November 2012

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If you flip through the pages of this issue, you will come across names and terms that evoke the South in all of its beauty and contradictions: Hog jowl. Biscuits. Kennesaw Mountain. Henry Grady. Jim Crow. Bow ties. Cotillion. Porches. Gun. Murder. Flannery O’Connor. Alice Walker. Guilt. God. Gossip. Grave. Gothic. Football. Potlikker.

You will not see the name Randy Newman, though that may have been an oversight. Almost forty years ago, Newman wrote a song called “Rednecks,” which hilariously pointed out the hypocrisy of white Northerners who failed to acknowledge their own racism while they sat in judgment of the South’s. I knew the song before I moved to Atlanta from New York a dozen years ago, but I didn’t really understand it until I’d lived here awhile. Which is to say, it took me moving to the South to learn about the North.

Here’s a for instance: When I took American history in high school twenty-five years ago, we learned what I imagine most students do about the seminal battles of the civil rights movement: Bull Connor, the Birmingham bombings, the forced integration of Central High School in Little Rock. What I was never taught—what I’m embarrassed to say I just learned—was that barely a month before President Eisenhower sent federal troops to Little Rock, William and Daisy Myers and their children became the first black family to move into a planned community of 60,000 people. Where was this suburb? Not outside Atlanta, or Memphis, or Charlotte. It was outside Philadelphia, a place called Levittown. The Myers family was greeted by a mob hurling rocks, unfurling a Confederate flag, and burning a cross. The governor called in state troopers.

Here’s another: While we learned about Martin Luther King Jr. and the Montgomery bus boycott and the march to Selma, I don’t recall studying King’s Chicago campaign, when he and the SCLC protested segregated schools and slum housing. After an August 1966 march in Chicago that was met with rocks and bricks, King said, “I have seen many demonstrations in the South, but I have never seen anything so hostile and so hateful as I’ve seen here today.”

So why do we remember Little Rock but not Levittown? Montgomery but not Chicago? Matthew Lassiter, who grew up in Atlanta and is now a history professor at the University of Michigan, asks this question in a collection of essays titled The Myth of Southern Exceptionalism. The conventional wisdom is that the 1964 Civil Rights Act pivoted the South irreversibly toward Republicans. This thinking makes the South a monolith, and ignores not only the racial diversity of its electorate, but the fact that a third of so-called Southerners weren’t even born here. “The ‘Southern strategy’ thesis is popular and ubiquitous precisely because it reduces a complex phenomenon of national political transformation to another familiar story of Southern white backlash,” Lassiter writes. What’s more, it conveniently allows the North to ignore the skeletons in its own closet. And so even when civil rights controversies erupt in the North, they’re often described by evoking Southern comparisons. Resisting school desegregation in Boston, for example, would have made it the “Little Rock of the North.” History really is written by the winners.

Over the past months, as we’ve discussed the notion of Southern identity in a city like Atlanta, I’ve had many revelations. That I need to dress better. That I need to plant a bigger garden. And that what I don’t know about this place I call home could fill the Georgia Dome. Maybe that’s the first step toward understanding it.

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  1. tiffany

    November 14, 2012 at 9:17 pm

    The rabbit hole on northern (and western, for that matter) racism runs pretty deep. Massachusetts, after all, passed the first Jim Crow laws. Levittown, NY was just like Levittown, PA with racial covenants that prohibited home sales to blacks. For a long time, New York City had father-and-son unions that effectively kept black men out of high-paying union jobs.

    The south gets its rap, however, because it went to war over slavery, and its segregation was a matter of statute, not just practice and contract. Voting along racial lines, as in this last presidential election (in which only 27% of southern whites voted for Obama, versus 54% of those in the north east) does the region no favors.

    That said, the south’s racial relations are, in some cities, better than northern cities such as Boston or New York. Stop-and-frisk is par for the course for black men in New York City. In larger southern cities, class buys you some insulation from such things.

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