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Southern Cultures 7.4 (2001) 65-80

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The Contradictory South

Sheldon Hackney


Not long after the reelection of President Clinton in 1996, while the sore losers were picking through the rubble trying to figure out how such a flawed character could win, and when the press was feasting on the story about the hazing of four women cadets who had rushed through the breach blasted in the walls of the Citadel by Shannon Faulkner the year before, a car going very fast passed me while I was driving on the Interstate from Washington, D.C., to Charlottesville, Virginia. 1 This would have been unremarkable had I not noticed as the other car pulled away from me that it sported two stickers on its rear bumper. One read, "Don't blame me, I voted Libertarian." The other simply announced its loyalty to "The Citadel."

My mind was occupied the rest of the way to Charlottesville with the puzzle of how the same person could harbor such contrasting sentiments, the one envisioning a life minimally constrained by externally imposed rules, and the other symbolizing submission to the most rigorous military discipline. There is, of course, the time-honored idea that some heroes must give up their individual freedom in order to protect the freedom enjoyed by the whole society. I suspect, however, that the occupant of this particular automobile was expressing a different and less altruistic notion. He was adopting an oppositional stance, embracing two unfashionable and contradictory loyalties in defiance of mainstream opinion, choosing an identity that set himself proudly apart from the herd-like majority.

It recalled to my mind an image of right-wing militias in camouflage uniforms holding training maneuvers in the woods while professing opposition to the authoritarian federal government, another instance of submitting to authority in order to oppose authority. The militias are attractive to a certain kind of person because membership allows one to be patriotically loyal and bravely subversive at the same time. Such mirror-image identities, like opposing strands of DNA in the double helix, are satisfying solutions to the tensions of seemingly incompatible psychic needs.

In a similar fashion, southerners, both black and white, maintain an identity that is fully American, though for different reasons, yet is at the same time a dissent from America. 2 I mean to suggest here something more than the obvious fact that southerners are also Americans. Just as each of us has many different aspects to our separate identities, being a southerner and an American presents no problem until the meanings of those two concepts clash. They have been frequently at odds in the past, and their interaction remains frequent and problematic. Over time, the result has been a double or bipolar identity, analogous perhaps to the duality of a love-hate relationship, approach-avoidance mechanisms, or other deeply conflicted orientations.

One of the traditional puzzles in the historiography of the South is whether the South is quintessentially American with a few "peculiar institutions" that it [End Page 65] chose to defend, or whether it is a society whose structure, values, and ideals of behavior are fundamentally different from the rest of America. One could field a football team of distinguished historians on each side of this question. 3

The problem is made more complex by the fact that the American identity itself is paradoxical. As historian Michael Kammen brilliantly argues, following an insight of psychologist Erik Erikson, the American identity is to be found in the conversation between linked pairs of polar opposites, which Kammen calls "biformities," such as idealism and materialism, liberty and equality, or individualism and community. 4 Those particular bipolar dialogues occur with a southern accent as well. In addition, there is the conversation, sometimes the argument, between an individual's notion of being southern and his idea of being American.

That the South is both American and alternative American is obvious at a superficial level. 5 Beyond that, how are the deeply conflicted ambivalences of being, say, a white southerner/American resolved or held in dynamic suspension by stances that can straddle cultural contradictions? Black southerners...


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