Friday, August 28, 2009

Looking down on the South (by Suzie)

If you're from the North, don't insinuate that you're better than Southerners. I say this gently to my Yankee friends and allies who may not realize they are acting like colonizers talking about the backward locals, or urbanites making fun of hicks.

And, yes, a Southerner can use the term “Yankee” without having the Confederate battle flag on the back window of her pickup.

This post stems from one Saturday on Texas textbooks, in which a couple of people made fun of Texas, and one said:
If anyone ever has to pass a test to get a job, I hope that all of their competitors were "educated" in Texas.
 We need an amendment to the Constitution that allows [the] majority of the voters across the country to vote a state out of the union.
Secession was a popular joke during the Bush years. The idea was that the blue states would secede, taking with them everything worthwhile, leaving the red states to suffer. The assumption seemed to be that everyone in the red states thinks alike. That has never been true. Although McCain carried Texas, for example, Obama got 43.8 percent of the votes. (Here’s an interesting article on secession talk in recent times.)

The idea of secession, by some wealthy, white Southerners, didn't go over so well more than a century ago. Some people still talk about “preserving the Union” as if it is a holy alliance ordained for eternity.

Opposing slavery can be a purely moral decision; preventing areas of a country from seceding is political and economic. If the South had had nothing to offer the North, the North might have thought “good riddance.” We see this in world politics, in which the U.S. intervenes when its economic interests are at stake, but does far less when there’s no issue with oil or military bases, for example.

Some people don’t understand the extent of slavery in the North, or how white Northerners benefited from Southern slavery, even after it had been abolished in their own region. Some think opposing slavery was the same as supporting equal rights and opportunities for African Americans. Perhaps they think that economics played no part in abolition in the North. If so, they should read this.

Righteous Northerners could have invaded, liberated all enslaved people, invited them north and then let the South secede. Or, they could have refused to buy anything from the South, or transport its goods, until slavery ended. But that would have hurt their industries, which needed the South’s resources, made cheaper by the forced labor of slaves. To some degree, it parallels the situation today in which a lot of people hate to hear about bad labor conditions, including human trafficking (i.e., slavery), but not all of them are willing to part with cheap goods.

As a white Northerner, if you want to feel superior because of slavery, check the complicity of your family. (If you want to know about my family: My parents were Yankees who moved to Texas for my father’s job a year before I was born.)

A new book by a Harvard professor and a Washington Post journalist notes “that the majority of white Southerners opposed secession, and a significant number fought for the Union.” Sally Jenkins and John Stauffer say the Confederacy resembled a totalitarian government.

As in the Vietnam era, some Southerners were forced to fight or had few other opportunities or knew little about the politics of the conflict. They also may have fought to protect their homes. Think of Iraq: A person can dislike his leaders and their policies, but he may still fight against what he considers an invading force.

The following from History Central gives further insight into why a number of white Southerners didn’t support secession, but still became embittered.
Most Southern white families did not own slaves: only about 384,000 out of 1.6 million did. Of those who did own slaves, most (88%) owned fewer than 20 slaves, and were considered farmers rather than planters. Slaves were concentrated on the large plantations of about 10,000 big planters, on which 50-100 or more slaves worked. About 3,000 of these planters owned more than 100 slaves, and 14 of them owned over 1,000 slaves. ...

By the end of the war, the South was economically devastated, having experienced extensive loss of human life and destruction of property. Poverty was widespread, and many resented the many Northerners and Southerners who took advantage of the needy in the South as the war came to an end. These conditions made it more difficult for the nation to heal the wounds which its union had suffered.
Reconstruction was necessary, but it was an occupation, with some Radical Republicans viewing the South as territories, not states. Colonizers may believe they are bringing better values to the colonized, or they may use that as a cover for other motives. In Afghanistan, some Republicans talked about freeing women from Taliban rule, and some women’s lives did improve.

Speaking of women, I noticed that gender often was absent, as I looked for links for this post. Reference was made to rights for African Americans, without mentioning that black men gained more rights than black women. No one noted that it was men who started and fought the Civil War. “Their” women were involved, but had few rights.

It makes sense to apply postcolonial theories to people of color in the U.S. who want to rebuild group identities. But it’s not surprising that many white Southerners also want to reclaim pride, including those who like to see themselves as both rebels and Rebels. Here’s a profile of the man who has raised a 50-by-30 Confederate flag in my county.

In the tension between urban vs. rural, industrial vs. agricultural, some white Southerners see themselves as more genteel, with stronger moral values. But they vote Republican, and they bother me in a different way than Northern Democrats who treat me like an honorary Yankee.

I have a Midwestern friend, a professor, who adopts a Southern accent whenever she wants to impersonate an ignorant person. During the Bush years, it drove me crazy when Northern allies used his ties to Texas and his accent as markers of ignorance and incompetence. Pronunciation of English words varies greatly, and the rules are full of exceptions. Bostonians who pronounce “car” as “cah” know that there is an “r” on the end. To learn more, ask a linguist. Here’s another take on the subject.

I told a white Texan friend what I was writing this week. She said, “I feel like I’ve had to fight this all my life. It’s a prejudice that people don’t really acknowledge.”

Song stuck in my head: Joan Baez’s cover of “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down.”