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The Battle Over Memory
Three new looks at the roots of Southern difference and the origins of Southern identity.

Reviewed by Ira Berlin
Sunday, February 12, 2006

COMPLICITY

How the North Promoted, Prolonged, and

Profited From Slavery

By Anne Farrow, Joel Lang and Jenifer Frank

Ballantine. 269 pp. $25.95

AWAY DOWN SOUTH

A History of Southern Identity

By James C. Cobb

Oxford Univ. 404 pp. $30

THE SOUTHERN PAST

A Clash of Race and Memory

By W. Fitzhugh Brundage

Belknap/Harvard Univ. 418 pp. $27.95

Everyone knows that the South was different -- perhaps so much so that, in the words of the historian James C. Cobb, it often "hardly seemed part of America at all." But few agree on how and why it was so distinct. A recent bevy of books wrestles with Southern identity -- a question that is older than the republic itself.

Once, the institution of slavery and the white supremacist ideologies that it spawned defined the Southern difference, and the boundary between North and South could be located with geographic precision along the Mason-Dixon Line. But recent studies have emphasized the extent to which chattel bondage, long believed to be the South's "peculiar institution," was a continental and national phenomenon, as much at home in the Northern colonies (and, after 1776, Northern states) as it was in the Southern ones.

These new studies of Northern slavery were summarized in two extraordinary Sunday supplements published in 2002 by the Hartford Courant, Connecticut's oldest newspaper. Anne Farrow, Joel Lang and Jennifer Frank, the lead writers of the Courant's special issues, have now expanded their work and published it as Complicity .

Although written in the telegraphic style of modern journalism, this tough-minded book reveals Northern slavery to have been neither a marginal nor a short-lived institution but a central element of the region's economy and society. During the 18th century, New York -- where slaves composed as much as a quarter of the population and probably more than a third of the workforce -- was the largest slaveholding city in mainland North America, with more slaves than Charleston or New Orleans. Slaves existed in even higher proportions in parts of the Hudson and Connecticut valleys, northern New Jersey, Long Island and Rhode Island.

The glacial pace of abolition suggests the importance of slavery in the North, where it survived for more than half a century after the Declaration of Independence pronounced "all men are created equal." The gradual emancipations enacted in the Northern states with the largest slave populations, New York and New Jersey (announced with great ceremony on the Fourth of July in 1799 and 1804, respectively), liberated not a single slave. Instead, only those born after that date were freed -- generally when they came to their age of majority, which was generously defined as the mid-twenties for women and the late twenties for men. Slavery thus lingered in the North. In the 1820s, census enumerations counted some 30,000 slaves in the so-called free states, and a handful of slaves remained until the middle of the 19th century.

As the authors of Complicity show, when Northern abolitionists finally put a stake in the heart of chattel bondage, slavery's importance grew. The post-emancipation North became the hub of the international trade in tobacco, sugar and especially cotton. The same merchants and bankers who brokered the transfer of those slave-grown commodities between Southern states and mills in England also bankrolled the expansion of the plantation regime. Since politics followed economics, Northern politicians -- especially Democratic ones -- were solicitous of the interests of Southern slaveholders and did much to protect the institution of slavery from its opponents.

Slavery in the North, like its counterpart in the South, was a brutal, violent relationship that fostered white supremacy. Complicity 's authors shred the notion, famously advanced by the Yale historian U.B. Phillips, that the central theme of Southern history was the region's desire to remain a white man's country. Sadly, Phillips was not so much wrong about the centrality of white supremacy to the South as blind to its presence in the North. Complicity also recapitulates another theme of recent scholarship, showing how the slow, painful emergence of African American freedom in the North actually intensified racism as whites -- no longer distinguished from blacks by law -- invented new invidious distinctions. During the early 19th century, various Northern states denied black men the right to vote, serve on juries and otherwise exercise citizenship. Some states even barred blacks from legal entry. Beyond the law, white Northerners regularly excluded African Americans from churches, schools, civic associations and even graveyards -- or placed them in segregated and almost always inferior sections therein.

Complicity makes clear that differences between South and North did not rest on slavery and racial ideologies alone. But there is more to the story, and in Away Down South University of Georgia historian James C. Cobb writes what he calls " a history rather than the history" of who Southerners thought they were.

