The Making of Southern mythology has not been an exclusively regional enterprise. No doubt Southerners themselves have been the most prolific contributors, but they have had too much assistance from outside to claim exclusive authorship. Northern contributions derive in part from felt needs and deprivations of Yankee culture that have sought fulfillment in compensatory fantasy. They include a secret yen for aristocracy and the associated airs of grace and decorum, an abiding nostalgia for an America that never really was. William R. Taylor, in Cavalier and Yankee, has shown to what a large extent the Cavalier myth was a Yankee creation and that few if any Southerners “really believed in the Cavalier—only in the need for him.” Other components of the Northern contribution derive from an uneasy national conscience and the availability of the South as a repository for undischarged guilt as well as a convenient target for aggression. The dark legend of the Gothic South, land of evil, bad blood, degeneracy, and violence, owes much to this source.
Southern contributions to the myth grow out of more conventional needs for defense, self-flattery, and inter-sectional polemics. And on a more serious level they are part of the unending struggle to make the collective experience intelligible and meaningful. Whatever differences may exist between Northern and Southern sources and their respective handiwork, on one point there is general agreement—that the South is “different.” And whether the differences are regarded with dismay and abhorrence or with pride and complacence, they are commonly described as deep and probably ineradicable.
Throughout the confrontation between North and South over school desegregation, civil rights, and voter registration there has been a mounting impatience among friends of the Negro movement with the uses to which the national mythology about the South have too frequently been put. The myth of a mysterious distinctiveness beyond the reach of reason and impervious to change has been employed as a fog to hide realities, an excuse for inaction, evasion, and postponement. It has helped to slow Deliberate Speed to a halt, to rationalize tokenism, and to justify defeatism. It is common to the thinking of liberals and moderates as well as conservatives and reactionaries. It is a mainstay of Southern defiance and a salve for Northern conscience.
Under these circumstances it is not surprising that a recent Northern work on Southern mythology should take the form of iconoclasm. This is a book by Howard Zinn that he chooses to call The Southern Mystique.1 It is clear that he means myth instead of mystique. A mystique is entirely the creation and possession of an in-group. One can speak of the mystique of a group and a myth about a group. But one cannot properly write, as Mr. Zinn does, of “the American mystique about the South,” or “the mystique with which Americans have always surrounded the South.” The distinction is important because he is talking about a national credo, not a regional dogma. “We created the mystery of the South,” he declares, “and we can dissolve it.” “We,” meaning Americans of all sections.
The avowed purpose of the book is “to dispose of the myth of Southern exceptionalism,” to do it in, the whole thing, once and for all. Mystery in any department is anathema and must be banished. Mr. Zinn's method is not to deny the South the formidable array of characteristics traditionally attributed to it, but to concede them and at the same time to claim them all as American characteristics. The South is simply America exaggerated, “the essence of the nation.” The South is different without being distinctive. “It is different because it is a distillation of those traits which are the worst (and a few which are the best) in the national character.” The South “crystallizes the defects.” Instead of glossing over national faults by attributing them all to the South, Americans should regard the South “as a mirror in which the nation can see its blemishes magnified.” To do so would be to turn self-flattery into self-recognition and insight of therapeutic value. The nation is thus not seen as the doctor, “but the next patient in line.” We are all sick.
In the long roster of its revilers the South has rarely had so genial and disarming a critic. What has poisoned the North-South colloquy for a century and a half has been the standing indictment of self-righteousness and hypocrisy. The classic riposte of the South under attack is tu quoque : you're another—what about Harlem? Mr. Zinn's strategy is to smother the question with concessions. Harlem is “as terrible as any colored section of a Deep South city.” Racism afflicts “the entire mind and body of the American nation” and forms a “basic community of interest of all sections of the United States, reaching back to our earliest history.” He obligingly documents these concessions with chapter and verse. New Jersey burned two Negroes at the stake for setting fire to barns in 1741, and in the same year New York hanged eighteen and burned thirteen alive—two a week, one hanged, one burned. And so on through the appalling record of the two centuries that followed, including the shameful timidity, vacillation, and compromise of the Civil War and Reconstruction, and the betrayal, desertion, and oppression of the years since. The conclusion is that “there is no part of the United States where Negroes as a group have ever stood equal with whites.” The South remains, however, the main bastion of racism, “a kind of Fort Knox of prejudice—where the nation has always stored the bulk of its bigotry, while the rest has circulated—though sometimes stealthily—all over the country.” The failure of national policy against racial discrimination and injustice is, nevertheless, attributed to “national weakness rather than to Dixie strength.”
