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It’s a peculiarity of quarterly publishing that Southern Cultures is rarely of the moment. Every issue must be ready for the printer about four months before subscribers ever see it. The result is that we can never select articles based on their immediate newsworthiness, and most of the time, “Front Porch” cannot discuss current events in a timely fashion. To make the best of things, we aim for the timeless over the topical.
So as I write, it is late July of 2015, and the South has been so much in the recent news that departure from custom seems mandatory. Most conspicuously, the killing of nine black worshippers in Charleston’s “Mother Emanuel” ame Church, allegedly by an impassioned young racist who draped himself in the flag of Robert E. Lee’s army, has sparked national horror at the enduring power of the South’s oppressive symbols. When surviving congregants drew on the deepest wells of their evangelical faith—familiar to most black and white southerners, whether current churchgoers or not—to forgive the accused killer before he was convicted of anything, startled Americans saw a side of southern culture they might earlier have dismissed. [End Page 1]
Unquestionably moved, conservative leaders replied with their own remarkable gestures of penance and renunciation. Not only did they remove the “Confederate battle flag” from its honored place beside the South Carolina Capitol, but divisive Confederate memorabilia, from flags and monuments to license plates, suddenly faced unprecedented challenges all over the South. Now we must see if these gestures will endure, spread, and lead to deeper changes, but the mere fact that once-cherished emblems encountered sudden public rejection was astonishing in itself.
The white response to the Charleston shootings might not have been so sweeping, but for the highly publicized, year-long wave of killings of unarmed African Americans by white police—and ensuing public protests—that preceded it. If you count the shooting of Trayvon Martin by a neighborhood watch captain, the (recent) chain of deaths and protests went further back, to 2012 at least. Caveats and confusion clouded all of these incidents. In most cases, authorities exonerated the perpetrators. Poor recordkeeping obscured whether these deaths were something new or just more widely publicized than before. Most of them happened outside the South. But the tragic racial history evoked by the deaths of Michael Brown and Trayvon Martin, as well as Sandra Bland, Tamir Rice, Freddie Gray, Eric Garner, Walter Scott, and their unnamed counterparts, has violent southern roots that have overshadowed every investigation and inevitably linked them to the Charleston Nine. The Mother Emanuel victims were so utterly blameless, and Confederate fantasies so clearly drove their martyrdom, that the battle flag might have come down anyway, but the coincidence of all these tragedies resonated powerfully, and certainly kept the South in our national spotlight.
The southern novel made news as well. The release of Go Set a Watchman as the companion piece to Harper Lee’s acclaimed and beloved classic To Kill a Mockingbird briefly seemed almost as notable as the year’s wars and elections. Everyone knows by now that Lee wrote Watchman first, telling the story of a grown-up Scout Finch as she struggles with her deeply flawed loved ones and recalls the childhood episodes that became the main story in Mockingbird. Seeing its possibilities, a perceptive editor sent Watchman back for a rewrite that transformed it into Mockingbird, a far more polished and compelling work with some of the same characters in a very different story. By 2015, Harper Lee had become so frail, and Mockingbird was so clearly superior to Watchman, that critics wondered if she had truly agreed to the latter’s...