- Owning Up:Revisiting Property, Education, and Race in the South
Though the 2008 election of Barack Obama supposedly marked the beginning of America's post-racial era, a quick look at polls across southern states shows that race remains a troubling and significant problem below the Mason-Dixon line. Indeed, the history of the South's problematic relationship with race has long been a defining feature of southern studies. Historians and critics frequently approached the South's perspective on race as monolithic and insular; such scholars often ignored the interconnectivity of southern culture's engagement with race, approaching literature, art, law, and history as separate disciplines with unique languages and rubrics for investigation. However, recent work now suggests that the near-decade-old turn to "new southern [End Page 159] studies" attempts to answer the questions that southern critics largely dismissed.
Reading Peter Schmidt's Sitting in Darkness, Tim A. Ryan's Calls and Responses and Lovalerie King's Race, Theft, and Ethics together is a useful exercise for any southern scholar; the books form a distinctive dialogue. Especially interesting are the decades each author explores: while Schmidt begins his argument centered in the historical moment of 1865 and ends in the lead up to the Renaissance in 1920, Ryan chooses 1936, the publication date of Gone With the Wind, as the beginning of his exploration of the American novel of slavery. King does not follow the same chronological model as Ryan and Schmidt, but her argument moves from the late nineteenth century into a devastating and affecting appraisal of the media's coverage of African Americans during Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Reading the books in dialogue, each author's argument deepens and revisits the assertions of the others'. Schmidt's ending point nicely dovetails with Ryan's movement into the Renaissance, and King's appraisal of contemporary African American literature completes a satisfying trajectory on race in southern culture from 1865 to the twenty-first century.
Of the three books mentioned, Schmidt's Sitting in Darkness most clearly exemplifies the recent transnational turn in southern studies. In his introduction, he makes clear that his exploration of what he labels "Jim Crow Colonialism" owes a debt to C. Hugh Holman's call for "no more monoliths, please" in his 1983 address to southern critics as well as more recent, seminal new southern studies texts such as Patricia Yaeger's Dirt and Desire (2000) and John Lowe's Bridging Southern Cultures (2005). He borrows his title from Mark Twain's essay "To the Person Sitting in Darkness," a piece that attacks the ruthless colonial policies of the United States in its dealings in the Philippines, and Schmidt's central guiding question shows his obvious engagement with postcolonialism and new historicism: "How can we explain the fact that so soon after the vast majority of whites rejected Reconstruction as a fool's errand so many embraced even more ambitious programs … for social and political reconstruction in the new colonies?" (10). Schmidt's explanation for such a grand discrepancy lies at the heart of what he labels "Reconstruction narratives of 'uplift'": both seek to validate the customs and laws of the Jim Crow South, while simultaneously persuading "many skeptical Americans that the U.S. imperial destiny abroad meant the reconstruction of its newly acquired colonies" (13). [End Page 160]
Schmidt is quick to point out that his book is "primarily a work of literary criticism" and not "yet another general history of Reconstruction, Progressivism, or U.S. colonial policies" (14), and the chapters that make up his monograph explore post-Civil War texts that primarily articulate the palpable connection between education and citizenship for black...