Having thus disposed of the myth of racist exceptionalism in the South, Mr. Zinn turns to other alleged Southern peculiarities in the same spirit of iconoclasm. These include such themes as violence, fundamentalism, xenophobia, nativism, chauvinism, absence of class feeling, prevalence of poverty, and what W. J. Cash called “downright gyneolatry,” the cult of Southern womanhood. Like racism these are all conceded to be Southern traits, but at the same time the South is denied exclusiveness in their possession. They, too, are American. Mr. Zinn does not tackle all the myths, and the best he can do for his thesis in some cases is to maintain that the Southern characteristic is “only an intense form of what has gone on for so long in the whole nation,” or that “such differences between North and South have been matters of degree, based on time and circumstances.” Of course a sufficient difference in degree can produce a noticeable difference in kind. For all that, it is as well to have some towering pretensions toppled and a sense of proportion, not to say humor, restored.
One conspicuous omission among Mr. Zinn's targets of Southern exceptionalism is the historical experience of the region. This is not an oversight. With the best will in the world for sharing guilt, paranoia, and tragedy, the doctrine of anti-exceptionalism cannot be stretched to endow the North with the South's past. Other Americans are fortunate enough not to share two-and-a-half centuries of chattel slavery, a wild and disastrous adventure in secession and independence ending in crushing defeat, and another century begun with an abortive reconstruction and ending in a second one still in progress. Yet this is the only authentic basis of the South's claim to a distinctive heritage. That heritage can be, often has been, abused, but its distinctiveness cannot be denied.
Mr. Zinn, a historian, does not deny it. He dismisses it. His conviction is that we have an “overly heavy sense of history,” and that “we are too much impressed with the power of the past. . . . Transfixed by the past, we escape responsibility for acting in the present. Thus history has become a burden rather than a guide. . . .” He would have us throw off the incubus of history, a 19th-century obsession, and dwell upon “all the possibilities for purposive social change in that old political adage which says that the public has a poor memory.” It is only because 20th-century examples are “obnoxious to us” that we ignore the social lessons of “Hitler transforming the German people, the Communists burying centuries in Russia and millennia in China.” All of which prove that “the past need not rest heavily on a determined people.”
Along with the past, Mr. Zinn would cast off the burden of Freudian psychology, which he considers as much of an incubus upon the individual as history is upon society. Like history, this school of psychology, with its stress on the long arm of the past, especially the determinants of early childhood experience upon lifelong behavior, has “led to a pervasive pessimism about man and society.” He embraces instead the “situational psychology” of men like Gardner Murphy, who hold that “the present situation may be far more important than any past experience” in determining behavior and personality. “Given a changed situation, there is a changed role and consequently a changed personality.” According to this school, human nature is so malleable that it will adapt “almost like a chameleon” to manipulated environment.
As test and proof of his hypotheses regarding history and psychology, Mr. Zinn offers testimony of his personal experiences in the Southern race crisis. No summer soldier in the Southern campaigns, he taught for seven years at a Negro college (Spelman) in Atlanta and took active part in sit-in and desegregation demonstrations there and at Albany, Georgia, and observed the movement in other states. As late as 1958 Atlanta was a tightly segregated city with an apparently solid white support behind the slogan, “Never.” The change that followed was striking:
By 1963: the busses had desegregated; so had the public libraries, the rail and bus terminals, a number of theaters and restaurants downtown, the department store cafeterias, the opera, the municipal auditorium, the legitimate theater, the public schools, the colleges (public and private), several hotels, the plainclothes squad of the Police Department, the Fire Department, the baseball team, the tennis courts, the parks, the golf courses, the public swimming pools, the Chamber of Commerce, several professional organizations, the county committee of the Democratic party and even the Senate of the Georgia General Assembly!
