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Race as Region, Region as Race: How Black and White Southerners Understand Their Regional Identities

From: Southern Cultures
Volume 18, Number 4, Winter 2012
pp. 72-95 | 10.1353/scu.2012.0042

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Historian Edward Ayers argued that for some African Americans the South may be seen as a homeland, but that there is a different "moral geography" for blacks and whites in the South. Without flags or monuments to connect them with the "official South," African Americans were connected to the region by their own sweat and sacrifice and by places of personal meaning. Grading stripping tobacco, near Yanceyville, North Carolina, 1940, courtesy of the Collections of the Library of Congress.

The "South" is virtually inconceivable without sustained attention to race, yet most scholarly examinations of southern identity have focused almost exclusively on the experiences of white southerners, ignoring the experiences of other racial groups in the region, most particularly black southerners. A similar phenomenon occurs in everyday conversations about the South, evidenced by the well-worn habit of talking about "southerners" when actually referring to white southerners. For example, most of us, at one time or another, have heard, or perhaps even said, that "southerners are racist" or "southerners owned slaves." Such statements implicitly connect being southern with being white.

The lay and academic tendency to equate southernness and whiteness is troubling when one considers that, in today's South, black southerners living in the region are slightly more likely to claim a southern identity than whites are. According to polls conducted throughout the 1990s, about 78 percent of African Americans living in the region claimed to be southern, compared to 75 percent of whites. Many scholars of the South have asserted that African Americans are now starting to reclaim their southern identity after the demise of Jim Crow. Noting that African Americans are returning to the South in large numbers, historian Edward Ayers argues that for some black Americans the South may be seen as a homeland. Even so, Ayers argues that there is a different "moral geography" for blacks and whites in the South. Writing in 1996, he noted that black southerners did not have flags or monuments to connect them with the "official South," but they were connected to the region by their own "sweat and sacrifice" and by places of personal meaning—"certain farms, houses, and streets."

Today, the region's African Americans still have few monuments dedicated to the memory of their cultural contributions and sacrifices, yet black southerners' labor, and often their blood, played an important and essential role in the development of the region. In an environment characterized by brutal racial oppression, white supremacy, slavery, segregation, and violence, black southerners raised crops, built roads, labored in coal mines, raised white children, and were vital in creating an infrastructure and a way of life that supported and enabled the prosperity of many whites. The recent work by journalist Douglas A. Blackmon on the convict leasing system reminds us that the forced and exploited labor of black southerners allowed for the growth of many corporations that still enjoy great prosperity today.

Looking at the recent history of the South, it appears that the demise of Jim Crow has created both the opportunity and the increasing desire of black southerners to assert their own identity as southerners. We began to see a contested view of southern identity in the 1990s, as black southerners sought to remove Confederate flags from state capitals, to change state flags that incorporated the Confederate battle flag into their designs, to stop the playing of "Dixie" at college football and basketball games, and to challeng the use of public money for the upkeep of Confederate memorials. At the same time, cultural conflicts over the meaning of southern identity between blacks and whites have led to increasing efforts by white southerners to hold onto symbols of the Confederate past. James C. Cobb argues that "identity-challenged white southerners"—middle and upper-class southern whites who have become increasingly assimilated into mainstream America, but still long for and wish to hold onto their southern identity— now feel that their heritage is "under siege."

This activism suggests that at least some black southerners are reclaiming their identity as southerners, but what do we really know about how black southerners perceive their regional identity? Do these discussions concerning black southern identity, which often...



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