- Particularity without PeculiarityTeaching Southern History in Australia
Australian university students can pick Abraham Lincoln out of a lineup. They know about Prohibition, they have at least heard of Frederick Douglass, and they are aware the Tea Party has two incarnations. Many of them have read at least some American literature and of my pop culture references, most—though not nearly enough—are appreciated. Teaching American history in Australia is great.
It gets better. When I teach a course called American Empire, Australian students are already aware—perhaps even more so than I am—that the United States was, and still is, an empire. They accept un-problematically that slavery was at the root of the Civil War and are open minded when I rail against the commercial appropriation of a moderate and agreeable Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Though they have absorbed some stereotypes from popular culture, particularly regarding the American South, they nevertheless have enough detachment to keep an open mind. Australian students have just enough context to understand the American story without the historical baggage that American university students might get from friends, family, or television.
There is, however, a downside that says a lot about our role as historians and the relationship between scholarship, teaching, and activism. Australian students do actually bring unexamined assumptions, nationalist understandings, and half-remembered narratives to their American history courses, they are just all about Australia. The country has a brutal history of settler colonialism and an unresolved [End Page 195] public conversation about race and national identity. There were times when I realized teaching students about American racism inadvertently enabled them to view racism as a problem that plagued other societies, without thinking critically about their own context. This was particularly the case when discussing topics like slavery or Jim Crow. If I was not careful, the students' exploration of the United States' troubled history became an affirmation of their own story. I have since realized that teaching American history abroad, and southern history in particular, requires one to be ever mindful of this possibility, and to fight it.
I have never taught southern history in the South. I grew up in northern Virginia and though I attended college well south of the Beltway, I have only taught southern history in the northern United States, at Harvard, and in Australia, at Monash University. Despite being radically different institutions—Monash is a large public research school—both locations posed similar challenges. Students tended to view the troubling aspects of southern history as something particular to the South and outside their own history. The solution in each case, however, is different. When I was a graduate student at Harvard, most of the students identified as non-southerners. They would talk about issues like slavery or segregation as something outside their story. My approach was to emphasize that slavery was a national system or to present moments such as the Boston busing controversy that would destabilize students' convenient narrative of southern racism and northern enlightenment. Australian students, in contrast, are much quicker to see slavery or racial inequality as a national story, but they, too, use southern history as a foil for their own history. In both cases, the students would "otherize" and exoticize southern history as a way to protect their own flattering self-understandings. The key with American students was to connect their own regional history with that of the South, whereas in Australia I had to force the students to see parallels with their own context.
When I first started teaching in Australia, I was surprised by the students' familiarity with American culture. Early in my class on the American Civil War—when I am broadly introducing antebellum society—I ask the students what words come to mind when they think of the American South. Notably, they have far more words for, and preconceptions about, the South than the North, but they are mostly unflattering and stereotypical. Words like "racist," "fundamentalist," and "violent" are offered. Further, southern society is imagined as wholly alien. For these students, southern history is one of particularity and peculiarity, [End Page 196] whereas when they first discuss northern society, their descriptors are...