The gang is all here: big players such as Thomas Jefferson and Tom Watson, William Gilmore Simms and William Faulkner, Broadus Mitchell and Margaret Mitchell, and W.J. Cash and W.E.B. DuBois, as well as bit players such as the planter Bennehan Cameron, the academic Rollin G. Osterweis and the social activist Julia Tutwiler. The stock figures of Southern literature -- Jeeter Lester, Ike McCaslin, Willie Stark and Will Varner -- mix with the real figures of Southern history. (Sometimes it seemed they were kinfolk.) Patricians and parvenus, idealists and materialists, fading gentry and rising industrialists, and modernists and anti-modernists tumble off Cobb's pages. They construct great causes and lost causes, love the landscape and despoil the land, fill their purses and save their souls, and often elevate the idea of womanhood while debasing women themselves. The inhabitants of Away Down South come at us thick and fast, benighted and bemused, roaring down some unpaved back-country road, pedal to the metal. If this sounds like a breathless rendition of Southern history by an academic who loves to name names, it certainly is. Still, no one remotely interested in the South will be able to resist this book, and readers are bound to learn from Cobb's enormous erudition.

The larger meaning of this flood of knowledge is more difficult to discern: Cobb unwinds rather than unravels the story of Southern identity. He marches from the 17th century to the 21st, revealing how generation after generation of Southerners defined themselves. His descriptions of successive iterations of Southernness are priceless, but he gives little sense of why and how Southerners continually remade themselves.

To address that critical question, one would do well to turn to W. Fitzhugh Brundage's The Southern Past . Brundage, a professor of history at the University of North Carolina, does not have Cobb's range or inclusiveness, focusing instead on the post-emancipation period, especially the civil rights and post-civil rights eras. But his close analysis brilliantly reveals how Southerners defined themselves -- and who did the defining.

Brundage begins his story in the late 19th century as white men and women -- shaken by military defeat and emancipation -- began the process of making "Southerner" synonymous with "white Southerner." This, Brundage rightly insists, was no semantic battle. Whites seized public space -- erecting monuments, organizing parades and presenting pageants -- to enshrine the slaveholding past as a golden age when whites and blacks lived in loving harmony. Asserting that civilization was a racial trait over which Anglo-Saxons enjoyed a monopoly, they affirmed their place atop Southern society and relegated the "savage" descendants of Africa to its nether reaches.

Disenfranchised black Southerners could not match whites' ability to embed their claims in the public realm. Nonetheless, in their own institutions -- churches, fraternal orders and schools -- they created a counter-narrative that denounced romanticized renderings of slavery. Matching white Southerners holiday for holiday, parade for parade and pageant for pageant, black men and women emphasized their role in defending the republic and its ideals. Central to their claims was the wartime service of black soldiers. On every occasion -- Memorial Day, the commemoration of the passage of the 13th and 15th Amendments, the birthdays of Frederick Douglass and Lincoln, and especially the Fourth of July -- black veterans countered what white Southerners labeled as treason. For them, the assertion of their identity as Southerners was an act of self-creation and liberation.

Southern identity was contested, and its very meaning emerged from that struggle. As Brundage sees it, the struggle was ongoing, and the battlefield was memory -- explained here as an active process whereby people selectively shape the past to make of themselves what they will.

In perhaps his most rewarding section, Brundage shows how Southern whites built the scaffolding upon which their memories rested. Of particular importance was the creation of state-sponsored archives, the establishment of privately funded museums, the professionalization of the study of history, the growth of heritage tourism and the creation of a variety of historic sites from roadside markers to plantation complexes. Again, white Southerners -- acting from positions of power -- saw the sites of their memories lovingly restored; black Southerners saw theirs demolished. But with the end of segregation, whites and blacks confronted one another on far more equal ground in battles over the placement of the Confederate battle flag and the singing of "Dixie."

That debate over identity continues in countless controversies over museum exhibits, the placement and removal of historical monuments and the naming of public buildings. Rather than seeing these contests as simply reflections of contemporary divisions within American society, Brundage makes it clear they are part of an ongoing battle that has defined the South and distinguished it from the North. Yes, the South was different, and, at least in part, history made it so. ยท

Ira Berlin teaches history at the University of Maryland and is the author of "Generations of Captivity: A History of African American Slaves."

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