The American South: A Reading List
I grew up in a household where the "N" word was used regularly. When the Civil War came up at school - and it did often - it was described by most of my teachers as "The War of Northern Aggression." It was not about slavery, they said, but about states' rights, whatever that meant. According to almost all those around me growing up, the "rebel flag" was to be celebrated, and those who shunned it were simply misinformed about history. We knew the REAL history.
Because of these experiences growing up, I developed what I would later realize was a flawed and dangerous conceptualization of the American South. I took this version of the South with me through the first portion of adulthood, and I never missed an opportunity to describe the Civil War as an aggressive action by an overreaching and oppressive Yankee government. Somehow, I never adopted the outwardly racist ideology of most of those who surrounded me growing up, though I would eventually come to realize that covert and systemic racism - the kind many do not even realize is racism, and which I certainly harbored - is just as insidious.
I now realize that I was influenced by the sort of dangerous anti-intellectualism that now so often drives right-wing and nationalist politics in the US. Like many proud southerners, I knew how things were in the South, and I didn't need any eggheaded know-it-all outside agitators telling me any different. I didn't understand the serious flaws in my beliefs, of course, until I attended college for the first time at age 31. Now, many of my childhood friends, family members, and distant hometown acquaintances think I've been brainwashed by my education. In reality, what changed was my own ability to seek out and analyze historical evidence in order to form my own opinions and arguments.
There exists on the political right a blatantly uninformed argument that colleges and universities teach students only to parrot liberal talking points. What the proponents of this argument fail to consider is that critical thinking is the cornerstone of higher education, particularly in the humanities and the social sciences. The best professors push their students to back their opinions with evidence, and often, let's face it, the world-views students bring with them to college crumble to pieces under close and intellectually honest scrutiny. Some liberal ideals are equally unable to withstand intellectual scrutiny, though few focus on the academic deconstruction of liberal ideas because it doesn't fit the anti-higher-education narrative.
As I began to understand the full extent of my own ignorance about the American South, I decided that I needed to learn as much as I could about the region in part as a means of penance for years of blatant and quasi-hateful ignorance. It didn't take much reading to discover irrefutable historical evidence that most everything I thought I knew about the South was myth manufactured by racists and perpetuated by those yearning for a sense of belonging.
What I have come to know is that the narrative isn't straightforward. The South is not monolithic. It isn't all bad, nor is it all good. Southern culture is important, and a force to be reckoned with. This unique culture has been used by those seeking to bring about progress in the region, and it has been weaponized by those seeking to maintain systems of racial, economic, and gender inequality.
Because the South is so complicated, it isn't possible to truly understand the region by reading only a few books. No survey of southern history, no matter how detailed, could possibly detail the South in a way that recognizes and analyzes the contradictions, invisible people and stories, mistruths, and mythology. Developing a thorough working knowledge of the South is not an easy endeavor, which might explain why simplistic and ahistorical narratives about the South spread so easily.
The books that follow approach the subject of the South from myriad directions. There are traditional histories here, as well as memoirs and novels. Some of the books here are award-winning page-turners, while others are hopelessly dry. However, the goal of this reading list is not to deliver a positive reader experience, but rather, to help readers build a more complete, accurate, and nuanced understanding of the American South.
As always, there's no way to include every book I would like. Also, there are no doubt wonderful books that I have forgotten or about which I am unaware, which are worthy of inclusion on this list. What is missing are the moonlight-and-magnolias romanticizations of the Old South. Such portrayals of the region are dangerous and wholly inaccurate, often concocted by those seeking to marginalize people of color and women. If your knowledge of the South comes exclusively from these overly positive and romanticized sources, you must accept the uncomfortable fact that your understanding of the region is severely flawed.
As we all seek to understand what it means to be southern in the twenty-first century, we must come to terms with the notion that we can simultaneously acknowledge the egregious sins of the past (and the ways we benefit from them if we are white) while still finding value and meaning in being southern. We are not forced to decide between acknowledging the unpleasant parts of our past and being proud to be southerners so long as we vow to learn from and repudiate the disgusting parts and dedicate ourselves to building a twenty-first-century South that is rooted in justice and equality for everyone.
