Behold the competing perspectives here, antebellum black voices balanced against a white family’s 150-year-old lore. I wonder which of the more than fifty enslaved people on their Duplin County plantation were “happy” to give their lives to build the wealth of others. I also wonder which of the people given by their family as birthday presents and wedding gifts were “happy” to forever lose their loved ones.4
Erasure is crucial to this historical conceptualization. When news of David Walker’s Boston-based Appeal reached North Carolina, local white leaders fretted over the dissemination of his words. Laws already existed to control and limit freedom of speech. As the Wilmington magistrate wrote to the governor in 1830, “Every means which the existing laws of our State place within the reach of the police of this place are promptly used to prevent dissemination of Walker’s pamphlet.” “Local authorities,” he assured, “may be on their guard against the introduction & distribution of this book.” Black people were not supposed to share their truths.5
In that same city, family members of the man who told me about his family’s “happy” slaves participated in the Wilmington Insurrection of 1898, when black dissidents were murdered and erased, and the local black newspaper burned to the ground because it voiced dissent. Outsiders were identified by race, like me at a party, and destroyed by torches and ropes.6
Even without the violence and segregation of past eras, today’s insiders protect old principles by sanitizing the transgressions of their forbearers. Two hundred years after David Walker left North Carolina, white southerners continue to spout the fabrications of their ancestors. What sane person would enjoy moving in circles where their ancestors’ terrorists are celebrated and their presence feels like a reluctant acceptance?
The nature of southern identity has always been curated by those insiders, first in ways that completely excluded many of the rest of us, and then in ways that allowed for our presence but only to the extent that we did not challenge their comfort. Today’s insiders are not the monsters of yesterday, but they honor and normalize the actions of their forebears to validate their heritage.
But things are changing. A newer generation of scholars is emerging. Southern writers have long overcome the yokes of disadvantage and discrimination, but the members of this new generation are some of the first to live their entire lives on the other side of the great social and political upheavals of the 1960s and 1970s. Standing on the shoulders of pioneers, a new generation of southern scholars is bringing forth a fresh set of perspectives, questions, and motivations. They see time differently, they question the oldest myths, and they expect their voices to carry the respect of their families’ histories in this place. The future belongs to them, and they will claim it by fearlessly engaging more complete truths about our past. What will come, I hope, is an honest reckoning that will one day finally set all of us free.
The future belongs to them, and they will claim it by fearlessly engaging more complete truths about our past.
As this 25th anniversary issue of Southern Cultures goes to publication, the study of the South is more expansive than at any time in the region’s history. The old walls separating insider and outsider are crumbling, allowing the long suppressed full talents of this region to flourish in new ways. Nostalgic images of gaudy plantations and tender southern belles may still appeal to some, but they no longer dictate the parameters of southern pasts, futures, and identities. Regardless of class, race, or education, new generations will expand the notion of what is southern and push us toward new truths that may help bind us together rather than tear us apart. Inside or outside, we are all bound to this region. And all of us deserve a place that feels like home.
This essay opened the Inside/Outside Issue (vol. 25, no. 2: Summer 2019), also guest edited by William Sturkey.
WILLIAM STURKEY is an assistant professor of history at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where he specializes in race in the modern American South. His books include a co-edited document collection, To Write in the Light of Freedom, and Hattiesburg: An American City in Black and White.