Bidding Adieu to Confederate Monuments in New Orleans

Jefferson-Davis
Jefferson Davis Monument, New Orleans.

In the wake of the human tragedy Charleston, South Carolina, where nine members of Emanuel AME Church were murdered by a white supremacist neo-Confederate, there has been a push in southern states to remove the symbols of the region’s Confederate past.  Until now, only battle flags have been targeted.

But recently, the city council in New Orleans voted to remove Confederate monuments from its urban landscape, including those to Gens. Robert E. Lee and P.G.T. Beauregard, as well as one to the President of the Confederacy, Jefferson Davis.  Council members accomplished this feat through an ordinance that defined these monuments as a public “nuisance.”

According to the ordinance:

They honor, praise, or foster ideologies which are in conflict with the requirements of equal protection for citizens as provided by the constitution and laws of the United States, the state, or the laws of the city and suggests the supremacy of one ethnic, religious, or racial group over another.

This angers Confederate sympathizers like the Sons of Confederate Veterans and members of the United Daughters of the Confederacy who believe that such memorials honor their ancestors’ sacrifices.  It also makes some historians a little uneasy, as they worry about erasing history, arguing that even when that past is ugly it should remain as a reminder to never repeat that past.

Yet much of what the ordinance says is true.  Confederate monuments were erected in a moment of white supremacist backlash to black progress and were not simply memorials to honor ancestors.  They were that, but they were also powerful symbols of white rule serving notice to black citizens that they were, at best, second-class citizens.

Unveiling ceremonies, Jefferson Davis Monument in New Orleans, 1907.
Unveiling ceremonies, Jefferson Davis Monument in New Orleans, 1907.

When the Jefferson Davis Memorial in New Orleans was unveiled in 1907, it was attended by thousands of white citizens. The ceremony included over 500 children from the city’s white public schools who formed what were known as “living battle flags.”  These children, dressed in the colors that make up the flag, were then arranged on a stand so that they formed a Confederate battle flag.  In that formation, they sang “Dixie” and even “America.”

But make no mistake, the loyalty expressed by white southerners during this and similar ceremonies across the South were first and foremost to the former Confederacy.

Monuments and memorials are generally a reflection of the values of the generation that originally placed them there. In 1907, the Davis monument reflected the values of a generation of whites dedicated to the idea of Anglo-Saxon supremacy. Indeed, during speeches given at unveiling ceremonies across the South, they said as much.

So how should we consider removing such monuments and memorials?

If landscapes are constantly evolving, can the removal of the Confederate monuments in New Orleans or elsewhere be understood as part of that evolution and a reflection of values of the current generation?

Others will see this as a historic preservation issue.  As most of us know, preservation is a difficult sell under the best of circumstances.  Some buildings get preserved, while others are razed in order to build something new in its place.

In this, I am reminded of a statement made by a curator at the National Museum of American History many years ago during one of my visits.  She discussed how the museum had previously exhibited women’s work in the 18th and 19th centuries by showcasing several spinning wheels of various sizes. She asked, rhetorically, “how many spinning wheels are needed to demonstrate that this was the kind of work most women did?”  Not an entire room full.

The same might be asked about the hundreds of Confederate monuments and memorials that are found across the southern landscape.

How many are needed to demonstrate that a generation of southern whites built monuments to the Confederate past?

 

 

 

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A People’s History of Southern Barbecue

From the talented pen of Michael Twitty.

Afroculinaria

http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2015/jul/04/barbecue-american-tradition-enslaved-africans-native-americans?CMP=share_btn_tw

Enjoy this piece I wrote, freshly published on The Guardian giving a short history of how barbecue is connected to American food and freedom through its enslaved African and Native American roots!

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The “General Lee” Commercial: An iconic car is missing its battle flag, but is anyone fooled?

The General Lee in Die-Cast.
The General Lee in Die-Cast.

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.

Stories of the South with Stephen Prince

prince_stories1-197x300Pop South interviews Stephen Prince, Assistant Professor of History at the University of South Florida, about his new book Stories of the South: Race and the Reconstruction of Southern Identity, 1865-1915, published by UNC Press in April.

PS: The main title of your book is “Stories of the South.” Since this is a history book and not a book of literature, please tell readers of Pop South about the kind of stories your book examines.

