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  • The Southern Past: A Clash of Race and Memory
  • John Bodnar (bio)
The Southern Past: A Clash of Race and Memory By W. Fitzhugh BrundageHarvard University Press, 2005418 pp. Cloth $29.95

Fitzhugh Brundage's excellent book takes up the subject of public forms of remembering and commemoration in the South since the Civil War. He sees well that the region's collective memory was implicated in a wider political struggle for power and identity that would favor whites over blacks. The inevitable clash of remembering and forgetting that marks all public memory projects was not only driven here by matters of race but was a decidedly visible process where "an enduring white memory" and "black resistance to it" clashed frequently in public ceremonies, institutions, and politics. This was not the stuff of backroom deals. Thus, he offers insightful essays on the "robust ceremonial life" of African Americans and their efforts to preserve a history of the Civil War that featured emancipation, on the efforts to create in the 1920s a celebration called [End Page 109] Negro History Week, and on the rise of civil rights museums in the 1980s. Whites are seen fashioning a more nostalgic version of the past centered on the idea of the Old South and preserved in countless memorials, tourist sites, and state archives.

Brundage's account of these southern cultural wars extends the work of David Blight's Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory, which also stressed the role of race in shaping the way Americans recalled the Civil War. In Blight's book white veterans in both the South and the North worked to craft a story of the war that was centered on the celebration of male valor in battle. Common valor allowed these men to foster a sense of reunion and national reconciliation—and forget that the war was also about equal rights for African Americans. For both Blight and Brundage, black commemorative activity worked to sustain the more democratic and egalitarian remembrance of the conflict. Brundage's story, however, pays little heed to the attractions of national unity and memory. His whites and African Americans appear locked in a conflict that seems essentially regional. African Americans continue in his book to evoke national traditions such as Independence Day in order to insist that they be included in the nation as equals. What better way to contest their marginalization in southern life? Had Brundage probed more deeply the impact of world wars on commemoration in the South in the twentieth century, I suspect he would have uncovered a continued discussion over the relationship between southerners of both races in the larger "imagined community" of America.

Race is such a powerful factor, however, that it certainly allows for an insightful look at the public debates over a southern past. Indeed, Brundage's account actually covers a wider array of memory sites and battles than Blight's. Thus, Brundage takes readers on original excursions into movements to organize state archives in the South and into projects to create tourist attractions focusing on the "colonial elegance" of Charleston that fostered a nostalgic view of the region largely devoid of the sordid reality of slavery. He makes a valuable contribution when he explains the importance of public schools and historically black colleges. Denied substantial influence in public institutions, these schools were among the few places left to African Americans where a few dedicated educators could actually promote the study of "Negro history" during a period of white supremacy.

At the end of the story we find progress toward the creation of a shared past, with African American history projects and civil rights museums emerging throughout the South after the 1960s. Generally this movement was contingent upon a greater realization of the region's misdeeds than its heroic achievements. But the pull of the heroic and the mythical is still evident in the defense of Confederate symbols and even in the "uplifting" stories of civil rights leaders. The vast debate over public memory in our times—arguments often centering on war, genocide, [End Page 110] and racial violence—has made it clear that the desire to retreat to a mythical past...


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pp. 109-111
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