02 July 2015

North and South, white and black

Jelani Cobb made an obvious yet noteworthy observation in a New Yorker piece this week on the lastest Confederate flag controversy: "Americans, both in the South and beyond, attach a particular brand of exceptionalism to the region. This is the reason that there is a Southern Historical Association but not a Northern one; a genre known as Southern literature but no Northern corollary; and a concept of Southern politics as something distinct from the national variety."

Unintentionally, since  his piece is a critique of Southern "denialism" regarding the Confederate flag's embodiment of racism. Cobb reminded me of past comments on the purported double standard by which colleges have, for instance, Black Studies departments but not White Studies departments. The facetious way to link the two observations together would be to say that "Southern" studies are "White" studies, but as someone experienced a little in academia I know better than that. There is a valid analogy, I think, between the absence of "Northern studies" and the absence of "White studies" (as opposed to "whiteness" studies, which are deconstructive in a way our theoretical White Studies wouldn't be). More so even than whites do, Northerners unselfconsciously identify themselves with (or as) the default American culture, while the South, by virtue of losing the Civil War, may always have a quality of Otherness outside the erstwhile Confederacy. If Northerners think about it at all, they most likely differentiate themselves from Southerners by thinking of themselves as the Union, not as a irreducibly or irreconcilably distinctive part of it.Victory in 1865 allowed this.

Before the Civil War, it was probably less clear whether any group in any part of the country could assume they were the American people in a way people in other sections weren't. If the Southerner was distinct from the outside perspective, back in antebellum times the Northerner -- or to be more specific, the "Yankee" -- was perceived just as distinctly as one type of many from both South and West. Southerners, seeing Virginia as something like the American heartland, saw the Yankee as something parochial and often obnoxious, something that may well have become the subject of academic study had the Confederacy won the war. Instead, many of the Yankee's reputed obnoxious qualities are no longer identified with geography, but identified with ideology that crosses sectional lines yet, admittedly, seems to find the South persistently hostile ground. Northern reactionaries may hate "liberals" and "progressives" in their midst, and may resent the stigmatization of the Confederate flag as a bow to "political correctness," but they are unlikely to identify either themselves or their ideological antagonists as Yankees. Nor are the liberals, the progressives, or the supposedly politically correct likely to think of themselves as Yankees. Hence there is no demand for "Northern Studies" programs or calls for "Northern Pride" like those you hear from self-conscious whites who are resentful toward or envious of Black Studies or black pride.

We have four different things, two actual, two theoretical, but only one of these things is not like the others. Black Studies exists, at least in part, because blacks need to explain themselves to themselves and others, and others need them explained. Southern Studies exists, at least in part, for the same reasons. If there is a demand for White Studies, it is to some extent similarly motivated. But few feel a need to explain the North, and self-conscious Northern identity, as opposed to American identity, hardly exists. If there's any problem with this, it may be that in the absence of strong regional identification with a distinct culture or heritage, white Northerners are often tempted to identify with a Whiteness that is defined by the South and the Confederate heritage in adversarial relationship not just with blacks or other minorities but also with a national government presumed hostile to liberty as the old South understood it. It may be that the most offensive symbols of the Confederacy need to be seen rather than purged from national memory, if not necessarily flaunted on public land, to remind people outside the South that it didn't just rebel for the hell of it, or because Lincoln was acting like Big Brother, or because tariffs were too damn high. We don't necessarily need "Northern Pride" to recognize that the Confederacy -- as opposed to the geographic South -- was not just the enemy in the Civil War, but also, in some way, our enemy for all time. But whatever helps us recognize that will be a good thing.

No comments: