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  • Open Secrets: Memory, Imagination, and the Refashioning of Southern Identity
  • Jacquelyn Dowd Hall (bio)

. . . some stories simply come and take you, occupy you, make you work out again and again what it is they mean, and the meaning of your own obsession with them.”

—Carolyn Steedman, Past Tense

The purpose of all interpretation is to conquer a remoteness, a distance between the past cultural epoch and the interpreter himself. By overcoming this distance . . . the exegete can appropriate its meaning to himself; foreign, he makes it familiar, that is, he makes it his own. It is thus the growth of his own understanding of himself that he pursues through his understanding of others.

—Paul Ricoeur, The Conflict of Interpretations

Me and you, we got more yesterdays than anybody. We need some kind of tomorrow.

—Toni Morrison, Beloved

For most of the twentieth century, black Americans abandoned the southern countryside in a steady, ever-widening stream. In the 1970s this exodus suddenly turned back upon itself. By 1990, the South had regained a half-million black citizens from the cities of the North and West. Many came home not to the booming cities of the Sunbelt, but to the stripped and devastated counties of the rural South.

In Call To Home, an uplifting, heartbreaking book about this startling reversal, the anthropologist Carol Stack offers a meditation on the [End Page 109] power of place and the gallantry of people who—under the most crushing circumstances—are struggling to remake the South in their own images. Pushed from the Rust Belt that used to be the Promised Land, pulled by the dread and longing with which the South has always filled its daughters and sons, these women and men find themselves on a “redemptive mission”—a mission that confronts them both with the ghosts of a palpable past and with their own emerging sense of who they are and want to be. Earl Hydrick, one of the storytellers in Stack’s book, put it this way: when you go home, “you go back to your proving ground, the place where you had that first cry, gave that first punch you had to throw in order to survive.” Eula Grant, a day care crusader in eastern North Carolina, says, “You definitely can go home again. You can go back. But you don’t start from where you left. To fit in, you have to create another place in that place you left behind.” 1

Call to Home takes seriously the imaginative, performative, and political aspects of a process that social scientists usually see as a one-dimensional response to economic push and pull. The stories told by these return migrants contribute to a powerful literary tradition, a tradition of writing about the South as a longed for—yet vexed and dangerous—home. Such stories are actions. They send people moving across the country, confounding our expectations about migration and modernity. They influence not just individual lives but the unfolding of entire communities.

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Figure 1.

Katharine Du Pre Lumpkin. Courtesy of the Southern Historical Collection, University of North Carolina.

This essay is about an earlier turn to home. It is a story within a story: first, the story of Katharine Du Pre Lumpkin (fig. 1), a white southerner who, as a sociologist, historian, and autobiographer allied herself with the cause of racial justice and spent a lifetime trying to reconfigure the South as a place she could call home; second, the story of my entanglement with Katharine and her sisters. At both levels, what interests me is the power of “open secrets” as strategies of cultural amnesia—but also of reticence and love.

Born in Georgia in 1897, Katharine was the youngest of seven children in a dispossessed planter family, a family haunted by defeat, obsessed with race, and determined to win back the pride and power lost in the Civil War. Her father William fought with the Confederacy and then rode with the Ku Klux Klan. Reduced to working for the [End Page 110] railroad, he moved his family to South Carolina where he spent his life romanticizing slavery and promulgating the cult of the Lost Cause...

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pp. 109-124
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
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