Now, the books, in no particular order:
Mothers of Massive Resistance: White Women and the Politics of White Supremacy, by Elizabeth McRae. Dr. McRae taught me at least half of what I know about teaching, and she is an incredibly gifted historian. This book is so new that I haven't had a chance to read it yet, but I have been looking forward to it for years. Many people have been surprised by the number of women who continue to support Donald Trump, but knowing about Dr. McRae's work, I was never surprised. She traces the ways white supremacy was, for decades, supported by white women through seemingly mundane actions. From censoring textbooks to instilling racial hierarchies in their children, white women did the everyday work of maintaining white supremacy. Notice, here, what will be a recurring theme in this list: it was more often small actions by ordinary people that maintained or challenged power structures in the American South.
Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World the Slaves Made, by Eugene Genovese. When it came out in 1976, this book was a major shift in the historiography of slavery. Okay, in non-jargon: this book influenced the way many future historians researched, analyzed, and wrote about slavery. Rather than focusing on the brutality of slavery alone, Genovese instead drew out the ways slaves resisted and exercised agency through resistance, culture, music, and religion. If you think of slaves only as passive victims, read Genovese. You'll likely leave the book with a profound new recognition of the way slaves persisted under unspeakable oppression.
Gender and Jim Crow: Women and the Politics of White Supremacy in North Carolina, 1896-1920, by Glenda Gilmore. Gilmore has long been one of my favorite historians. In this book, she argues that gender and race were connected during the era of Jim Crow. She notes the ways African American women developed what would become a long tradition of political activism. Educated African American women served as sort of ambassadors to the white community, often forging ties with white women in ways their disfranchised husbands could not.
C. Vann Woodward:
Sort of the dean of Southern history when he was alive, Woodward earned his PhD at UNC Chapel Hill and taught at Yale for most of his career. The three books listed here are mandatory reads for those seeking to understand the American South.
Away Down South: A History of Southern Identity, by James Cobb. If you've ever wondered when the people of the South came to imagine themselves as unique and set apart from the rest of America, this book will help you begin to understand the answer. From the Cavaliers in plantation-era Virginia, to the development of the "Lost Cause" myth, to the Civil Rights Movement, Cobb, one of the most prominent historians of the South, describes the development of the southern identity.
The Promise of the New South: Life After Reconstruction, by Edward Ayers. Though this book is now quite dated - over 25 years old - it debuted with much acclaim as one of the best books to date describing the years between the end of the Civil War and the end of the Nineteenth Century. If you aren't familiar with the phrase "New South," this is a good introduction.
Black Boy: A Record of Childhood and Youth, by Richard Wright. A memoir, this powerful book traces Wright's coming of age in the Jim Crow South. The most moving part of this book is the spectrum of raw emotions. There's anger, fear, violence, a struggle to find a sense of belonging, and a keen awareness on Wright's part of the injustices surrounding him. This book lays bare the cruel realities of Jim Crow as only a memoir can.
Light in August, by William Faulkner. I am a Faulkner fan, and this is my favorite Faulkner novel. In this book, Faulkner grapples with the nuances of race in the South, revealing the way perceptions of race often differed from reality. If you have never considered that race is a social construct, this novel is a good way to begin conceptualizing that idea. It is also, in my opinion, more accessible than many other Faulkner novels.
The Resilience of Southern Identity: Why the South Still Matters in the Minds of Its People, by Christopher Cooper and Gibbs Knotts. In the past few decades, the South has changed substantially as the politics have gotten redder and the population has increased. Given the substantial changes in the region, it is reasonable to wonder if there remains a uniquely southern identity. Cooper and Cobb, two of the most talented political scientists in the South, argue that as the region changed, a southern identity has persisted and remained relevant. Taken together, this book and Away Down South, by James Cobb (listed above), offer a solid survey of the creation and evolution of southern identity.
