restricted access Me and Southern Honor
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July/August 2008 · Historically Speaking 13 Looking Back on Bertram Wyatt-Brown's Southern Honor: a roundtable IN NOVEMBER 2007A SESSIONAT THE SOUTHERN HISTORICcalAssociation commemorated the 25th anniversary of thepublication of Bertram Wyatt-Brown's classicbook, Southern Honor: Ethics and Behavior in the Old South (Oxford University Press, 1982;2007). Few books have so shapedafieldas this classichas. Wyatt-Bromi rangedwidely overthe culture of the antebellumSouth. To make sense of regionalcharacteristics, he examinedcourt records, relationships between the sexes, legalcodes, leisure activities andbloodsports, as wellas rituals of violence like lynching anddueling. Wyatt-Brown revealedthatSoutherners embracedan ancient code of honorthat shapedthe South in numerous ways. The book was afinalistforboth the NationalBook Awardandthe PulitzerPri^e. WalkerPercy hailed it "a re-creation of the living reality of the antebellum Southfrom thousands of bits andpiecesof thedeadpast. " EdwardE. Baptist, Stephen Berry, Orville I "ernon Burton , Kenneth S. Greenberg, andMark M. Smith—panelists attheSouthern HistoricalAssociation 's Southern Honor session—echoed the highpraise the book has receivedandofferednewcriticisms as well. We include slightly editedversions of those papers here. Me and Southern Honor Edward E. Baptist WI first picked up Bertram WyattBrown 's Southern Honor in 1991. I was taking my first course on southern history, which I had already decided I wanted to study when my undergraduate years were over. Of course, I had been studying not only the South, but also—as I realized while reading the book—southern honor for years by then. Growing up in my shabby Durham neighborhood , composed of small houses and apartment complexes that backed up toward the gradually increasing roar of 1-85, I couldn't really help it. I was an undergrown adolescent male who liked both books and sports. And because I wasn't comfortable playing the role of a nerdy punching bag, I thought hard about honor. Back on Preston Avenue I had to learn how to present myself as a member of a competitive community of males who shared a set of values; as someone prepared to defend himself against the threat of physical assault; and someone who could excel in the contests of manhood. Yet my post-civil rights South was very different from that of the men who populate Southern Honor. In Durham's public schools and older neighborhoods, African Americans comprised a socially assertive majority. Many southern adolescents, both white and black, were negotiating a social world that, whatever its remaining tensions and inequalities , could no longer rest on the open avowal of white supremacy. Contests for honor were played out in front of an interracial audience of peers. There were other differences, too. We didn't gamA fight breaks out at a card game in Baltimore. "Life of a Gambler," The lustrateciAmerican News, August 2, 1851. ble on quarter-horse races; we played basketball on die concrete courts and chain-netted rims of Whipporwill Park. We didn't shoot each odier in duels, or gouge each others' eyes, though there were plenty of fistfights. The guns would come back later in the decade, as crack made its way into Durham. But in the mid-1980s they weren't really there yet, though the murders of three classmates during my high school years and the near-fatal shooting of a fourth over one of those basketball games were ominous hints of the slaughter that has tormented the inner rings of Durham's neighborhoods ever since. Still, there was much that was familiar in the book, and much that suggested how I might trace the roots of my own personal past, as well as the values I'd been forced to live with until I escaped to the very different cultural world of elite universities. And yet for all its familiarity, Southern Honor revealed to me the foreignness of the past. Southern Honor is a subde and singular account of how gender worked in the personal lives and hidden thoughts of the Old South. It probes deeply into the inner lives of its subjects. It shows a society of small communities, run by white men haunted by specters of their own creation: dishonor and humiliation, feminization, psychic enslavement . All white men depended on die approval of each other. They were the inheritors of an ancient code that...