening gown competition, and even a question round. The effort and money put into drag performance (and especially the pageants) is really impressive, especially when you consider that many a young queen I met in Hattiesburg, MS, was working a minimum wage job or might have been a struggling college student.
Drag, of course, isn’t just about pageants, but it IS always about performance and I’ve always appreciated the talent that goes into it. Southern drag has changed a lot since I first went to a show. Today, you will see all kinds of drag performance (comedy, goth and celebrity illusion) and I enjoy the variety that’s out there, but I will always have a soft spot for the pageant girls. They are the gift that keeps on giving.
Pop South is pleased to introduce its readers to Zandria Robinson, Assistant Professor of Sociology at the University of Memphis where she’s also an alumna. Dr. Robinson’s new book This Ain’t Chicago: Race, Class, and Regional Identity in the Post-Soul South delves into black southern identity in Memphis, Tennessee. You should also peep her blog New South Negress where she extends the conversation on race, region, and culture she began in her book. (Note: This interview will also appear on this blog under “Porch Talk” as “This Ain’t Chicago with Zandria Robinson”.)
PS: For the uninitiated, tell us about how you arrived at the book’s title “This Ain’t Chicago?”
The title is actually a direct quote from many of my respondents, black southerners I interviewed in Memphis over the course of five years. Initially I noted it as something that people said frequently, but did not immediately grasp its import. I thought that folks were responding to the fact that they thought I was from Chicago because I was attending graduate school there. Later, as respondent after respondent made this comment and gave me varied but similar reasoning about why “this” wasn’t Chicago, I realized they weren’t talking about me, or Memphis, or even Chicago. They were saying, the South isn’t the North; the South is qualitatively different from anywhere else. Once when I was talking to one of my advisors, Chas Camic, about my findings, I told him, “people keep saying, ‘this ain’t Chicago, this ain’t Chicago.’ He said, “sounds like a good title for a book.” And it stuck. It was also a convenient dig at the Chicago School of Sociology, recognized as the “founding” school of American sociology at the University of Chicago, which has dominated how we think about black life and urban studies for nearly a century. (But others like Earl Wright II have shown that actually W. E. B. DuBois founded the first American school of sociology at Atlanta University.) So “this ain’t Chicago” is like the descendants of those African Americans who never left the South, for Chicago or anywhere else, talking back to the descendants of those migrants who have made up the majority of the stories about black life in sociology since WWII, as well as talking back to scholars and others who have ignored the contemporary black southern experience.
PS: What do you mean by a “Post-Soul South?”
Post-soul is a term popularized by the cultural critic Nelson George and expounded upon by Mark Anthony Neal to delineate the contours of the cultural moment after the civil rights movement. For me, “soul” is a cultural shorthand for the music, art, and ideas in black culture between WWII and the assassination of King. King’s assassination is like a scratch across that long soul record that shuts down the party, and though the music began again, it did so with a new aesthetic influenced by the massive social and political changes that came about as a result of the civil rights acts, the deployment and then rolling back of affirmative action, the crack epidemic and mass incarceration, further disinvestment in black neighborhoods, and a host of other deliberate practices that sought to limit the rights of black folks in America. The art produced in and influenced by this context is “post-soul.”
While the South experienced the changes sweeping across all of America beginning in the 1970s—the effects of deindustrialization and globalization, the entrenchment of neoliberalism, suburbanization and destabilization in the urban core, etc.—the notion of a post-industrial, post-soul, or post-civil rights moment means something different in the place where rural patterns of government and industry prevailed, the blues was still being created and lived, and government officials had publicly declared segregation forever. Further, the legacy of slavery, evangelical religiosity, higher black-to-white population ratios, and the expansion of plantation power affected how southerners experience the historical and cultural moment after King’s assassination as well.
PS: Why do you believe Memphis is an ideal place for discussing the American South’s racial and regional identity?
As my colleague and sociologist Wanda Rushing argues, Memphis is “neither Old South or New South,” by which she means it doesn’t have a legitimate legacy of the Old South like your major slave ports on the eastern seaboard with their towering plantation homes and wealth, nor does it have the glitz and progressive shine of a bustling New South metropolis like Dallas or Atlanta. For me, Memphis sits at the intersection of soul and post-soul, rural and urban, civil rights, and post-civil rights. It is the site of the creation of some of the most important soul music ever, which is now sampled in the post-soul era all throughout hip-hop and R&B music and beyond, all over the world. It is symbolically, historically and geographically linked to the Mississippi Delta, which historian Jim Cobb has aptly called “the most southern place on Earth,” and the city is populated with country folks who make and are re-made by the southern urban landscape here. And it is a place where King was assassinated and today the African American infant mortality rate is amongst the highest in the nation. The social justice goals that need to be met here—addressing poverty, investing in children and human capital, eliminating health disparities, challenging environmental racism, amongst others—are directly related to the unfinished legacy of King. They also echo throughout the South, where negative outcomes abound for the most vulnerable groups. Essentially, Memphis is a place where you can examine snippets of “old” and “new” South as they collide with one another in urban space. It’s where the things that we popularly think make southerners southern intersect with the things that we popularly think make black folks black.
