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36 Historically Speaking · June 2003 The Rise of Southern Ethnicity David Moltke-Hansen Southerners have developed severalmyths to account for the origins oftheir commonidentity . Three particularlysalient myths have generated much scholarly attention . One is about the region's leading social classes and ideals. Asecond is about the shared antecedents, beliefs, and behaviors ofsouthern white common folk. A third is about the special fusion ofAfrican and European influences thathas distinguished the Souths food, music, religious expressions, and speech. The Cavaliermyth and itsvariants argue that the South's leadership came from the gentryor, atleast, ascribed to the gendemanly ideal. Plantation society was built on and expressed this ideal which helped to distinguish the South from the North, whose leadership and ideals had different origins and trajectories. As a result ofsuch legacies and also the "premodern" culture ofmost Southerners , honor continued as a principal ideal in the South, but not in the North. Honor accounts for why southern officers died at a much greaterrate than theirmen during the Civil War. It also led Southerners to attack and die in either heroic or appalling numbers , depending on one's point ofview. Other mythmakers and scholars have focused on the common folk, rather than the elites. Having found that the majority of white Southerners in their own dayshare cultural and behavioral characteristics, these writers have asked from whence did those commonalities originate? The convictionhas been that the North's and South's differences and distinctiveness are rooted in Europe. There are two variants ofthe argument: • The peoplewho defined southern folk culture came from southern and western England, while the Puritans came from the Midlands and eastern England . • Or, more broadly, the greatmajorityof white Southerners came from the Celtic fringes ofGreatBritain and from Ireland, areas sharingfarmingpractices, community attitudes, and personal habits encountered by many travelers in the South from the early 17th through to the 20th century. The mythologizers and scholarswho have adopted variants ofthese folk histories have tended to focus on the upland South, areas where African-Americans and plantations have not had the centrality they have had in the coastal plains and lowerpiedmont. Writers from and on these nether parts of the South have more often been impressed by dieways people ofAfrican and European origins have influenced one another's expressive lives, foodways, and sensibilities. In the accounts reflectingthis awareness, the South is that part of the United States where African-European fusion traditions came to define a regional culture, so to lay the foundation for southern ethnicity. The mythmakers and the scholars only began to develop these origin narratives for theAmerican South in the second quarter of the 19th century. Itwas then that Southerners started to articulate southern identity, to speakandwrite ofthemselves as a peoplewith common interests, culture, and ideals. In 1825, justa fewasserted the identity. By 1845, many shared it. Outside the region, as well, Southerners had become recognized as a distinct people. In 1790, the lyrics to Dixie, composed in the 1850s, would have made no sense. I wish I was in the land of cotton. Old times there are not forgotten. Look away, lookaway, Dixieland. Almost no cotton grew then in the area latercalled theAmerican South. Thirtyyears later, in 1820, most ofthe future cotton South had yet to be brought under the plantation regime. Indeed, as late as 1840 much ofDixielandhad onlyrecentlyopenedtoEuropeanAmerican and African-American settlement. Inmostoftheupland and trans-Appalachian South, even in 1860, the old timeswere very recent to anyone but Native Americans. Thatasongcomposed andmade popular in the North could claimsuch a historyin the face of the region's recent development is telling. So are the lyrics oíBonny BlueFlag: Hurrah, hurrah, forsouthernrightshurrah. Hurrah, for the bonny blue flagthat bears the single star. These words would have made little sense before 1845. ThenTexas, whose flagbore the star, entered the United States and joined other southern states in propounding the region's rights in the face ofnational developments that seemed to manywhite Southerners to threaten those rights. In 1845, the sameyear thatTexas entered the Union, AndrewJackson died. Hero ofthe War of 1812 and several campaigns against American Indians, he'had grown up in the heart ofthe future Dixie between the upper andlower Southsnearthe Cherokeeterritory on the border ofNorth and South...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1944-6438
Print ISSN
1941-4188
Pages
pp. 36-38
Launched on MUSE
2012-01-04
Open Access
No
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