Consider the following sentences:
“…learning absorbed the lives of southern youth prior to the Civil War in substantial ways.”
“A belief in Manifest Destiny cut across partisan and sectional lines…Southerners as well as Northerners expressed it.”
“The states rights reaction came after several decades of loose construction on the part of southerners concerning slavery in the territories.”
“Most Southerners saw the election [of 1860] as a catastrophe.”
Each of them is drawn from an essay or textbook, a batch of sources united only by the fact that I have personally been reading them in the last twenty-four hours. Know what else they have in common? They represent something historians of this period do ALL THE TIME, an implicit and unthinking elision that I argue does more damage than we ever realize.
It’s immediately clear when you notice. All of the uses of “southerner” in the above sentences are specific references to white southerners. Black southerners, whether free or enslaved, were not so fortunate to have their lives absorbed in learning (notable cases like Frederick Douglass are the exceptions that prove the rule). Black southerners were not in the front ranks of Manifest Destiny’s advocates, nor did they turn to a states’ rights interpretation of the Constitution in the wake of the 1820 Missouri Compromise. And I would bet that most black southerners saw Lincoln’s election as something other than the “catastrophe” Yet, when historians-and by extension, much of the general public-discuss the sectional divide as well as the Civil War and Reconstruction eras, they overwhelmingly deploy the identifier “southern” in the “we-really-mean-white-people-but-you-already-know-that” sense of the term. And don’t we do this when we teach US History as well? “Southerners seceded because of Lincoln’s election and the threat it posed to slavery.” “Southerners rejected the aims of the abolitionist movement, since they threatened the basic principles that defined their society.” Well, again, this is true for many white southerners; for black southerners, not so much.
So what’s the point? We all know this; no historian would seriously argue that African Americans in the South wouldn’t sympathize with abolitionism. It’s implied. It’s shorthand. It’s the price we pay for using general descriptors. It saves us from awkward prose and cluttered word counts. Automatically adding the modifier “white” would just sound awkward and weird. We know, and our audience knows, that there are limits to the label “southerner,” and they can glean that from the context, right?
As historians, when we write, we make choices all the time. Our topic is a choice, an implicit statement that “this thing I am about to tell you about is important, is significant, is worth knowing about.” We choose certain words in our prose to convey specific shades of meaning. We order our information and ideas in an intentional way to construct a narrative, an argument, an interpretation. Many of these choices are consciously-made: “hegemony” conveys something that “prevalence” doesn’t. But many more of them are so unconscious as to be automatic. And for the period and area in which I am immersed, the nineteenth-century US, “southerner” in the overly expansive sense is probably the most common example of this implicit act of deciding.
Implicit or explicit, consciously- or unconsciously-made, this decision has enormous consequences, not least among which is further embedding the structures of white privilege in both academia and larger society. The decision (and ultimately, that’s what it is: making a choice) to use “Southerner” in this overly-general sense is not only sloppy history, it’s downright insidious. It’s far more than merely a stylistic, aw-c’mon-you-know-what-I-mean time saving device. It’s literally writing black people out of History.
I can hear the protests now: C’mon, man, that seems a bit much. That’s not what these historians are doing at all. You make them sound like Oklahoma’s US History curriculum. One one level, that is true. None of the historians I quoted above mean to do anything of the sort. And there is good scholarship all over the place, from textbooks to specialized articles and monographs, that uses “southerner” in the sense I’m arguing against here. BUT…in the most literal sense of the term, they have indeed written people out of their histories. There’s really no two ways about it. Some of us recognize this; I’ve seen several monographs on the antebellum South that declare in their front matter that in that study, “southerner” refers to white southerners except where otherwise indicated. And textbooks have gotten much better over the last few years in their use of more specific and accurate identifiers. But these episodes of awareness, while proving the existence of the larger problem, have not yet become standard practice.
If you were in front of a classroom full of students, some of whom were African Americans, and in the middle of your description of the secession crisis, you turned to one of those black students and said “for the next five minutes, I’m talking about white people only–y’all didn’t do anything that mattered here,” what would happen? Did that example make you cringe? Then so should the use of “southerner” where the context really means “white southerner.” It’s the SAME DAMN THING. It is a norming of whiteness, with other categories thus becoming abnormal. Why would we only use a modifier for “southerner” when that modifier is “black,” if white isn’t the “norm?” Yes, whites were the southern majority-but it wasn’t as if black southerners were some statistically-insignificant clutch of people only lightly scattered throughout the region. Yes, whites held the lion’s share of political power in the South-but not all of it, and certainly not in the arena of “informal” politics and everyday forms of resistance.
Therefore, to use “southerner” when one really means “white southerner” is to elide significant parts of historical reality. It is to implicitly norm whiteness, and thus reinforce the privileges whiteness already enjoys. It is to participate in a process that places whites in the category of “things that matter” and everyone else in the box of mismatched clutter that we then label “other.” When we hear xenophobic politicians and racist demagogues demand that “we” take “our country” back, we hear the fruits of that process. When we hear accusations that our president is not-cannot be-“American,” because he’s “not like us,” we reap the consequences of our seemingly-benign choices and linguistic elisions.
Words matter. Language matters.
It strikes me as odd that historians who, for example, would raise holy hell if I gave the wrong caliber for field artillery pieces at Fredericksburg would let me slide if I said “southerner” when the situation really called for “white southerner.” As historians, we cannot selectively demand precision in our scholarship. Nor, I believe, do we mean to do so. Yet, in practice, we have done exactly that. We have unthinkingly employed overly-generalized terms to distort the historical record. And we haven’t really reflected on that practice, or called ourselves out on it as we might have in any number of other instances of sloppy scholarship.
So let’s see this issue for what it really is. It’s not just a pet-peeve, the product of some pedant’s grumpy axe-grinding, but a very real problem disguised as an innocuous linguistic choice. And let’s do better.