Just felt like posting this song today. You’re welcome.
Me and Jeff Davis: The Serial
This week, and for the next several weeks, Pop South will offer a serial called “Me and Jeff Davis,” based on an essay I wrote for fun but for which I never found the right publishing venue. Now that I have a blog and we are still in the midst of the Civil War sesquicentennial, why not? What follows is Part 1.
As scholars we often develop a personal relationship with our work, feeling as if we know the people we study even though they have long since died. Early in my career, my research involved a study of the Lost Cause, more specifically, those women who helped to preserve it for generations—the United Daughters of the Confederacy (UDC).
Through these women, and my fascination with the Confederate tradition in the New South, I became very familiar with Jefferson Davis, or “Jeff,” as I like to call him.
Jeff Davis of the Lost Cause was quite different from Jefferson Davis, one and only Confederate President. The postwar Davis is a man whose journey from despised loser to sacred martyr is the man I came to know through my research.
The UDC made sure of it, even if Davis had never participated in the resurrection of his own image, which he did. They built grand monuments to him in New Orleans and Richmond, and smaller places in between. His image is one of three Confederate leaders carved into Stone Mountain in Georgia. There’s even a highway named for him, compliments of these Daughters of the Confederacy.
And while Robert E. Lee may have been the South’s most beloved hero, Jefferson Davis was the Daughters’ “Man.” He symbolized the South in her loss, defending the cause of states’ rights and his, as well as the region’s, reputation. Moreover, for the devotees of the Lost Cause, especially women, he was THE martyr of a defeated southern nation.
In fact, he was often likened to Jesus Christ; just as Christianity’s martyr died for the sins of humanity, the South’s martyr—Jefferson Davis—was regarded as self-sacrificing, a man who went to prison and suffered in behalf of the entire region.
How did Davis’ reputation as a martyr play itself out in the South?
In fascinating, costly, and even bizarre ways. In fact, I often liken my own experience with Lost Cause Jeff as something like going to a sideshow at the annual fair—you don’t want to look, but you can’t help yourself. Indeed, from the first time I came to study the Lost Cause and the UDC, it was Jeff Davis who kept revealing himself to me, and not in the most conventional ways.
Return for Part 2 of Me and Jeff Davis: The Serial, entitled “Beauvoir, Catafalques, and Head Start.” Yes, you read that correctly.
Have Y’all Heard? Voices from the Southern Blogosphere
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.
The Daily Show and Tired Southern Tropes
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”.
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.
Looking Backward on the Dixie Highway
Pop South welcomes this post by Tammy Ingram, Assistant Professor of History at the College of Charleston. Her book Dixie Highway: Roads and Modernization in the South, 1900-1930 is forthcoming from the University of North Carolina Press.
I like to drive. My dad taught me how when I was seven or eight years old and turned me loose with his old one-ton flatbed truck. With the tattered bench seat pushed all the way forward, I toured the back roads around our South Georgia farm with my trusty co-pilot, a chihuahua named Scooter, perched on the seat next to me. When I was older (and legal), I ventured farther, this time with a stack of maps by my side. My best memories are from those road trips—my first solo long-distance drive to college; a cross-country journey with an old boyfriend; and speeding across the Tappan Zee Bridge at 4:00 AM on the 1000-mile trip home during grad school.
I got to know the South from behind the wheel of an automobile, just like the farmers and tourists I write about. But the South they encountered looked very different. At the turn of the twentieth century, a jumble of muddy roads covered the South like a bed of briars. Roads were not long-distance routes, but rather short paths that fed local traffic to the nearest railroad depot. Main roads branched outward from railroad towns, and thousands of miles of secondary roads linked them to farms. There were no road signs or mile markers to guide you. If you weren’t from around these parts, you’d have a hard time navigating the roads that linked isolated farms to nearby market towns but not much else.
These problems became the focus of a grassroots campaign called the Good Roads Movement. Though it began among urban bicyclists in the 1880s, by the 1910s the automobile craze had transformed it into a nationwide crusade to improve rural roads.
Between 1915 and 1927, the Dixie Highway served as the centerpiece the Good Roads Movement in the South. Made up of hundreds of local roads stitched together, the Dixie Highway looped 6000 miles from Lake Michigan to Miami Beach and back up again. It was originally planned as a tourist route to steer wealthy motorists from the Midwest to fancy vacation resorts in South Florida, but within a few years the Dixie Highway became a full-fledged interstate highway system—the first in the nation—and served tourists, businessmen, and farmers, alike.
The highway that helped to transform and modernize the South, however, reflected profoundly conservative ideas about the region’s place in the nation.
The Dixie Highway was the brainchild of Carl Fisher, an eccentric Indianapolis millionaire, and his wealthy friends in the auto industry. With the support of others in the Good Roads Movement, they used the highway to lobby for state and federal highway aid. Southern support was critical to this process. Yet in the Hoosiers’ imagining of the Dixie Highway route, the South was little more than an unavoidable place on the way to vacation paradise in South Florida.
In order to promote the highway to northern tourists, they had to market the South as a destination in and of itself, not just an obstacle separating Chicago snowbirds from the warm Florida sunshine. And in order to persuade southern voters and taxpayers to fund long-distance highways, which they derided as “peacock alleys” that served only wealthy motorists, they had to convince them that tourism in the South would pay.
They started with the name. Originally called the Cotton Belt Route, by early 1915 they had adopted a snappier sounding name that, as this blog’s author Karen L. Cox has argued, was not just a geographic reference but a brand that evoked popular nostalgia for the Old South. The Dixie Highway sounded like a road to the past as much as a road to a place. It presented the South as an exotic locale, and idea, to explore and exploit.
