South Carolina has little difficulty getting itself before the eyes of the nation. Recently, we made the national news when our governor, a conservative Republican, brought piglets into the marble halls of the recently renovated state house to illustrate the degree of unacceptable “pork spending” that appeared in our state budget. Unfortunately for the governor, his porcine companions decided to extend the metaphor about governmental waste and promptly defecated on his shoes. The episode, I’m sorry to say, represents one of the more benign stories you’ve likely heard about South Carolina. In the 1990s, we made frequent appearances in the national spotlight for everything from a rash of racially motivated church burnings to a long-fought battle over the removal of the Confederate flag from atop the state house dome where, since 1962, it had shared a pole with both the state flag and the banner it had once opposed on the battlefield, the stars and stripes of the United States.
An old joke holds that the Latin motto on the South Carolina state seal (Dum Spiro Spero) actually means “Thank God for Mississippi”. The joke, sometimes told bitterly, derives its force from the fact that we understand what our state evokes: that it represents to many a combination of reactionary attitudes and an almost willful ignorance that caused us to elect and re-elect J. Strom Thurmond for half a century, we fly a Confederate battle flag from our most public of places and, according to all the statistics at hand related to poverty and domestic violence, to be one of the most difficult places to be a woman or a child. Were it not for Mississippi, a state equally notorious and for some of the same reasons, surely we would be the butt of even more condescension from the rest of the nation.
I don’t take note of the above as a hostile outsider, far from it. I am a native South Carolinian, one who counts his time in the state in ancestral generations rather than in years. Moreover, I make my living teaching and writing about the history of South Carolina and of the American South. Though originally from the South Carolina upstate (we prefer the more evocative “upcountry”), I now make my home in Charleston, a city of ghosts, moldering on a peninsula discovered 300 years ago by entrepreneurial Englishmen who wanted a place to set themselves up like little lords of the manor. They brought slavery, rice, a mixture of English and Caribbean folkways, war, defeat, and a sense of honor most manifest when wounded. Their heirs in the New South have invented historical tourism and transformed the old plantations into places to consume, into dreams of a past, into historical commodities.
In short, I live in one of those southern cities that novelist Walker Percy once warned that anyone who makes their living thinking and writing about the South should avoid like the plague. I live in the place I write about, a place that has an overwhelming and overweening sense of its own “placeness”. I live here on my own terms, however, in a suburb of Charleston that looks like it could be a suburb located about more or less anywhere, where one can go and escape the sense of past and place that Charleston not only has by right but also manufactures for profit. Never mind that you can walk through the woods behind my house and find the remains of Confederate rifle pits . . . inside my three bedroom ranch, the hum of the air conditioning and cable television help me feel I can escape the “placeness” of the place I live, and the past that I simultaneously love and hate in the way you love and hate a bad relationship you can’t bring yourself to leave.
But in this place, to try to hide from history is to ask it to come looking for you. On a warm Saturday this spring, the old city buried perhaps the last of its Confederate dead. In the summer of 2000, a team of archaeologists and oceanographers raised the C.S.S. Hunley, a Confederate submarine that sank on the first mission it conducted against the Yankee blockading fleet in 1864. The Hunley had sat at the bottom of the harbor since its first, failed mission, its crew of eight entombed with it. A major event that would attract perhaps as many as 20,000 people, the burial of the crew promised to be a major event in a city long eager to attract historically minded consumers.
The submarine, claimed falsely by some to have been the world’s first, took on a heightened symbolic importance in South Carolina. More than an interesting piece of naval history, the discovery of the corpses of the crewmembers made the raising of the Hunley into an almost religious event, the raising of a relic to the dead Confederacy at a time when South Carolina had just finished a decade long war of words on the role of Confederate symbolism in public life. To those who worshipped at the shrine of the Confederacy, it was as if the bones of saints had been found under the altar, a piece of the true cross had come back from a watery Jerusalem. In South Carolina, much of the public discourse in the 1990s had focused on whether or not, in the 21st century, we would continue to fly a Confederate flag, carried by South Carolinians into battle against Yankee invaders and civil rights workers, from atop the dome of our state house. Coming at the end of that long and bruising debate that led, at last, to the flag’s lowering, the Hunley seemed like a voice long dead suddenly speaking.
The ceremonial burial, which would include a procession through Charleston made up of thousands of historical reenactors tripped out as Confederate soldiers, successfully attracted tourists, politicians and ideologues who saw the burial as a way to celebrate the most reactionary elements of the southern past.
