Southern Tropes in History

“Indeed, these mythic conceptions of the upland South begin to be constructed just following the Civil War…through a complex series of popular culture phenomenon such as local color writers, popular music, and folklorists. These tropes served to ‘legitimize northern middle class life by presenting the mountain South as the ‘other’’ and eventually spawning a type of ethnic identity that was both imposed upon and ambivalently adopted by the inhabitants of Appalachia and the Ozarks—characterizing them as backward, antiquated, lazy, and exclusively of Anglo-Saxon stock.”
-Jaime C. Brandon and James M. Davidson (quoting Horning 1999:31)

Talking about the history of the southeastern United States with non-southerners invariably brings up certain popular tropes of folksy backwardness and monolithic white conservatism. These tropes often irrationally irritate me—I say irrational because I know I shouldn’t get upset when tropes are tropes for a reason, and I should be using my energy for patient explanation. Aside from my academic interest in the southeastern region, it is part of my own identity. I was born and lived in the South as a young child, but even after moving north I spent summers in Tennessee and Arkansas, in cities and in rural towns, with my family. Certainly, I grew up watching reruns of shows like The Beverly Hillbillies, but there was ever a disconnect between what I saw on TV and the behaviors of the people I experienced in real life.

The Beverly Hillbillies helped turn the myth of exclusively white, anti-modern Ozarkians into a popular trope. Photo from the Wikipedia entry about the show.

I came across the above quote while reading for my bibliographies as part of my comprehensive exams. Brandon and Davidson then go on to discuss the assumed purity (read: whiteness) of mountain blood, which had a distinct hand in the erasure of Ozark slavery from popular history. This is where the danger of tropes such as these should be glaringly obvious. Underlying the mockery of “other” whites, stories of diversity are ignored completely. At conception in the latter half of the 19th century, mountain stereotypes may have been confined to Ozark and Appalachian regions, as Brandon and Davidson write, but over time they have become nebulous and imprecise enough that they are now applied to the South at large. The long continuation of these tropes has led people to blindly forget that the region historically has a black majority population with incredible direct and indirect influence on the development of contemporary American culture, politics, and landscapes. Continuing to adhere and cling to tropes dismisses southern diversity and identities as being uninteresting, unimportant, and false. Tropes contribute to oppression when there are stories that need and deserve to be told.

An African-American-owned drugstore in Georgia, ca. 1900. (source)

Works cited:

Brandon, Jaime C. and James M. Davidson. 2005. The Landscape of Van Winkle’s Mill: Identity, Myth, and Modernity in the Ozark Upland South. In Historical Archaeology, 39(3): 113-131.


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