One Homogeneous People: Narratives of White Southern Identity, 1890-1920 (review)
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One Homogeneous People: Narratives of White Southern Identity, 1890-1920. By Trent A. Watts. (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 2010. Pp. xv, 231. $42.00 cloth)

"Remember this," wrote Lillian Smith in Killers of the Dream, "your white skin proves that you are better than all other people [End Page 117] on this earth. . . God gave it to you; . . . it gives you priorities over colored people everywhere" (p. 89). Just as Lillian Smith examined the meaning of whiteness long before the term became a synonym for the racialized South, Trent A. Watts explores the meaning of southern whiteness in the context of family, community, and defense of the southern way of life. By analyzing white polemics, southern literature, and post-Civil War historiography, One Homogeneous People argues for the shaping power of narratives. Watts exposes the connection between white identity and hegemony, which in his book flows from words, customs, history, literary criticisms, and, curiously, from the white tribalism of the Neshoba County Fair in Mississippi.

Divided into four substantive chapters, Watts begins with an introduction to the toxic rhetoric of Mississippi's James Vardaman in his 1907 senatorial race against John Sharp Williams. The major difference between Vardaman and Williams was the use of fear in Vardaman's descriptions of black viciousness. Whereas both candidates subscribed to the canon of white supremacy and the need for black subordination based on inferiority, Williams assured his white audience that Mississippi, in matters of black voting and in the area of segregation, had chaos under control. Vardaman told a different tale of black defiance and the need for state vigilance in the face of possible black uprisings. Eventually, Vardaman's rhetoric won him a seat in the U.S. Senate, based on the premise that only severe penalties, such as lynching, would prevent revolt from an underclass determined to undermine white sovereignty in the South.

These political styles are echoed in the literary narratives of Thomas Nelson Page and Thomas Dixon, whose accounts of white civility and black rascality drowned out any literary voice of reason. George Washington Cable tried to counter the rhetoric of the two most famous southern writers of the Progressive era, but he failed against the romanticized slave stories of Page and the tales of black danger evoked by Dixon. Page assured his readers that control by white Southerners over the black race was fashioned from the paternalistic Old South. Who else had the wisdom and experience in dealing gently but firmly with black folk? By contrast, Dixon's tales [End Page 118] of fear and revolution resembled Vardaman's in its use of the black rapist as the most frightening specter hovering over the white South.

Legitimizing both demagoguery and fiction were the historians who wrote literally thousands of pages in defense of the southern way of life, its civilization, and ultimately its integral role in early American history. Northerners and Southerners read the writings of William A. Dunning, William E. Dodd, and Ulrich B. Phillips, alongside those of Jubal Early of the Southern Historical Society. They acceded to the benign view of slavery manifested in a distinct culture under the aegis of a homogeneous white society, thus bringing postwar reconciliation between the sections. White Southerners won this battle, saved face, and thwarted any further attempts at reconstruction until the 1960s.

In the final chapter, Watts scrutinizes the meaning of the hundred-year-old Neshoba County Fair whose site is not far from the dam where three murdered civil rights workers were found buried in 1964. In direct contrast to the county's gruesome race history, the fair offers whites a reminder of the state's southern hospitality. Ronald Reagan kicked off his post-convention campaign for president here, assured of a hospitable audience. The fair had served for years as the stomping grounds for the very demagogues discussed earlier, and it continued to draw two of Mississippi's more colorful politicians, Ross Barnett and Trent Lott. Despite its folksy down-home aura, the fair, Watts argues, speaks to white southern memory and identity, part of an "imagined community" (p. 158)—exclusive, insensitive to racial change, and in control of public...