Once upon a time there was a man who was alive.

Location: Hattiesburg, Mississippi, United States
St. Cuthbert and Disciples in a Boat


Thoughts On Southerness

The Fourth of July is still something of an ambiguous holiday within of the Southern consciousness. The Fourth of July, 1863 sealed the fate of the Confederacy as Vicksburg surrendered and (not as important but perhaps more powerful symbolicaly and in our memory) Lee began his retreat back into Northern Virginia. The War was not over; it would drag on for another year and a half, but almost any hope the Confederacy had of survival was dashed on the loess bluffs above the Mississippi.

But the ambiguity of the Fourth of July does not lie wholly in the memory of those days, or in the fact that not a few of us here in the South are descended from men who fired upon the Star-Spangled Banner, in the not-so-distant past (in the Southern memory anyway.) There is the fact of the seperate, in many ways, trajectory of the Southern experience from the wider 'American' experience, and this falls upon all Southerners, black or white. My ancestors arrived on the shores of the Chesapeake and the Carolina coast without dreams of freedom and proper worship or anything of that sort; they carried dreams of tobacco cultivation, of wresting new money from the wilderness. And they sought to carry out this dream employing the unpaid labour of West Africans, who were forcibly integrated into the Southern Experience. We were not the noble Pilgrims, we were not zealous idealists out to forge a new society in the New World. Some stayed along the coast and built up wealth in the emerging slave-labour system; others forged off into the wilderness and fought and built with their own hands and cared littled for legality or ethics in their relations with the original inhabitants of the mountains. (Yet how many would marry Native Americans and no one among them was offended?)

I had one ancestor who ended up fighting- and getting killed- in the American Revolution, at Kings Mountains on the North-South Carolina line. I doubt whether he had ever read Common Sense, knew anything much about Declerations and Congresses, or cared. He was probably angry at the British for their threats against the mountaineers who were pushing the British-established boundaries of Appalachia. Had he survived Kings Mountain in all probability it would have been the end of his fighting for the Revolution; he would have gone home and grown his corn, drank his whiskey, and raised his children.

Gradually my ancestors left the mountains of the Carolinas, pushed across Alabama, and, with the siezure of the remaining Choctaw and Chickasaw lands of Mississippi (treaties were made to be broken), settled upon the prairie land and adjoining red clay hills. We have, by and large, remained, through war and depression, social upheaval and economic progress. Slavery came and went but it is always in the background, the burden of history on all of us. We have fired upon the Star Spangled Banner, and we have in turn bled for it in later wars; we have seen the same flag fly over slavery (and we cried freedom! liberty! long live the republic! while tightening the chains), and have seen it fight slavery. Yet that one war remains the War and the old battled-flag is still as ubiquitous as the Stars and Stripes. We are Americans but we are also Southerners: this is a land that has known defeat, slavery, entrenched poverty, all those things that America is not supposed to be. I suspect that such an experience, while tragic, lamentable, is in some ways a good thing: we have seen the world, all of us, white and black, from a perspective that allows us to see differently from the rest of the country, to lend something unique, a corrective perhaps.

Of course the South is a place that is still changing: driving back from Winston County, MS, I noticed that one of the highways between here and there has been named the Cheney, Goodman, and Schwerner Memorial Highway, the three civil rights workers murdered outside of Philadelphia. It has not been that long since the murders themselves; even a few years ago naming a highway after them would still be risque. The South is changing in other ways: I picked up several Spanish-language radio stations on my way back; Thursday I played soccer with a group of Latino immigrants some of whom have been in Mississippi for a few years, some a few months. They are still a small minority, but their presence is noticeable. I am sure the number of Latino Southerners will increase- for while many immigrant workers will return to Latin America, many will stay, and become a permanent part of the Southern Experience.


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