This was all done without violence in a city with 350,000 white people, the overwhelming majority of whom preferred a segregated society, who could have prevented most of the change “if they had cared enough.” The point is they did not care enough when it came to a showdown. They would have readily responded to yes-or-no questions of a public opinion pollster with a percentage of “no's” that would have made change appear hopeless. But a real-life situation is quite different from an abstract situation such as an opinion poll. In real life there were multiple choices, none of them perfect: riding an integrated bus or walking, and so with restaurants, parks, schools, etc. Or it might be as simple as a choice between creating a scene or passively submitting—with whatever grace and murderous emotional reservations. It is not the reservations or the emotions that are significant, we are told, but the behavior. And it is not personality or history that are the significant determinants of behavior, but the immediate circumstances, the expected “role.” It is “the situation, rather than instinct or tradition,” that is the key to the revolution, and the situation is “susceptible to manipulation.” It is thus assumed that “in spite of the feelings of the Southern white, he can be induced to change his behavior, overnight,” by skillful manipulation of sociological circumstances.
Our social engineer will take advantage of a number of human failings, now known as behavioral principles. One, already mentioned, is that “the public has a poor memory.” Another is the individual's “need to conform to society at large.” A third is “the need to meet the approval of a few people whose influence—consciously or unconsciously felt—is potent and continuous.” A fourth is Mr. Zinn's own contribution growing out of personal experience, a doctrine heavily stressed and often repeated, that “the universal detergent for race prejudice is contact—massive, prolonged, equal, and intimate contact” between races.
Indiscriminate endorsement of this whole colorful assortment of psychological and sociological doctrines is asking a good deal. But one does not have to go that far to acknowledge the relevance of some of the insights provided. For one thing, they point up the fallacy in the pessimism founded on the opinion polls that register overwhelming percentages saying “Never,” or the pessimism based on the solidarity of support for politicians dedicated to Massive Resistance. For another thing, they deal one more blow to the myth of incorrigible and immutable Southern folkways and their imperviousness to rational appeal and legislative action. The plain and demonstrable fact is that in the last few years, in response to judicial decision and legislative enactments, the South has changed. It has changed deeply, widely, and rapidly. It has not changed as much as many would like or as much as it must to comply with the law nor to live up to its own standards of justice. But it has changed. Southern whites and Southern Negroes and the relations between them have changed, and the changes are acknowledged and understood by both.
The analysis and theory of change and the technique of engineering it proposed by Mr. Zinn, however, are open to considerably more question. If change is to be accomplished at the cost of some sort of prefrontal lobotomy on society that blocks off the past irretrievably from the present, the cure may be worse than the malady. If change is only accomplished in contrived circumstances of the “immediate situation,” upon individuals whose personality alters automatically with temporarily assigned “roles,” the stability of the new order is in some doubt. The chameleon is, after all, proverbially adaptable. The situation may change again—“overnight”—and along with it our transmogrified white Southerner. And if all this is to be done by skilled social manipulation, one would wish to know a little more about the manipulator and his ultimate purposes. And one is reminded that the next manipulator may not be so benevolent in his purposes.
The panacea of massive contact as “the universal detergent for race prejudice” also leaves something to be desired. In the first place, the hypothesis is embarrassed for want of illustrative examples. The one illustration Mr. Zinn offers was shortly to prove singularly unfortunate—“Harlem, or Bedford-Stuyvesant, at the fringes of all-Negro neighborhoods, where whites and Negroes live as cordial neighbors.” In the second place, the hypothesis embodies a self-fulfilling prophesy. If the contact is indeed “massive, prolonged, equal, and intimate,” the obstacle of race prejudice will necessarily have been removed as a precondition. The segregationist panacea was that strict separation of the races would produce racial harmony. This has been proved false. It does not follow, however, that the opposite hypothesis is necessarily true.
