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The Southern Past: A Clash of Race and Memory.

The Southern Past: A Clash of Race and Memory. By W. Fitzhugh Brundage (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2005. xiii plus 418 pp. $27.95).

As part of a more general fascination with the constructivism of historical knowledge and popular memory, Fitzhugh Brundage offers a glittering set of related essays that effectively bring the story told by David Blight's pace-setting Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory (2001), which leaves off at the turn of the 20th century, up to the present moment. Concerned with the perpetually-racialized image of Southern history within the region's own civic culture, Brundage, author of previous major works on lynching and southern cooperative colonies, ranges imaginatively to collect a diverse treasure of popularly-sanctioned historical projects. The book's chapters encompass, in turn, southern white female historical societies of the 1890s; black festival days of the same era; establishment of (white) professional state archives after 1900; creation of Negro history societies and Negro History Week, circa 1910-1940; rise of (white) southern tourism industry, 1920-1940; post-World War II urban renewal and the destruction of historic black communities; and political battles over the by-now openly-contested markers of Southern history and identity since 1970.

Within a lively and very readable narrative frame, Brundage turns up delectable morsels of insight at every turn. The lack of national (or even state-level) investment in memory-making, suggests Brundage, left U.S. "cultural policy" in the hands of local voluntary societies like the Oxford (Georgia) Women's Club or the Every Saturday History Class of Atlanta. Both the ideology of public service, derived from ante-bellum notions of "republican motherhood," and the non-controversial nature of women (as opposed to ex-soldiers) memorializing the Confederate dead, helps account for the rise of chapters of the United Daughters of the Confederacy at the turn of the century. The "traditions" such women guarded, however, were ambivalent when it came to women's public roles; while the cultivation of refined white status fueled patriarchal arguments for some commemoration activists, for others their demonstrated role as community reformers further justified a demand for suffrage.

Brundage equally reveals many new leads in the black community's approach to the past. Together, 'Juneteenth' (Emancipation Day), Lincoln's birthday, Memorial Day, and (for an extended period) even July 4 witnessed virtually black-only celebrations throughout the South. Even as black militia companies, post-Reconstruction, were forcibly eliminated, "quasi-military" secret and fraternal orders like Savannah's Knights of Pythias in 1906 took over: "the men in uniform may not have been in the militia, but the local black newspaper reported their maneuvers as though they were." (73) According to Brundage, a "preoccupation with black manliness" "circumscribed black women's roles in commemorations until at least World War I," (83) a point that might productively engage Glenda Gilmore (Gender and Jim Crow)'s argument regarding the alleged dominance of black women in post-Reconstruction public roles.

Gender is again productively at the center of Brundage's analysis in discussing the rise of state record-keeping. The university-based movement to create state archives and historical journals, he demonstrates, was equally a move by professional men to seize control of the larger task of memory-making from amateur and "sentimental" women. As John Spencer Bassett of Trinity College (now Duke University) counseled, the historical discipline required the mind of "the self-mastered man ... trained to a true recognition of facts." (130)

A chapter on the rise of southern tourism, centered on post-World War I Charleston, is perhaps the most original and fully-developed of Brundage's ambitious forays. Even as earlier plantation fiction, plays, and minstrel shows effectively drew on mass nostalgia, Charleston's efforts, he demonstrates convincingly, "helped to anchor this mythic South in a real place." (184) Taking advantage of automotive touring and the regional "good-roads" campaign, Charleston boosters combined construction of the Francis Marion Hotel with a host of supporting initiatives. More successfully than any other locale in the region, the Charleston elite re-made the built environment to fit their preferred image of the early-19th century city as one of benevolent, quaint gentility. It was an image that by the 1930s was attracting 270,000 visitors per year, but it was also one that required major tinkering with residential racial demography. Aided by the nation's first municipal planning and zoning ordinance, the "restoration" of historic Charleston either removed or isolated the enclaves of poor blacks from those of their richer white neighbors. For white tourists, "authentic" black traditions re-emerged at an exotic distance, as in the marketing of sea grass basketry, the presence of picturesque street vendors at the annual Azalea Festival, and the preservation of black spirituals, as performed in the 1920s by whites "dressed in hoop skirts and in tuxedos with antebellum-era bow ties." (217)

With each chapter effectively serving as a free-standing essay, it is inevitable that the book presents a discontinuous feel and raises more questions than it can answer. The gender issues, for example, raised provocatively in the early chapters, virtually disappear as an analytic frame in the later ones. For its emphasis on a distinctively 'southern' past, it is also disappointing that the author makes little reference to North/South comparisons or contrasts; even when referencing the weak archival instincts of southern states, his reference point is to contemporary European examples, not northern ones. Moreover, Brundage's concluding appeal to pluralism rings hollow: "As long as white and black southerners do not succumb to nostalgia, do not idealize an exclusionary past, and no not presume the inherent virtue of their idealized historical identity, they may fashion a fully democratic civic culture, an accomplishment that generations of southerners have longed for." (343) Nothing in the book prepares us for such pollyanna-ish prognostication. Brundage's research usefully exposes the constant harnessing of collective memory in the South to contemporary political ends. In the battle for the region's future, history, his larger argument counsels, will not be dropped from anyone's arsenal anytime soon.

Leon Fink

University of Illinois at Chicago
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Author:Fink, Leon
Publication:Journal of Social History
Article Type:Book review
Date:Dec 22, 2006
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