Bidding Adieu to Confederate Monuments in New Orleans

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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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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.

“Party Down South” and “Southern Charm”: South Carolina’s Turn at Reality Television

When I first wrote about the South in reality television a few years ago, it seemed like a disturbing trend that would hopefully die a quick death. But no. Today, the reality shows that exploit the region have expanded from a trickle to a flood. And even within this genre of programming there are state “franchises,” so to speak, with Louisiana being the best example.  Nearly every state in the region has served as a backdrop for a reality-based show, but not all. South Carolina? It’s your turn.

Mark Sanford's declaration of love for his mistress at a 2009 press conference.
Mark Sanford’s declaration of love for his mistress at a 2009 press conference.

The state usually takes it on the chin for its conservative politics, or more pointedly, conservative politicians who draw the wrong kind of media attention. Think of former governor Mark Sanford’s tearful display of love for his mistress after he went “hiking on the Appalachian Trail.”  Or of Joe “You Lie!” Wilson. Even the Democratic Party was put to shame when Alvin Green–an unemployed veteran indicted for showing pornographic pictures to a female student at USC–became the party’s candidate for Senate.  And on it goes.

This spring, however, South Carolina is being showcased in two new reality shows, making this a total of three for the Palmetto State. It is already the site of TLC’s Myrtle Manor, a show that covers the hijinks of people who live in a trailer park in Myrtle Beach. But, I digress. The new shows include CMT’s “Party Down South,” filmed in Murrells Inlet (near Myrtle Beach), and Bravo’s “Southern Charm,” featuring a group of poorly-behaved Charleston socialites, a show locals have condemned to no avail. Hint: there’s nothing charming about this bunch.

The cast of CMT's "Party Down South"
The cast of CMT’s “Party Down South”

“Southern Charm” will be out in a couple of months, but “Party Down South”  (PDS) has already cranked up.  The show is produced by SallyAnn Salsano, who is the “mastermind” behind MTV’s “Jersey Shore,” and it does what MTV’s “Buckwild” couldn’t manage to do, which was to create a southern equivalent with characters like Snooki and the Situation.

The gist of the show is that the cast (most of whom hail from Deep South states like Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama) is staying at a rented house near the beach, where they share bedrooms, go to bars nearly every night, get drunk (a lot), fight (this goes with drinking), have sex, eat meals together “like a family,” have a “job” by the marina, and show their collective asses. Sound familiar?

So what is southern about the show?  Essentially, the setting, the accents, colloquialisms (“pop a squat,” “cooter,” and “coon ass”) and some good ol’ redneck fun, which usually involves trucks and mud.

CMT has become the primary network for redneck television and “Party Down South” is one in a long line of shows that hit the same tired notes of southern-based reality television. The formula involves working-class southerners, in this case young ones, as imbeciles willing to do anything for a little cash and attention. Being on the show is likely going to be the biggest thing to ever happen to them, and producers know it.  No doubt there were several hundred “hopefuls” who wanted to be on the show.

The thing is, I knew people like this in high school.  Girls that drank too much and got into fights. Guys that would do anything for a laugh.  Many of my classmates may have found them amusing in the moment, but they also felt embarrassed for them. The difference today is that the cast of PDS may never be able to escape their immature past, because it is forever preserved on film and has been shared with millions.

The cast of Bravo's "Southern Charm."
The cast of Bravo’s “Southern Charm.”

CMT and SallyAnn Salsano are the real winners here, as the network may boost its youth demographic and Salsano her financial portfolio. The losers, of course, are South Carolina and this cast.

Bravo promises a different group of southerners in its series “Southern Charm,” but don’t expect much different from what’s on over at CMT.

You can put lipstick on a pig, but it’s still a pig.

Duck Dynasty: Those Beards are Nobody’s Fool

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Image credit: A&E Television

The guys with the beards are back.  On reality television that is.  Duck Dynasty’s new season premiered last night and its legions of fans tuned in to see the latest happenings in the Robertson family, especially those of the hirsute men of the clan.

Duck Dynasty has become the most successful of the reality shows set in the South.  It’s part of what I like to call the “Louisiana genre” of reality TV that includes other successful show like Swamp People and Billy the Exterminator.  Though let’s not forget the lesser known Cajun Pawn or Cajun Justice.

What makes Duck Dynasty different, for me at least, is that the guys with beards are nobody’s fool.  So much of southern-based reality TV seems geared toward stereotyping people from the region.  Very often they are placed in ridiculous situations for comedic effect and their speech is accompanied by subtitles. This is most famously the case with the Thompson Family in Here Comes Honey Boo Boo.  Not so with Duck Dynasty.

One gets the impression that Willie and the boys are very much in control of their show and while there’s humor, it’s the kind where we can laugh with them and not at them.  Uncle Si might be the one in the family who’s picked on, but “hey,” he and the rest are in on the joke.  Moreover, the show about these self-made millionaires, whose company Duck Commander makes duck calls among other products, seems more like a strategic move on the family’s part to further their brand.  And it’s worked like a charm.

