I speak and write uneasily on the Southern (conservative) tradition, an unpopular subject that has been gnawing at me for more than three decades. I am a native New Yorker who was born and raised in New York City and who has spent almost all except the last eight of his sixty-three years as a resident of New York State. My pretensions to being a Southerner – for, alas, pretensions are all they are – rest on my having become fascinated with Southern history while an undergraduate at Brooklyn College and on having settled my heart in Dixie soon thereafter. Certainly, I am devoted to the sentiment expressed in the bumper sticker: “Get your heart in Dixie or get your ass out!” There are a great many reasons for Southern partisanship, the most important of which arose from my early recognition that the people of the South, across lines of race, class, and sex, and as generous, gracious, courteous, decent – in a word, civilized – as any people it has have been my privilege to get to know. And yes, I know that I am open to the charge made against all converts of being plus royaliste que le roi, plus catholique que le Pape.Eugene D. Genovese, The Southern Tradition: the Achievement and Limitations of an American Conservatism (Harvard University Press, 1996), pp. ix-xiii.
…I am alarmed at the “modernization” that is transforming the South. Doubtless, the transformation has much to recommend it, especially with respect to long overdue if incomplete justice for black people. But I increasingly suspect that its desirable features are coming at a price Northerners as well as Southerners, blacks as well as whites, will rue having to pay and need not pay. That price includes a neglect of, or contempt for, the history of Southern whites, without which some of the more distinct and noble features of American national life must remain incomprehensible.
The Northern victory of 1865 silenced a discretely Southern interpretation of American history and national identity, and it promoted a contemptuous dismissal of all things Southern as nasty, racist, immoral, and intellectually inferior. The Northern victory did carry out a much too belated abolition of slavery. But it also sanctified Northern institutions and intentions, which included the unfettered expansion of a bourgeois world view and the suppression of alternate visions of social order. In consequence, from that day to this, the Southern-conservative critique of modern gnosticism has been wrongly equated with racism and white supremacy.
Rarely these days, even on Southern campuses, is it possible to acknowledge the achievements of the white people of the South. The history of the Old South is now often taught at leading universities, when it is taught at all, as a prolonged guilt-trip, not to say a prologue to the history of Nazi Germany. Courses on the history of the
modern South ignore an array of movements and individuals, including the Fugitive poets, the Agrarians, Richard Weaver, and such intellectually impressive successors as the late M.E. Bradford and those engaged in today’s political and ideological wars. These nonpersons have nevertheless constituted a movement that, by any reasonable standard, ought to be acknowledged for its outstanding contributions to American social, political, and cultural thought.
To speak positively about any part of this Southern tradition is to invite charges of being a racist and an apologist for slavery and segregation. We are witnessing a cultural and political atrocity – an increasingly successful campaign by the media and an academic elite to strip young white Southerners, and arguably black Southerners as well, of their heritage, and, therefore, their identity. They are being taught to forget their forebears or to remember them with shame. …It is one thing to silence people, another to convince them. And to silence them on matters central to their self-respect and dignity is to play a dangerous game – to build up in them harsh resentments that, sooner or later, are likely to explode and bring out their worst.
Recall that great speech by Martin Luther King in which he evoked a vision of the descendants of slaves and of slaveholders, sitting together on the hills of Georgia as Southern brothers. …Black Americans have good reason to protest vehemently against the disgraceful way in which their history has been taught or, worse, ignored, and to demand a record of the nobility and heroism of the black struggle for freedom and justice. But that record dare not include the falsification or obliteration of the noble and heroic features of the white South. To teach the one without the other is to invite deepening racial animosity and murderous conflict, not merely or even primarily in the South but in the North. For it is worth noting that our most vicious urban explosions are occurring in the “progressive” North and on the West Coast, not in the “bigoted” and “reactionary” South.
It is one thing to demand – and it must be demanded – that white Southerners repudiate white supremacy. It is quite another to demand that they deny the achievements of their own people in a no less heroic struggle to build a civilization in a wilderness and to create the modern world’s first great republic – to demand that they repent in sackcloth and ashes not only for undeniable enormities, but for the finest and most generous features of Southern life.