Why Elitists Dump on the South
Saturday, April 20, 2002
WASHINGTON – To preserve its illusion of national innocence, the United States projects its "dark" side onto the South, a Penn State geographer says. For 10 years after his graduation from college, David R. Jansson worked in university towns – Boston; Ithaca, N.Y.; Madison, Wis.; Berkeley, Calif. – that deemed themselves "progressive" and "enlightened," i.e., left wing.
"These places had their differences," he told United Press International in a phone interview, "but one of the things I could count on was a common conception of the South, largely among people who had never been there but who had very consistent ideas about what the South meant and what it stood for. This was the standard list of negative characteristics and stereotypes."
Jansson enumerated those attributed traits in a presentation to the 98th annual meeting of Association of American Geographers in Los Angeles last month. He said that in American national discourse, "the South tends to be represented as violent, racist, poor, intolerant, xenophobic and dim-witted, among other things."
This Bigotry Is P.C.
He told UPI that during the decade he worked before beginning graduate studies, he found that people indulged in one of the last forms of bigotry acceptable in polite society. Those who wouldn’t dream of mocking other groups were comfortable making jokes about white Southerners.
Representing the South as backward endows America as a whole with the opposite qualities, he said. The vices associated by knee-jerk reaction with the South "become spatialized" and are held to be uncharacteristic of the nation.
By this means, the United States can claim to stand for the exalted principles of the Enlightenment unblemished by skeletons in its own closet. American history, Jansson told the geographers, then can be seen as "unceasing progress and selfless efforts to improve the lot of all humanity."
Southerners are often accused of being stuck in the past, but this comes in part from an external assignment from the rest of America to act as its foil, Jansson said.
Partners in Slavery
The American legend of innocence is built upon a shaky foundation, Jansson said. "Thus slavery is cast in Southern terms when it was more of a national experience than is generally acknowledged."
Citing an essay by Dan Georgakas in the 1998 book "The Meaning of Slavery in the North," Jansson told the geographers: "While most Americans have chosen to think of slavery as a regional aberration than a national phenomenon, in reality the so-called free states of the North were full partners in the viability of the slave society of the South."
Jansson said that University of Kentucky historian Joanne Pope Melish, in her 1998 book "Disowning Slavery," argues that the mythology of a free New England remains potent in academia as it does in American society as a whole. But Melish shows how even otherwise careful historians tend to date the end of slavery in the North earlier than its demise.
In his presentation, Jansson reviewed some of the salient thoughts of C. Vann Woodward (1908-1999), the eminent Yale historian of the South whose works include "The Strange Career of Jim Crow" and, in 1969, "W.J. Cash Reconsidered," about the author of the landmark 1941 book "The Mind of the South."
Jansson said Woodward viewed Southern history not as the stories in dusty old library volumes, but rather as the collective experience in which the Southern people find their distinctiveness.
"This history includes Southern poverty in the face of American abundance," Jansson said. Before 1969 the United States had never "lost" a war, but the Confederacy had been defeated and occupied. Dealing with tragedy had set the South apart. The myths of innocence, omniscience and "social felicity" were not operating assumptions in Dixie.
Woodward argued that America needed the sobering influence of Southern history, "a heritage that is far more closely in line with the common lot of mankind than the national legends of opulence and success and innocence."
But Jansson concluded his presentation with the observation that the United States, even with the reverses it has suffered since 1969, remained resistant to Woodward’s message. "In fact, the chasm that separates the history of America from the history of the South cannot be crossed without causing a rupture in the American national identity," he said.
Copyright © 2002, United Press International