PS: Since this is a blog that examines the South in popular culture, how does your book engage with popular culture?
This Ain’t Chicago is really about my love affair with popular culture, and black southern popular culture in particular. In the middle of an analysis of some ethnographic data you’ll find gestures towards Outkast lyrics. At first, I set out to write an urban sociological text, one that inserted a southern city into the urban sociological landscape to shake us out of our disciplinary deference to Chicago, New York, and Los Angeles. But my background in literary criticism, as well as the fact that it was in popular culture where the work on the contemporary black South was being done, meant that This Ain’t Chicago became much more about the relationship between people’s ideas and popular culture representations of their experiences. I take popular culture just as seriously as “data” as I take my respondents’ sentiments. In fact, it is black southern popular culture, and hip-hop in particular, that was doing the ethnographic work about the South when sociologists were not. Three Six Mafia, Gangsta Boo, 8-Ball and MJG, Arrested Development, Ludacris, T.I., Outkast, Nappy Roots—the list goes on and on—were giving us a visual and lyrical ethnographic analysis of the post-soul South through their music and music videos while sociologists were still talking about Chicago, New York, and Los Angeles and historians were talking about everything before King’s assassination. So popular culture is really a starting place for me in thinking through questions about racial and regional identity, and I bring analyses of hip-hop, film, and other popular culture artifacts to the fore in the book.
PS: What projects are you working on next that followers of Pop South would find interesting?
I’m working on a project about black southern bohemians, sort of poking at the whiteness of the notion of bohemians in the South (Austin, TX, Athens, GA, Asheville, NC) and the New York-ness of the notion of black bohemians. In particular, I’m thinking about how black southerners create and maintain bohemian cultures that manifest in art, music, photography, and other aesthetic practices. And I’m also thinking about how race and regional identity affect black southern bohemianism. André 3000 of Outkast is often seen as sort of the black southern bohemian as if he is an anomaly of some sort. But there are other examples in popular culture and certainly on local black arts scenes that demonstrate that for black southerners, bohemianism is a cultural and aesthetic response to the constraints of race, class, and region on black life that many folks employ. So, I’m exploring these ideas through the same sort of mix of ethnograpy and popular cultural analysis that This Ain’t Chicago employs.
Check out Professor Robinson’s interview with Dr. Regina Bradley for her series Outkasted Conversations:
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.
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.
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.
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.
This winter Atlanta, (and the South more broadly), got skewered in the media when a snowfall of just two inches snarled traffic on the interstate highways that cut through the heart of the city, causing several hundred people to abandon their cars and walk home, in some cases, for several miles. Saturday Night Live‘s Weekend Update covered the news story in classic SNL style by having “Atlanta resident” and storm survivor “Buford Calloway” offer a firsthand account.
The character of Buford Calloway is one in a long line of southern gentleman and a central figure in the pop culture pantheon of southern icons who make up the plantation legend. The southern gentleman, in fact, has a history in popular culture that extends well into the antebellum period. One of the earliest descriptions of the southern gentleman can be found in John Pendleton Kennedy’s book Swallow Barn (1832), who appears in the character of Frank Meriwether, a 45 year-old Virginia planter. Kennedy introduces him this way:
“Good cheer and a good temper both tell well upon him. The first has given him a comfortable full figure, and the latter certain easy, contemplative habits, that incline him to be lazy and philosophical. He has the substantial planter look that belongs to a gentleman who lives on his estate, and is not much vexed with the crosses of life.”
The southern gentleman has long been seen as an insular man who doesn’t venture far beyond his homeland (the South) or, in the case of Frank Meriwether, his estate. He is well-read and attentive to his personal appearance, but he’s not really a man’s man. He’s a tad soft, because he owns the land and doesn’t work it. You can see hints of these character traits in SNL’s Buford Calloway. He clearly doesn’t venture beyond Georgia, or even Atlanta, and lumps South Carolina in with “the North.” And, he’s a well-groomed fellow who not only doesn’t appear to engage in manual labor, he likely gets manicures.
A century after Americans were introduced to Frank Meriwether, the southern gentleman of popular culture had changed very little. He made regular appearances in films of the 1930s. He was Duncan Bedford (played by Randolph Scott) in “So Red the Rose,” Herbert Cary (played by John Boles) in “The Littlest Rebel,” and Preston Dillard (played by Henry Fonda) in “Jezebel.” More than anyone, he was Ashley Wilkes who Leslie Howard brought to life in “Gone with the Wind.” (Sorry ladies, Rhett Butler was not a gentleman.) More recently, Tom Hanks offered his interpretation in 2004’s “The Ladykillers,” a Coen Brothers remake of the 1955 film set in London, as Professor Goldthwaite Higginson Dorr.
The southern gentleman has also been used as an advertising icon, most often for the sale of Kentucky bourbon, but also beer. There’s even a southern gentleman “costume” that can be purchased for special occasions.
What’s notable, of course, is that there’s nothing modern about the southern gentleman. At least not in popular culture. He’s still a character of the Old South. He has a mustache and goatee. He probably drinks bourbon. He may even dress like he’s still wedded to the land of his ancestors.
He’s Buford Calloway. The only difference is Buford’s modern suit of clothes.