MAXWELL:  Of the South, but not a Southerner

6/14/1998 – Printed in the PERSPECTIVE section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper


I love the South and, until quite recently, fancied myself a Southerner. Even though I was born and reared in the South and do not plan to ever leave it, I no longer believe that an African-American can be a Southerner.

My thinking began to evolve about two years ago shortly after referring to myself as a Southerner in a column and receiving letters from white males in South Carolina arguing otherwise.

“Sir,” one writer commented, “a nigger can’t be a Southerner. You and your kind have never belonged here. My people committed the sin of bringing your kind to our great region in the first place.”

Initially, I was angry but calmed down after viewing the comments intellectually. I, a student of the Civil War, was reminded of this issue again in April when Marion Lambert, a member of the Tampa Bay chapter of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, a group of history buffs and Confederate descendants, invited blacks to their annual Confederate Memorial Day celebration. He told the St. Petersburg Times that “African-Americans should celebrate this . . . day because they are Southerners.”

Most blacks scoffed at the invitation and condemned black singer Belinda Womack, who performed at the gathering. The cause of their reactions goes to the heart of the question of whether or not a black can be a Southerner.

I have asked whites and blacks this question. Liberal whites have said, without apparent reflection, that a black can be a Southerner. White conservatives, especially males, have become defensive, but most have said that a black can be a Southerner. All but one African-American, a student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, have agreed.

In politics, is the quintessential Southerner a “Pitchfork Ben” Tillman, a George Wallace, a Eugene “Bull” Connor? In literature, a Eudora Welty, a William Styron, a Flannery O’Connor, a William Faulkner? What about enlightened journalists such as Hodding Carter, Ralph McGill and Eugene Patterson who risked everything to support blacks? In average life, is the redneck our model Southerner?

The definitions of a Southerner are as varied as the people who address the issue. The Southerner has been defined as anyone born in the South, one reared here or even as one who adopts the region as home. Some people say that being a Southerner, like the South itself, is a state of mind.

“A Southerner,” an 80-year-old white man said, “is anyone, black or white, who loves the land of their Southern birth. Southerners love the land in a way that people in other parts of the country do not.”

A colleague’s wife said: “Southerners believe that God is in charge of our world, that family is important and that we are supposed to help each other. Those beliefs seem to be stronger in the South than in most other regions. Those beliefs don’t depend on being a certain color, a certain gender or being in a particular financial class.”

As sincere as the above attempts are, they, like most others, ignore centuries of historical, social, cultural and political forces that prevent African-Americans from being true Southerners.

Although their sweat was essential to the economy, African-Americans have never been a natural part of the South. Brought here as slaves, they were declared subhuman _ creatures without souls and, therefore, unable to experience Christian redemption. From the outset, they became a segregated pariah class in a region already distinct from the rest of the nation.

“The Negro,” David L. Cohen wrote for Look magazine in 1955, “did not seek to come to the United States; he was dragged here to satisfy white greed. He alone, of all the racial stocks here, was satisfied to remain in his native home. The others came to either to improve their condition economically or spiritually, or because they were run out of town.”

The African-American, as imported chattel, was the South’s original exile, the bastard who could not join the fraternity. Many critics of my position argue that the descendants of black slaves are now bona fide Southerners.

But are they?

“To be born with a dark skin is unforgivable in the South,” wrote Louis E. Austin, “and only the Negro must forever be assigned a place of hatred in the heart of the Southerner. . . . So deep are the roots and so well fertilized have they been by generation after generation of his ancestors that long before he is born, the pattern, the way of life for the white child in the South has already been provided.”

At an early age, white children know to despise blacks. Sure, many blacks and whites worked the land together, worshiped the same God and experienced the same poverty. “Yet, in this region of ironies,” writes David R. Goldfield, “the supreme irony was that the two races lived side by side for centuries and knew each other not at all. The sin of (white) race pride had come between them and created an abyss so deep that few held out hope for reconciliation.”

Goldfield is right. The races have not reconciled because African-Americans cannot meet the two main tests for being a member of the South’s clan: having white skin and accepting the concept of white superiority.

In Ralph Ellison’s prize-winning novel, Invisible Man, the protagonist encapsulates the black man’s predicament in the South: “I am invisible, simply because (white) people refuse to see me. When they approach me they only see my surroundings, themselves, or figments of their imagination _ indeed, everything and anything except me.”

Further, racial etiquette _ the institution dictating that blacks must “stay in their place” _ did more than anything else to marginalize former slaves, effectively making them permanent aliens.

For too many generations, racial etiquette forced whites and blacks to attend separate schools, drink from separate fountains, eat in separate restaurants, use separate restrooms. The mere labels of “white” and “colored” denoted superiority and inferiority and established a false hierarchy impossible to tear down.

W.E.B. Du Bois, as I do, understood the destructiveness of this hierarchy: “In a world where it means so much to take a man by the hand and sit beside him, to look frankly into his eyes and feel his heart beating with red blood; in a world where a social cigar or a cup of tea together means more than legislative halls and magazine articles and speeches _ one can imagine the consequences of the almost utter absence of such social amenities between estranged races.”

The late Malcolm X went beyond the question of whether or not a black can be a Southerner: He dared to wonder if a black can be an American.