I use the term “stories” fairly loosely. Though I do analyze literary texts, I find stories about the South in a variety of other places: congressional debates, newspaper editorials, travel narratives, speeches, sermons, visual art, popular theater, songs, promotional material, writings on the “race problem,” political cartoons, and scholarly treatises. I cast my net pretty wide in order to capture the range of sites at which people grappled with the nature of the South in the fifty years after the Civil War.

PS: The subtitle of your book is “Race and the Reconstruction of Southern Identity.” When you write about “southern identity” between the Civil War and World War I, specifically whose identity are you concerned with? Whites? Blacks? Men? Women?

Thomas Nast
Thomas Nast’s illustration of the New South. Image courtesy of Library of Congress

The book starts from a fairly simple premise. In the aftermath of the Civil War, the meaning of the South – defined as a region, a people, a civilization – was an open question. “The South,” as it had been, had ceased to be. The question was what the region would become. Over the next fifty years, Americans – northern and southern, male and female, black and white – debated the nature of the South. I use these conversations to chart a course from the racial egalitarianism of Reconstruction to the nightmare of Jim Crow.

That said, I’m not particularly attuned to the ways that individual southerners understood their “southern-ness” on a private, personal level. I’m much more interested in popular, public discussions of the South. References to “the Southern Question” were extraordinarily common in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Northerners played an important role in these discussions, before and after the oft-cited “end” of Reconstruction in 1877. I argue that the South was re-defined in conversation between the sections. The ability to define the South carried with it enormous political power. To tell the story of the South was to control the South.

PS: Your book relies on sources of popular culture as a way to better understand the region. What types of sources did you use and was there a consistent message among those sources regarding the American South?

Fisk University Jubilee Singers performed
Fisk University Jubilee Singers, ca. 1871. Image courtesy of Library of Congress.

The message is definitely not consistent! Contestation and debate were the only constants. One of my goals was to bring cultural history to the study of the postwar U.S. South. Political and social history still dominate the literature on Reconstruction and its aftermath. Debates over the future of the South certainly occurred in the halls of Congress and on individual southern farms and plantations, but there was a much wider cultural universe in which the nature of the region was discussed. In order to understand the retreat from Reconstruction and the rise of Jim Crow, we need to pay attention to the larger cultural context in which political change occurred. Viewed from this perspective, a fantastic and phantasmagoric* pamphlet on the Ku Klux Klan is not just ephemera, it’s an important part of the cultural landscape in which power was won and contested. The same is true of the New South’s city boosting literature, Thomas Nelson Page’s plantation fiction, and the songs of the Fisk Jubilee Singers. Culture matters. Without understanding the stories that Americans told themselves about the South, we can’t understand the history of the South.

PS: One of your main arguments is that cultural production—particularly popular culture—is as important to understanding what shaped the South in the post-Civil War era as are political and economic changes. What role did popular culture play in shaping contemporary ideas about the South in the 19thc.?

Though I try to avoid simplistic cause-and-effect analysis, a large-scale change-over-time argument structures much of the book. In the first years of Reconstruction, northerners seized the power to re-imagine the South. By the 1880s, however, conservative white southerners had realized the significance of what we might call the cultural front in the war on Reconstruction. By the early twentieth century, northerners were largely content to defer to white southerners on matters relating to the South, particularly where race was involved. Throughout, African-Americans told their own tales of the South. In the process, they offered eloquent testimony to the power of culture and public opinion. Go read Frederick Douglass’s last speech on lynching or the cakewalk scene in Charles Chesnutt’s The Marrow of Tradition. As Douglass put it, “words are things.” The way that people described affairs in the South – the words they used, the stories they told – mattered deeply.

PS:  Last, but not least, what about your newest research project might interest readers of Pop South?

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Historian Stephen Prince

I’m now writing a book about the 1900 New Orleans riot, tentatively titled The Ballad of Robert Charles: Race, Violence, and Memory in the Jim Crow South. The riot has a place in all the big books on the rise of Jim Crow, but no one has attempted a full scholarly study since William Ivy Hair’s 1976 Carnival of Fury. The violence in New Orleans started when a black man named Robert Charles shot and killed several white police officers. Over the new few days, white New Orleanians took their revenge on the city’s African American residents, killing at least five and wounding dozens more. When the authorities finally located Charles, an enormous gunfight broke out. Trapped in a second story loft, Charles shot several more white people before he was killed. The riot quickly became a national story, spawning extensive newspaper coverage and becoming the subject of Ida B. Wells-Barnett’s pamphlet Mob Rule in New Orleans. Though white and black elites did their best to eradicate the memory of Robert Charles, evidence suggests that he lived on as something of a folk hero among working-class African Americans in New Orleans and beyond.

