- From Deep South to Freedom HighwaySome Thoughts on Teaching Southern Race in the United Kingdom
A couple of years ago, a fast food outlet on a well-known left-leaning university campus in the United Kingdom decided to go for a rebrand before the start of the new academic year. Evidently seeking to distinguish itself from other such eateries, it opted for the name "Deep South," with the tagline "Food with Soul" for good measure. Following objections from both staff and the mostly postgraduate students who remained on campus over the summer, it was promptly renamed again before the start of the academic year, and the majority of undergraduate students were unaware of the furor—not, however, those enrolled in a southern literature module, who were duly informed and invited to consider the issues involved as an introduction to matters of southern race, cultural appropriation, and how such things might relate to comparable issues closer to home.
Most were agreed that, at the very least, this was a rather clumsy move at a time when the British media was more saturated than usual with issues regarding the U.S. South, not least because of President Donald Trump's stoking of tensions many imagined to belong to the past. In combination with the violence and deaths in Charlottesville, Charleston, and elsewhere, the increasing visibility of the Black Lives Matter movement, and the ongoing controversies surrounding the removal or otherwise of Confederate monuments, it seemed [End Page 187] somewhat crass and blinkered to rename a burger joint "Deep South," of all things. Though this was an introductory seminar, with students who had had little or no prior engagement, academic or otherwise, with southern history and culture, most were aware that "Deep South" evoked more overt and extreme manifestations of racism and the legacies of slavery than, for instance, "Southern Fried Chicken," and were surprised that the name might be used on a university campus, of all places, at a time of heightened exposure of southern racial problems. It was posited that it would be an entirely legitimate thing to open a restaurant specializing in southern cuisine, albeit with a better name, but those students aware of soul food, and that this is a cuisine primarily rooted in African American culture, further questioned the use of the "Food with Soul" tagline, not least as the food offered differed from its previous incarnation apparently only through including more barbecue sauce and was patently not soul food. All in all, it was an avoidable mess, but it did provide a useful example to kick-start discussion, and to bring home the idea that seemingly internal matters of southern culture can impact a place so seemingly distant, and that dialogues of southern race, even in such a seemingly innocuous context, are rarely simple.
There are, of course, any number of ways of "telling about the South" in a place outside the South, in my case across the Atlantic at the University of Essex, in southeast England. My focus is on the literary, but always with keen attention paid to historical, political, and sociological frameworks and contexts, and I teach students taking literature degrees as well as interdisciplinary American studies degrees. I teach first- and second-year undergraduate U.S. literature survey modules that include some southern texts such as Frederick Douglass's Narrative of the Life, Mark Twain's Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Kate Chopin's stories, William Faulkner's Light in August, Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God, and Carson McCullers's The Member of the Wedding, so a good number of the students arriving in my final-year module dedicated to southern literature and culture have had some exposure to the complex relations between the South and the rest of the United States and the Americas. This notwithstanding, for many, it is their first intensive engagement with the South and its concerns, including its racial concerns—or so many of them think to begin with, at least. An introductory brainstorming session in which I ask students to throw ideas at me about issues they expect to encounter in the module usually presents a richness of latent knowledge...