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?

prince picture
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.

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Kanye West, Neo-Confederate, and 12 Years a Slave

Since Pop South isn’t a paying gig, I don’t always post items as quickly as I’d like. I’ve got a real job that needs attending to, which means that I’m a little slow to blogging about those stories that are on my mind.  Like rapper Kanye West sporting a Confederate battle flag on his jacket.  And, 12 Years a Slave.

From the film, 12 Years a Slave
From the film, 12 Years a Slave

Speaking of which, what a powerful film.  The movie, directed by Steve McQueen, is based on true events in the life of Solomon Northrup, a free black man who was captured and sold into slavery.  But it is so much more.  Based on Northrup’s narrative, the story itself is an amazing tale of survival. Yet the greater story is how the brutality of slavery damages the humanity of everyone associated with the system–from the slave owners to the enslaved, the slave catchers and the slave buyers, men and women.  This is the institution that the Confederacy sought to preserve.

Which brings me back to Kanye and that flag.  Not just any ol’ Confederate flag, of which there are several, but the Confederate battle flag.  Because we know Kanye enjoys a battle, especially when his ego is involved or, more importantly, his wallet. Some have called this move “genius.”  He would agree. Controversy = publicity = $$$.

Kanye West, Neo-Confederate
Kanye West, Neo-Confederate

What I find disconcerting is how willfully ignorant West is about the flag’s meaning. His public response to using it is to say: “You know, the Confederate flag represented slavery in a way—that’s my abstract take on what I know about it… So I took the Confederate flag and made it my flag! It’s my flag! Now what are you going to do?”  Yea, Kanye, it represented slavery “in a way,” and it’s also been co-opted by the Ku Klux Klan, segregationists, and Neo-Nazis. In essence, you’ve cast your lot with them, too.

But, wait. He doesn’t care about that. In a more recent interview he said as much. “You don’t ever know what I’m trying to do. Black people stopping other black people from getting checks. . .Don’t nobody care about the Confederate flag on that type of level.”  Perhaps, but I don’t think we’re out of the (pecker)woods yet.

This brings me back to 12 Years a Slave.  Kanye West needs to see this film. Over and over again. Perhaps then, he’ll get why he’s wrong about the meaning of the Confederate flag.  He may never admit to it publicly, but in his heart, he will know.

“Accidental Racist”: Brad Paisley & LL Cool J’s Folly

Brad Paisley‘s controversial new song “Accidental Racist” is causing a media stir and backlash creating what is euphemistically called a “shit storm.” Essentially, the song is that of a good ol’ boy who wants to show his southern pride and not have to apologize to the black guy who is waiting on him at Starbucks for doing so.  He’s “just a white man, living in the Southland” who wants to wear his red shirt emblazoned with that innocuous symbol (not), the Confederate battle flag, because really, he’s just a fan of Lynyrd Skynyrd and his generation didn’t own slaves. Damn, Brad, even Lynyrd Skynyrd attempted to remove the flag from their concerts because of the flag’s ugly history–you know, the one associated not just with slavery, but with segregation and let’s not forget the Ku Klux Klan.  Although in the end, Skynyrd’s legions of white fans shamed them into keeping it because it’s about “heritage, not hate.”

This is essentially Brad Paisley’s argument.  Poor guy feels caught between “southern blame” and “southern pride.”  Well, Brad, there’s a good reason for that and if you had done your homework, which you said you’re just doing now in order to defend yourself, you wouldn’t have written lyrics asking a black man to give you a pass for wearing that battle flag on your t-shirt with all of the political baggage that it carries.  And why THAT symbol of southern pride above all others? Can’t you pick another one? Did you have to choose the one co-opted by hate groups? And why is a guy from the northern neck of West Virginia defending his southern pride?

And teaming up with LL Cool J did not help matters.  He’s drifted a long way from “Mama Said Knock You Out,” which would have been a more appropriate response to Paisley’s lyrics.  Instead, he joins in with ridiculous rhymes of his own like “The relationship between the Mason-Dixon needs some fixin'” and “If you don’t judge my do-rag, I won’t judge your red flag.” LL, don’t you think you’re making a sweeping generalization suggesting that all black men wear do-rags and gold chains? Then, incredulously, he gives a shout out to Robert E. Lee, offering a “RIP.”

Take a listen.

The one line LL has correct is “can’t re-write history, baby.”  No, you can’t. And these two men should have familiarized themselves with the history of this country and of contentious symbols like that “red flag” before releasing this song.

Lynyrd Skynyrd and “Heritage, Not Hate”

Wow, that was quick.  Less than a week ago, members of the band Lynyrd Skynyrd were giving an interview on CNN in which lead guitarist Gary Rossington explained that the band had disassociated itself from the image with which it’s long been known – the Confederate battle flag.  Just a few days later?  Rossington, the last remaining member of the original band, all of a sudden got his Confederate memory back and told fans on the band’s website “The Confederate flag means something more to us, Heritage not Hate.” He needed to do something, because the band’s fans threatened to secede from Lynyrd Skynyrd nation and take their dollars with them.

Photo courtesy of examiner.com

Actually, he was right the first time when he told CNN that the image had “became such an issue, about race and stuff.”  Yea, race and stuff.

That stuff, as he initially pointed out, was that groups like the KKK, skinheads, and let’s go ahead and say segregationists (please) had, in his words, “kidnapped the Dixie or rebel flag from the Southern tradition and the heritage of the soldiers.”  Well, yes, but it’s more complicated than that.

THAT flag, as we know, is one of many Confederate flags, but it’s the one that draws the  most ire.  Yes, it was used by southern soldiers as they headed into battle, but let’s be clear:  by 1863 the war was over the institution of slavery and the Confederate army was there to protect it.  States’ rights?  Yes, a state’s right to maintain slavery.  There’s no getting around it.

So, let’s say you buy the idea that this was simply about southern soldiers and therefore the “Heritage, Not Hate” slogan works for you, because you don’t want to be thought of as a racist.  Then what can you say about the heritage of that symbol since the Civil War?  The war lasted 4 years, but the battle flag has often been used over the last 150 years as a symbol of racial hatred.  What about THAT heritage?

The flag’s heritage is indelibly tied to the institution of slavery. Courtesy: Times Picayune, 2000.

Lynyrd Skynyrd is free to do what is best for its fan base and especially its bottom dollar, but as the saying goes “don’t get it twisted”–in this case, the history.  Gary Rossington was right the first time when he said that the negative connotations of the flag had to do with “race and stuff.”  The vitriol with which the fans have responded over the band’s initial decision to quit using the flag is proof enough that race is still at issue.

And just because you say it’s about “heritage, not hate,” doesn’t make it so.