Although traffic would flow both ways along the Dixie Highway, its Hoosier boosters envisioned it as a path “leading down into the South,” where there existed “wonderful scenery that is most unusual and attractive” to Midwestern motorists. Some even believed the Dixie Highway could ease lingering sectional tensions. The New York Times dubbed it the “Dixie Peaceway” and mawkishly described it as “a memorial . . . symbolical of the accord between brethren which shall never again be broken.” In Illinois and Indiana, “Dixie” gas stations, restaurants, and hotels conjured up images of an unfamiliar but pleasant destination. Oil and gas companies capitalized on the interest in southern tourism, as well, by distributing road maps to guide tourists through the South.
But Yankee entrepreneurs were not the only ones who drew on stereotypes about the South. In Georgia, Dixie Highway boosters promoted Old South and Civil War tourism.
Looking backward, however, proved incongruous with the challenges of building a modern highway system. Even while southern supporters of the Dixie Highway joined the campaign for state and federal aid, they clung to old social and political institutions that preserved local control.
The most ruinous was the county chain gang. Chain gangs were not unique to the South, but by the 1920s, when state- and federal-aid highways were beginning to take shape, most states outside the region had turned to contract labor. But not southerners. Chain gangs allowed local authorities to control black labor, so southerners preserved them long after other states had abandoned them.
As soon as modern highway building challenged their sacred institutions, southerners retreated. By the time state and federal highway markers began to replace Dixie Highway markers in the late 1920s, the Good Roads Movement was dead. The backlash against the emerging highway bureaucracy did not forestall road work altogether, but it delayed the development of a modern, integrated highway system in the South for decades. The construction of the Eisenhower system in the 1950s and 1960s transformed large parts of the South, but it had little impact on the quality of local roads and state highways miles away from the interstates. In the 1980s, when I was growing up in rural Georgia, a hard rain could wash out half of the county’s dirt roads.
A few years ago, I drove one of the few remaining sections of the original Dixie Highway, a narrow road that winds through peach country near Macon, Georgia. In some spots, you can see in your rearview mirror a stretch of Interstate 75, the modern, multi-lane, limited-access freeway that replaced the Dixie Highway. You won’t see much of the South driving eighty-five miles an hour along the latter route, but the former won’t take you where you need to go. If ever there was a fitting memorial to the Good Roads Movement, this might just be it.
Honey Boo Boo and the Country Ghetto
After watching the first two weeks of “Here Comes Honey Boo Boo,” the tragic comedy reality show on TLC, it’s clear that some “hixploitation” is going on at the network. The cast of characters–at the center of which are Mama June and her pageant queen daughter Alana–are what you might call “country ghetto.” They rattle off phrases (“A dolla makes me holla” and “I’m all that and a pack of crackers”) that Helena Andrews writes makes them appear as if they channeled an “angry black woman” from a ’90s sitcom. (See her article in The Root, Aug. 15, 2012).
Yet, Alana (a.k.a. “Honey Boo Boo”) and her family are firmly situated in rural Georgia, and what I see is more than just the language of the ghetto. This family literally lives IN a country ghetto. They are, as a friend suggested, like the Evans family on the sitcom “Good Times” because they have to laugh to keep from crying about the poverty which they can’t seem to escape.
I see the cycle of rural southern poverty on full display. Underneath all that sass is a family that struggles to stay afloat financially, while also gambling on Honey Boo Boo. If you listen closely, in between all the colloquialisms (ignoring the subtitles even when they aren’t needed), you’ll hear Mama June tell you that her “baby daddy” works 7 days a week and that she got pregnant at 15, which meant that her education was cut short, although to her credit she finished her GED. And now her 17 year-old daughter is repeating the cycle of teen pregnancy, and there will be one more mouth to feed. In addition to “extreme couponing,” June also goes to food auctions and her family happily accepts a deer carcass, even if it was roadkill, because the meat they preserve from it will save them money. Her older daughters complain that their mother considers anything over $5 expensive.
People may find it irresponsible that Mama June would spend the money she’s scraped to save to invest in Alana’s pageants. But this is consistent with people who live in poverty who pin their hopes on a gamble they hope will pay off. It’s no different than if they were playing Powerball or scratching off tickets–maybe one day they’ll hit the jackpot, although the odds are stacked against them.
This isn’t just moralizing on my part, because I’ve experienced poverty and can remember a time as a little girl when my Mom (a single mother who scraped by on a secretary’s salary) gave me $2 to purchase a raffle ticket in hopes of winning a new car since we didn’t have one. I still remember the look in her eyes that even she knew this was a long shot. Of course, we didn’t win, but I hoped with everything we would because it might make life a little easier. I can see this in little Alana. She’s a sassy kid, to be sure, but underneath she’s vulnerable and still just six years old. She desperately wants to win that Miss Grand Supreme title and it hurts her a little more each time when she doesn’t. It hurts June, too. This is what makes it hard to watch, because I understand how poverty makes you feel “less than” and so I also hurt a little for them.
Maybe they have hit a small jackpot with their show (no doubt TLC has). During commercials, you’ll see that the network is offering ringtones of Alana’s sayings like “a dolla makes me holla.” I just hope TLC is cutting Alana a check for those ringtones, since it is profiting by exploiting her. Maybe she will earn enough to fund a college education, break her family’s cycle of poverty, and escape the country ghetto. I’m rooting for her.