Little comfort is to be derived from the alleged success of the great 20th-century experiments in obliterating the past that have been conducted in Russia, Germany, and China. It remains to be seen how much of the past has actually been obliterated, and the long-range cost of the experiments is still to be reckoned. It is true that these experiments are pronounced “obnoxious” by Mr. Zinn, but he shows a disturbing willingness to learn from their techniques of burying or manipulating the past.
It is difficult to imagine where the civil rights movement and the Negro Revolution would be, or how they could be at all, without the past and without constant reference to the past. The white man is not the only Southerner with a history. The Negro is another American minority with a distinctive, un-American experience of history. And that experience has informed and colored every phase of the present movement and endowed it with its basic philosophy. Non-violence is not an invention of white intellectuals, or whites of any sort, nor was it borrowed from India. It was born out of the anguish of an encounter with the white man through the centuries of his greatest power and arrogance. It saw the Negro through slavery, Civil War, and Reconstruction, in all of which he rejected the bloody tactics urged by well-wishers. And his steadfast adherence to the wisdom of his historic experience explains in large part why he, and not the red Indian, is the center of attention today.
But there is more of the past in the present than philosophy. There are also the music and the rhythm and the words, the songs the people sing and the way they, sing them and the meaning behind them, the unfathomable simplicity and the sly pun, the inexhaustible patience and the unflagging purpose, songs of King Jesus and the weary blues, the imagery and rhetoric of the speeches and the shouted response of the audience. To hear Mahalia Jackson sing, or Fannie Lou Hamer speak, or Martin Luther King preach is to be overwhelmed with the elemental impact of the past on the present. Cut these people off from the past and they would be struck mute.
There are, of course, other potent reminders of the past, the sort of past without which the savagery and brutality of Oxford and Birmingham and Selma are unimaginable. That is the Southern white past according to the historiography of Professor Mink Snopes and his patron, Ross Barnett. If that is accepted as the authentic reading of Southern history we really had better turn it all over to the sanitation department of the social engineers. Fortunately there are rival readings of Southern history that do not square with the Snopes version. They expose its sham, its hypocrisy, and its self-deception. The Southerner will find liberation instead of bondage in his true history. He will find in it persuasive evidence of the futility of erecting blockades against new ideas and attempting to stop the clock of history. He will recognize what obscene caricatures some of his present spokesmen have made of the best in his tradition. And he can gain some degree of immunity from the American myths of success and affluence and innocence and invincibility, which have little foundation in his own heritage.
There is no more use trying to persuade the white Southerner that he is a black man with a white skin than there is trying to persuade the Negro that he is a white man with a black skin—or trying to persuade both of them that they are undifferentiated and indistinguishable Americans with a slight accent. They are the oldest, the largest, and the most incorrigible of the hyphenate American minorities. “Negroes and white Southerners do, in fact, want to be Americans,” as Robert Penn Warren remarks, “but by and large, they want to be themselves too; and the fact that both belong to minorities means that both may cling defensively to what they are, or what they take themselves to be. They may refuse to be totally devalued, gutted and scraped before being flung into the melting pot.” There is, of course, a Southern counterpart of the transplanted Yankee who seeks to outdo the natives in being Southern—just as there is a white counterpart of the Negro who tries abjectly to be a white man. But none of these performances, however expert, really commands respect or encourages self-respect. And none of them rings true psychologically as a solution to problems of identity—racial, regional, or national. In each of them there is a large ingredient of self-hatred. And self-hatred is hardly the healthiest foundation for identity or the soundest foundation for the new order that is now struggling to be born in the South.
1 Knopf, 267 pp., $4.95.