I didn’t enjoy any of this. I’ve written a book, entitled Never Surrender (University of Georgia Press, 2004), about how white South Carolina dealt, or failed to deal, with its Confederate past. In fact, much of my scholarship and teaching has focused on how white southerners remembered the civil war, indeed how they shaped their remembrance of the civil war. I have come to believe that much of white southern identity cultural, political and even personal emerged out of that experience of defeat. Despite my profound academic interest in these issues, and perhaps because of my equally profound personal interest in them, I found the Hunley event more than a little hard to take. In fact, I couldn’t wait for these thousands of visitors in Confederate gray to leave town, and I fought the urge to hide in my house all week.
It turned out that I did not have that option. A local news station, both to the delight of my ego and the horror of my more rational side, asked me to provide running commentary for the first leg of the funeral procession. This meant I would be forced to say reasonable things, on live television, while rank after rank of paunchy, suburban Confederates marched by and battle flags popped in the breeze. On the bright side, when would I have the chance to see another funeral for Confederate soldiers? Moreover, wouldn’t the news guys probably promote my new book? So, to the funeral I went.
“If you were a real southerner, you’d call it the war of northern aggression instead of the civil war!” A visitor to the burial possession who had stood uncomfortably close to one of the cameramen from News Four apprised me of this after listening to my all-too-live television commentary. He did not like what I said. I had noted, in comments that apparently also disturbed the news anchors that wanted to sell the event as just another commodity in Charleston’s booming history tourism industry, that the ceremonial burial of the crew of the Confederate submarine had inevitably become a celebration of the Confederacy itself. This seemed more than a little unfortunate to me since it meant that a huge number of South Carolinians, black Carolinians, could not participate in the event. The southern experience, I tried to convey, cannot be contained in the short-lived and very white Confederate experience, and much of the rhetoric surrounding the Hunley had ignored that fact.
My interrogator turned out to be from Missouri, a southern state only by a stretch of the definition and not a part of the old Confederacy during the Civil War (oops . . . there I go again). To his credit, I have to say that my nemesis evoked a number of important questions for me with his comments, comments made to me while, let me note, the skeletons of long-dead Confederates rattled by in their coffins, placed atop gun caissons and drawn by the horses of Confederate renactors. I was struck with my own attitude toward his congenital rudeness: Why was this “outside agitator” (to subvert the meaning of an old phrase) questioning my down-home credentials? Speaking in that flat, unplaceable accent that too many Americans have, he demanded an account of my southernness and heard me respond in my twangy drawl that lengthens words, pauses and shuffles and meanders lazily around almost every sentence.
Maybe a better question is why did this annoy me so much? I decided that my annoyance grew in large part from having my southernness questioned, a fact that makes little sense to me. After all, I raise questions about my own southernness and have always worn it as an ill-fitting garb. I have renounced, or think I have renounced, certain aspects of southern culture that seem to me either evil or just plain stultifying. Our heritage of racial pathology sickens me while our tendency to blame everything on the past or the Yankees, and the inability to get over the fact that our great-great granddaddies got whipped in a stand-up fight, this I find exasperating in the extreme. To my many Yankee friends, I think I appear just southern enough to seem quaint but also suitably housebroken: no Confederate flags on the pick-up, no reactionary assertions to disrupt dinner parties (maybe a few of those, though mostly, I think, for shock value).
On the other hand, having such a provincial identity has also frequently given southerners an aura of the exotic, in fact has often induced them to believe that they really are exotic. Southerners tend, maybe for this reason, to have one of the more annoying of regional identities. We are stubborn about insisting on our differences, on declaiming about our regional characteristics, on accentuating how peculiar Yankee ways seem to us and how peculiar we must, surely, seem to them. Perhaps most annoying of all, we are given to publicly pondering the horrors of our history as if we are the only people who lost a war or committed a great communal sin that punishes us still. There is nothing special about believing you are special, but white southerners are sure that they have been granted a special dispensation in which only they are allowed to carry the burdens of the past. A New York friend sums up the above with reference to my “bizarre identity issues” and she’s more or less right.
But I hasten to add that we have certainly had collaborators in shaping this attitude. Almost since the end of the civil war, the rest of white America has been eager to buy into southern myths, indeed to literally purchase them in the form of historical tourism. Charleston began commodifying itself in the early 20th century, presenting itself as a place where the Old South had not gone with the wind. Now, on any summer day, a walk along “Battery Park” (an esplanade on the tip of our peninsula that functioned literally as a Battery during our attempt at secession) will show you a tourist destination full of fresh-faced Ohioans and hard-bitten New Englanders taking pictures of their children clambering over our cannons, 19th century weaponry still turned defiantly on Fort Sumter as if war with the north might break out again at any moment. In the heat of this year’s hot summer and stifling humidity, thousands upon thousands will flood the city with their fanny packs and digital cameras, trudging over battlefields and ramparts, through old plantations and restored slave quarters, seeking to experience the moonlight and magnolias myth of the American South.