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Uncle Si Robertson and his catch phrase on a T-Shirt

Now the brand includes the show itself.  The success of Duck Dynasty has resulted in sales of all sorts of items that have less to do with duck calls and more to do with the family’s keen marketing sense.  Products range from bobble heads of father Phil and his sons Willie and Jase to shirts and coffee mugs with Phil’s saying “Happy, Happy, Happy,” to images of Uncle Si and his catch phrase “Hey!” printed on t-shirts. The Robertson women are also in on the boondoggle with products of their own.

One of the reasons I enjoy the show is that I can see that the Robertsons are very grounded, self-aware, and clearly wise to the ways of the world.  When their fame dissipates, they will still be doing well financially.  Unfortunately, this is the exception to the rule when it comes to southern-based reality TV.  True, many of those stars may temporarily be enjoying some windfall, but they are not as savvy as the beards.  And that’s too bad.

Just because it’s called “Cajun” doesn’t make it so

One “Cajun” pawn star with a 1950s Pompadour

I’ve written a few blogs entries on Pop South about Louisiana-based reality television shows.  There are so many that it’s hard to keep up.  One of the more recent ones (I will have to blog about Duck Dynasty another time) is Cajun Pawn Stars, set in Alexandria, Louisiana.  And, as those in the know will tell you, it isn’t even in Cajun country.

It seems that the abundance of the shows set in Louisiana often play the “Cajun card” in order to draw in viewers and to create some sense of authenticity.  This particular show, which airs on The History Channel (boo, hiss), must strive for some authenticity if it’s going to get the thumbs up from The Big H, but as we all know by now the H stands for anything BUT history (hysterical, hokey, and hollow might do).   In this case, Frances Coleman, a native of Alexandria and a writer for the Mobile Press-Register writes, it’s time to cry “foul.”  She says it better than I can, so read her editorial here, and take all those “Cajun” shows with a grain of salt (or Tony Chachere’s.)

Call me “Professor Swamp People”

Troy Landry, one of the stars of History Channel's "Swamp People"

I was recently interviewed by Cara Bayles at the Houma Courier in Louisiana about the flood of reality television shows that are set in Louisiana.  We had a terrific talk that lasted a good half an hour, but all that ended up in the paper was a couple of sentences, which you can read here.  Just before we hung up the phone, I asked Cara “How did you find me?” to which she responded “I Googled ‘professor swamp people.'”

When I set out to write Dreaming of Dixie, I had no idea that it would lead to my becoming some “expert” on reality TV shows set in the South, although “Professor Swamp People” has a nice ring to it.  It began with the op-ed in the New York Times, which led to an interview about “hixploitation” for the Louisville Courier-Journal(KY) and similarly-related articles elsewhere.

Ernie Brown, Jr. a.k.a. "Turtleman," from "Call of the Wild Man" on Animal Planet

It may seem a huge leap to go from an analysis on the impact of Gone With the Wind to that of Swamp People, but from where I sit the purveyors of popular culture have, since the early nineteenth century, simply decided to emphasize what it believes to be the South’s cultural distinctiveness–whether or not it applies to the broader region.

And yet, therein lies the problem. So often nonsoutherners (including seasoned journalists) who don’t know the region’s history and have not spent time in the South, will often buy into those differences they find in popular culture. And as long as they do, I will continue to answer to the name “Professor Swamp People” when called.  Choot’em!!

Billy the Exterminator in Arizona?

Billy the Exterminator

I watch a lot of reality television and am always on the lookout for new southern-based reality shows, but one I liked almost right away was Billy the Exterminator.  The show, which is set in Louisiana, follows Billy and his brother Ricky (with help from his parents Donnie and Bill, Sr.) whose company Vexcon is set up to help people get rid of snakes, wasps, cockroaches, and raccoons, among other critters that have invaded their homes.  Billy, the show’s star, does his work while wearing all black (in the Louisiana heat and humidity) spiked wristbands, very often a hat, and his trademark thin sunglasses.  He’s a bit wild man, and a bit rock ‘n’ roll.

Billy and Ricky in Arizona with captured Javelina

This season the producers have taken Billy on the road to assist people in catching vermin in other states–Texas, Florida, and even Arizona, but I’m not so sure that Billy the Exterminator on the road is such a good idea.  Some people might like to see him try his hand at catching a Javelina (which looks like a miniature wild boar) in the Arizona desert, but something about that episode didn’t resonate with me. While Billy is certainly the star of the show, in some ways so is the State of Louisiana.  Louisiana is like another of the show’s characters.  Having Billy and Ricky work in the desert may have seemed like a good idea to the producers, but he looks out of place and the show’s chemistry seems off.

I don’t think the producers should mess with what is clearly a successful formula. They might be able to take Billy out of Louisiana, but you can’t take Louisiana out of the show.  That’s just not right.