Remaking the Rural South: Interracialism, Christian Socialism, and Cooperative Farming in Jim Crow Mississippi, by Robert Ferguson. Another book so new that I haven't yet read it, this is a book I have been looking forward to for quite some time. Dr. Ferguson was one of my professors during both undergrad and grad school, and he has influenced my career substantially. The book details the creation of two cooperative farming communities in the Mississippi Delta between the 1930s and 1950s. Books like this remind us that very little of what happened in the South following the Civil War was inevitable. Instead, those in power, through deliberate actions, instituted and enforced political and economic processes that systematically deprived many of equal opportunity. I have enjoyed hearing about this project as it developed, and it serves as a good example of how ordinary individuals resisted Jim Crow, plantation-style labor, sharecropping, and capitalism through everyday actions.
Cross Creek, by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings. Rawlings is one of my favorite southern writers. It drives me bonkers that almost every description of this book is mostly about The Yearling. I suppose that was a trick used by her publisher to draw on the success of The Yearling, but it completely discounts the brilliance and beauty of Cross Creek. Those who are regular readers of my blog know that I love memoirs. This is Rawlings's memoir, and she explores the realities of life in rural Florida during the Great Depression. The characters are colorful and beautiful, revealed in intimate candor. If you love rural life, this book will resonate in your soul. If you are an "outsider" new to the South and struggling to understand the people here, Rawlings's work might serve as a guide from someone who had the same struggles decades ago.
Bastard out of Carolina, by Dorothy Allison. This novel lends credence to the notion that something can be true even if it is not completely factual. This will be a tough book for many readers because of the violence and abuse, but this is an important work because it reveals soul-crushing realities of life for many poor rural whites. It isn't possible to unpack the complicated nature of southern culture without reading hard books like this one.
A Time to Kill, by John Grisham. Without discovering the work of John Grisham, I'm not certain I would have become an avid reader during adulthood. While earning an undergraduate degree in literature made me a bit snootier in how I define "good" literature, I still see the value of mass-market literature. Grisham has keen insight into southern culture and community, and his novels can serve as gateway literature for those who might transition to more literary novels. That's the way Grisham worked for me, and this book in particular is one that I still find incredibly important for its depiction of complicated racial hierarchies in the South.
To Kill A Mockingbird, by Harper Lee. Like many people, I fell in love with this book as a child. I still fondly remember reading it in Mr. Buchanan's seventh-grade class, and there was a time in my life when I re-read it every year during my winter vacation. You've probably read it, but if you haven't, you should. If you've already read it, read it again. And again. There's some profound truth in this book.
The Mind of the South, by W. J. Cash. Originally published in 1941, this book is largely outdated by now. However, this book defined how millions of people, both from the region and outside, came to view the South. Cash explores both race and class in his exploration. Read this as a primary source rather than a secondary source, and it'll prove even more useful.
Southern Cross: The Beginnings of the Bible Belt, by Christine Heyrman. Particularly in today's political climate, when white evangelicals are supporting political leaders who are so seemingly out of touch with historical Christian values, this book offers useful historical context. Heyrman argues that evangelicals changed their own values to reconcile them with southern ideas of segregation and slavery. Eventually, these evangelicals would come to defend both, using their evolved religious beliefs as justification for said defense. Additionally, as these evangelicals redefined Christianity, they increasingly injected martial language, enabling them to religiously justify war and violence to protect segregation and slavery. Reviewing this book again for this list, I was reminded of how poignant this twenty-year-old book is for today's political climate. Perhaps it's time for a revised edition.
Confederate Reckoning: Power and Politics in the Civil War South, by Stephanie McCurry. If you are interested in the Civil War, I have a separate Civil War Reading List. Accordingly, I have limited the number of Civil War-related books on this list. However, for some reason I cannot now remember, I failed to include this one on the Civil War list initially, and I believe it offers a substantial amount of insight into southern society during the Civil War era. McCurry says that the Confederate experiment was tried and failed, in large part because of resistance from white women and slaves, who were, by design, excluded from southern public and political life. She argues that this exclusion of over half of all southerners was a fatal flaw in the structure of the Confederacy.
The Blood of Emmett Till, by Timothy Tyson. I have long enjoyed Tyson's work, and this book, his newest, is no exception. Tyson offers a compelling and page-turning account of one of the most prominent hate crimes in American history. In telling the story of Emmett Till, Tyson calls us to learn from this painful part of history and examine the ways justice has failed because of race over the course of US history.