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  • Hurtin' Words: Debating Family Problems in the Twentieth-Century South by Ted Ownby
  • Scott L. Matthews
Hurtin' Words: Debating Family Problems in the Twentieth-Century South. By Ted Ownby (Chapel Hill, University of North Carolina Press, 2018) 352 pp. $90.00 cloth $29.95 paper

The title of Ownby's excellent new book comes from a 1968 song by country singer Tammy Wynette. In "D-I-V-O-R-C-E," she sings of parents who spell out "hurtin words" like "divorce" and "custody" to [End Page 620] spare their child's innocence. Hurtin' Words, as Ownby notes, is an appropriate title for a book that "dramatizes how difficult the subject of family problems can be" and analyses the words that southerners used to debate those problems during the twentieth century (9). Even though, as he argues, the southern family was not a uniform entity, black and white southerners nevertheless talked, wrote, and sang about family problems with uncommon passion and creativity. They were motivated in part by social and cultural upheavals centered in the South, including the civil-rights movement and the relaxing of the region's once distinctly restrictive divorce policies, which threatened racial and gender hierarchies outside and inside the family.

For black southerners, and some liberal whites, the civil-rights movement inspired new ways of thinking about family that bypassed demeaning stereotypes of black family crisis and conceived bonds of brotherhood and sisterhood forged by a shared humanity or a common experience of oppression or resilience. For conservative white southerners, fears of federally mandated school integration and, later, rising divorce rates, inspired screeds, jeremiads, and calls to protect the authority and sanctity of the (white) family. How a group talked about family problems revealed its vision of the ideal life and how to live it.

To uncover these and other debates about family problems, Ownby deftly examines a wide array of sources, including popular music, novels, memoirs, and the television series Roots, along with sociological studies, court cases, and the papers of politicians, activists, scholars, civil-rights organizations and church denominations. The breadth and depth of his archival research is particularly impressive. In Chapter 2, which explores the meaning and uses of the religious concept of brotherhood in interracial work and civil-rights activism between the 1930s and 1960s, Ownby plumbs the papers of black and white activists and organizations to reveal how they deconstructed the idea of race to create an egalitarian human family. In the following chapter, he shows how massive resistance to federally mandated school desegregation unleashed a white backlash not only against government authority but also against the concept of worldly "brotherhood." From the papers of the White Citizens' Council and the passionate letters sent to southern governors and U.S. Senators by their constituents, Ownby captures the panic of segregationists eager to protect the white family, particularly young children, from perceived pathologies of black family life. His expert analysis of these sources reveals how this massive resistance, at bottom, was a movement rooted in sexual and family fears rather than constitutional principles.

Ownby's treatment of cultural expression, particularly music, does not always have the same revelatory power. Although he correctly notes in Chapter 1 that the commercialization of genres like the blues and country music allowed records to become the voices of performers and their audiences, he does not explore this phenomenon enough to reinforce his arguments about how southerners narrated family life. His discussion of Wynette and southern rock in Chapter 5 is much stronger and more [End Page 621] expansive, but the connections that he draws between male lyrics about wanderlust and individualism and the loosening of divorce laws and mores in the South in the 1970s are still not entirely persuasive.

Despite an unduly modest statement in the introduction about avoiding too much literary analysis because of a lack of training, Ownby provides insightful readings of how novels by southern women in the late twentieth century undermined patriarchy and envisioned more liberating ways of conceiving family. His decision to leave out the "canonical" works by William Faulkner and other southern authors from the first half of the twentieth century for fear that they "might dominate...


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pp. 620-622
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