US South

“Deep South” (1930-31), by Thomas Hart Benton

Our executive chairman, J Walker Smith, was born and brought up in the American South. In this personal post he reflects on the impact of present politics on the way the South is understood.

Walker Smith writes: The horrendous, murderous events of Charlottesville have consumed America this past week, and it looks like more right-wing marches are going to consume America again this weekend. Charlottesville was revolting and evil. As a born and bred Southerner, I am particularly appalled by the extremes of white supremacists and their ilk because, truth be told, I grew up with an insider’s view of that sort of thing, which probably explains much of my liberalism.

But as a lifelong Southerner, I have an extra bone to pick with the alt-right because they have made it impossible for people like me to speak up for the cultural virtues of the South that I have loved and known so intimately all my life.

As the Louisiana-born folk singer Kate Campbell put it in the closing stanza of her song ‘Look Away‘,

Part of me hears voices crying

Part of me can feel their weight

Part of me believes that mansion

Stood for something more than hate.

The ‘mansion’ is a metaphor for the South. So with the weight of Southern heritage in my background, I want to apologize for what went on centuries before, as well as recently.

Against the modernist grain

But I also want to ask that you take a second look. There is more to the South and its history. I’m no cultural conservative like New York Times columnist Ross Douthat, but this column of his from a couple of years ago resonates with me a lot in the light of recent events. His notion is that because Southern culture cuts against the modernist grain, it can teach us a lot. (Douthat also did a 12-part tweet on Wednesday, August 16, that offers some additional perspective on Confederate memorials.)

This concept that the experience of the South is unique within American history has also been explored before by others, most notably, C. Vann Woodward in his famous 1960 book, The Burden of Southern History. The implication is that the rest of America can learn from this experience. The present politics of the alt-right closes that insight off for everyone, Southerners included.

The image of  Thomas Benton’s mural, “Deep South” is from The Metropolitan Museum of Art, and is used with thanks. 

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