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But Now I See The White Soudiern Racial Conversion Narrative By Fred Hobson Louisiana State University Press, 1999 159 pp. Paper $14.95, Cloth $30.00 Reviewed by Steven J. Niven, a doctoral candidate in history at die University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, whose dissertation is "Shades ofWhiteness: Southern Whites Confront die Second Reconstruction, Durham, North Carolina, 1945-1970." Sometimes a writer just gets it right. Fred Hobson does in his brief but enlightening examination ofthe "white southern racial conversion narrative," ButNow I See. Hobson reviews autobiographical works published by white soudiern writers since 1940—Lillian Smith, James McBride Dabbs, Will Campbell, Katharine Du Pre Lumpkin, and Pat Wärters among them—and finds in diem a secular version of the Puritan conversion narratives of the colonial era. Like the Puritan narratives of Cotton Mather andJonathan Edwards, these white soudiern writers express their "guilt," "confess," and dien "repent" their "sins," and, finally, achieve "redemption." Similar too, these southern narratives seek both to cleanse die individual sins of the authors and to lead dieir people—dieir fellow sinners—to salvation. Unlike the colonial New Englanders, however, most of the writers in Hobson's study focus less on finding die Kingdom of God in heaven dian on achieving die beloved community of racial harmony on earth. Lillian Smidi's conversion narrative, Killers ofthe Dream, might serve as the definitive model for this genre, albeit that, as a white southern integrationist lesbian, Smith's alienation from a segregated, unequal society was particularly acute. Of all the writers examined here—except, perhaps, for Pat Waiters—Smith adopts the most evangelical tone. She is a missionary with die solemn purpose ofexposing the South as a living hell. The region's nightmare oflynchings and hate could nonedieless be redeemed, Smidi argued, since "deep down in their hearts [white] southerners knew they were wrong." They knew because racism was something learnedin childhood, a lesson for life. You might go to hell ifyou stole a nickel, but you would not ifyou pushed a Negro off the sidewalk, or, like Katharine Du Pre Lumpkin's father, thrashed a black cook for her "impudence." But racism was not innate, Smith, Lumpkin, and odier liberals ofthe 1940s prayed. Even ifracism did appear at birth, they argued, white soudierners could always be born again. 82 southern cultures, Summer2000 : Reviews Smith may have used die language ofconversion, but several ofthe writers that Hobson discusses went further: they saw in die Civil Rights movement and in black southerners a means to redeem the white southern soul. James McBride Dabbs, a Presbyterian scholar and Soudiern Regional Council activist, believed diat blacks had suffered more than whites, were better Christians as a result, and tiierefore had much to teach die white South. ButNow ISee shows, however, that for Dabbs—as for Lillian Smith—a commitment to the civil rights cause, though genuine, was also about personal pain and his own individual need for salvation. As Will Campbell's brotherJoe, a pharmacist, reminds him: "What you're saying is that you're going to use the niggers to save yourself. . . . Your niggers are like my pills, they prop you liberals up and make you feel good." Hobson's presentation of the (relatively) "poor white" Campbell brothers introduces a vital twist to his analysis of the southern racial conversion narrative. All ofthese authors confess the sin ofblindness to die humanity ofblack people; not all ofthem can see the pain or suffering oftheir fellow, less-privileged whites. Charlottesville writer Sarah Patton Boyle reminds her readers that "the greater part of our race prejudice is vested in the lower-classes," but that she, personally, came from one of the "First Families ofVirginia." Even Alabama's Virginia Foster Durr—whose political commitment to civil rights went farther than any otiier writer discussed here—could not conceal her contempt for the "common-aspig -tracks people" who supported George Wallace. (Wallace, himself, never got around to writing his own racial conversion narrative, but he testified to his past sins and, as Hobson notes, begged forgiveness "ofany blacks willing to listen.") As Hobson's analysis shifts to contemporary authors, the trope of religious conversion loses much ofits explanatory power. This is particularly...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1534-1488
Print ISSN
1068-8218
Pages
pp. 82-84
Launched on MUSE
2012-01-04
Open Access
No
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