What brings them here? Why would a family from Cincinnati pack up and come to Charleston? Is it simply a matter of what we call “charm,” nothing more complicated than the desire to see interesting architecture, to eat shrimp and grits (if you’ve never tried it, don’t knock it), and be able to go to the beach all in the same place? Yes, but its something more. If you come and visit Charleston, SC, you will find yourself staring through a looking glass as magic as Alice’s into a world where enormous wealth created a style of living that owes more to the European aristocracy than anything else North America has ever had. In the early 19th century, South Carolina was, quite simply, the wealthiest state in the Union, wealth that glutted and congealed at the very tip of the social pyramid and built fabulous homes and shaped elegant manners. Today, this is the social world the tourist consumes on their romps from restored plantation to restored plantation, worlds that not only evokes beauty, but also order and stability. Contemplating the life of the hoop-skirted ladies and bourbon-sipping dandies certainly holds more appeal this summer than reflecting on the shame of the prisoner abuses at Abu Ghraib, or considering which morally ambiguous candidate we intend to vote for in the fall. Its so much easier to visit an imagined past.
Of course, tourists are always easy to pick on. The truth is that we native sons and daughters of this place also buy into both an imagined southern past, and even an imagined southern present. I take some delight in making fun of Charleston’s elegant plantation houses and their pristine gardens, places where only a tiny minority of southerners could go to find where their ancestors lived (unless their ancestors endured slavery on those elegant plantations). On the other hand, I don’t mind waxing eloquent about the beauties of the larger experience of the American South; about how this soulful land created both the hillbilly music and the blues, had in fact such an overflow of soul that it gave the world Porgy and Bess and Elvis Presley.
I think I have even been willing to make the argument that, because of our experience of defeat, we have perhaps learned more from our historical experience than the rest of the country, a country that has never really had history run slap over it, back the truck up and run over it again. I don’t completely dispute that point, though it also suggests that I’ve bought into my own set of illusions about the place I live. The truth is, I see very little evidence that, with our history of defeat, poverty, and moral guilt, white southerners have learned much in the way of ethical wisdom. Moreover, in contemporary South Carolina, we seem willing and eager to evoke, rather than to exorcize, the ghosts of the past. Bringing up the bones of dead Confederates isn’t the half of it.
There are incidents at hand that illustrate my point. On 5 November, 2003, students at a local high school found themselves thrown to the floor, handcuffed, and searched with dogs when local police burst out of closets and offices on a drug raid that uncovered no drugs. African Americans make up only about 30 percent of the student body at the targeted high school but they became the overwhelming majority of those handcuffed, searched, and drawn down on by the overzealous police. National attention focused on the event, attention that grew after the shooting of a mentally handicapped African American man by members of the same police department.
I found myself deeply disturbed by the reaction of many local whites. Letters to the editor and comments on the local television news displayed more anger about Jesse Jackson’s visit to Charleston to lead a series of protest rallies than concern that 13- and 14-year-old children had guns pointed at their heads while police dogs sniffed and prodded them. Most interesting of all, many Charleston whites seemed unable to admit that race played any role in the twin incidents, would not even consider the possibility that we, by some tragic iron logic that should only belong in the realm of myth, continued to play out themes deeply embedded in our history. Bring up the fact that we not only have a long history of slavery, of a racial caste system long concretized in state law, and a tradition of the application of deadly force against African American people who challenge white hegemony (and many who didn’t) and you will be told, perhaps by someone dressed in a hoop-skirt and getting ready to lead a tour of a “two hundred yar old plantation”, to “stop living in the past”. We make a fetish of the past here and yet find ourselves unwilling to admit that the unpleasantness of that past has any effect on the unpleasantness of the present.
If the place I live wants to raise the dead, we shouldn’t stop with the crews of Confederate submarines. The city where I live seems sometimes a city of the dead and the state where I am from sometimes seems as full of old ghosts as its growing, and actually somewhat youthful, population. We cannot renounce the past, we are fated to endure it or to practice an easy escapism that refuses to deal with any of our many problems. But, ironically, its perhaps our historical tourism industry that actually renounces the past by refusing to tell the whole story, by refusing to remember the economic injustices to poor whites of the Old South and the physical and mental dehumanization of African Americans brought about by slavery. Our effort to sell our modified past to a nation eager to buy it represents, ironically, an exercise in historical amnesia, in active forgetfulness.
So please, don’t come here looking for the Old South or the New South. We have “bizarre identity issues” to work out, we have bones to dig up. We can’t sell you our past and, if you really knew our past, you might not want it, anyway.