What Kind of Cobb Are You?: Class, Wealth, and Power in the Real and Remembered South

Howell Cobb, half-length portrait by Mathew B. Brady, ca. 1844–60, Daguerreotype Collection, Library of Congress.

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What Kind of Cobb Are You?: Class, Wealth, and Power in the Real and Remembered South

by James C. Cobb
Southern Cultures, Vol. 22, No. 4: Winter 2016

“After years of putting up with this genealogical equivalent of the third degree, I finally decided to explore the distinct experiences of these two strands of a single white family, which, despite their relative physical proximity, often seemed to exist in two different, albeit intersecting, worlds.”

I am not sure how many of the now literally hundreds of times I had been asked by fellow southerners if I were related to the presumably aristocratic and historically prominent Cobb family of Athens (Clarke County), Georgia, before I realized that, for many of them, the question functioned as a first-stage screening device to determine if I might be a Cobb of any real consequence. That possibility evaporated on the spot, of course, as soon as I explained that, unlike their more illustrious, moving-and-shaking Athens cousins, my immediate ancestry (situated some forty miles to the northeast in Hart County) was comprised of what Populist leader Tom Watson called the “horny-handed sons of toil.” At that precise moment, my interrogators would almost invariably begin to scan the room for someone more worthy of their time. After years of putting up with this genealogical equivalent of the third degree, I finally decided to explore the distinct experiences of these two strands of a single white family, which, despite their relative physical proximity, often seemed to exist in two different, albeit intersecting, worlds. In doing so, I encountered an ostensibly common history that was in fact ridden with substantial divisions, demarcated not by color, but by class, and beyond that, by gender, geography, luck, pluck, and a host of other factors. Retroactive efforts to impose a single dominant narrative on this internally differentiated and conflicted history reminded me yet again that the politics of the past is always critically important to the politics of the present.