The book’s title – The Ballad of Robert Charles – comes from a 1938 interview that folklorist Alan Lomax recorded with jazz legend and New Orleans native Jelly Roll Morton. “They had a song out on Robert Charles,” Morton recalled. “I used to know the song, but I found it was best for me to forget it. And that I did, in order to go along with the world on the peaceful side.” The ballad of Robert Charles was too explosive to remember, too dangerous to sing. Following Morton’s lead, I hope my book will be much more than a story about Jim Crow New Orleans. It will also be an exploration of memory, forgetting, historical silences, and the power of the past.

*This is your word for the day, children.

Have Y’all Heard? Voices from the Southern Blogosphere

The Pop South Rooster Word Cloud

Writing posts for Pop South has been an enjoyable experience, and it’s also provided a means for connecting with the larger public about the ways in which the American South is represented in popular culture. This is especially important for folks like myself who work in academia, where our critics suggest that we exist in a bubble and are out of touch with the “real world.”

I, for one, have always wanted to burst that bubble and bridge the gap that exists between academia and the broader public. To put it plainly, I’ve long felt that I should be able to explain what I write about in terms that members of my family, who never went to college, can understand.

My work as a public historian–working for museums and writing exhibit text–helped me to bridge that gap. Today, my blog serves that purpose and not by “dumbing down” the intellectual considerations. A person doesn’t have to have a college degree to be smart, but I find that dispensing with the academic jargon that can separate “us” (the academics) from “them” (the general reader) is especially important in a blog whose purpose is to communicate about topics in a way that most people can understand and appreciate.

I’m happy to say that I am not alone here in the southern blogosphere, as equally like-minded folks are adding their unique take on the region and its culture. If scholars want to be relevant beyond the academy, and if southern studies wants the same, then we must take advantage of new forms of communication in order to reach the broadest possible audience.

I look forward to others joining the mix, because there’s plenty of room for new voices. For now, here’s an introduction to some southern blogs and bloggers whose writing I think you’ll enjoy:

Civil War Memory–So much of what is written about Civil War memory concerns the South and how memory of the war has shaped, and continues to shape, southern culture. In this long-running blog, historian and teacher Kevin Levin explores this topic with his readers by examining everything from new books, to popular media, to the never-ending divisiveness of the Confederate battle flag.

Cobbloviate–This is a blog hosted by James C. Cobb, Professor and Spalding Distinguished Research Professor and Spalding Distinguished Research Professor at the University of Georgia.  Dr. Cobb offers his own special take on the South and southerners and generally with a healthy dose of humor.

Field Trip South is the official blog of the Southern Folklife Collection at the University of North Carolina. It is a feast for the eyes and the ears as the SFC shares the archival resources of its phenomenal collection of materials that explore “the emergence of old-time, country-western, hillbilly, bluegrass, blues, gospel, Cajun and zydeco musics.”

Interpreting Slave Life–Nicole Moore, public historian and consultant, hosts this blog on one of the South’s most prickly historical issues–slavery.  She does so without sticking her head in the sand, addressing head-on the issue of slave interpretation at historic sites across the South.

New South Negress–Zandria Robinson’s blog offers a no-holds-barred approach to issues of region, race, and culture. Dr. Robinson is a professor of sociology at the University of Memphis who teaches courses in southern studies and who offers a fresh voice on southern black cultures.  Her observations on southern hip-hop are a must read.

Off the Deaton Path–Stan Deaton, Senior Historian at the Georgia Historical Society in Savannah, is one of the newest to this genre of writing.  You may know him from his Emmy-winning role as host of Today in Georgia History, but he’s recently added blogging to his repertoire. Dr. Deaton’s blog isn’t southern specific; still, his explorations into regional issues (especially as they relate to Georgia) are worth your time.

Red Clay Scholar–Regina Bradley has a Ph.D. in Literature from Florida State University and she writes about hip hop culture, race, and the U.S. South.  She also has a great video interview series called Outkasted Conversations.  You should definitely check it out!

Southern Foodways Alliance–The SFA blog has several contributing authors who offer readers everything from a good southern story to a delicious southern recipe. You’ll learn new twists on southern foodways and discover things about the region you didn’t even know existed.

Talk About the South–Dayne Sherman is a Louisiana native and an associate professor of library science who blogs about southern history, politics, folklore and religion with a particular focus on his home state. And he has the enviable Twitter handle @TweettheSouth.