Southern “Heritage” Should be Gone — With the Wind!

I read Gone With the Wind as a teenager in the 1960s. At the time I read it, I was already a strong supporter of the Civil Rights Movement, having been raised to condemn the racism I saw around me every day.

Yet while I rejected slavery and the goals of the Confederacy depicted in the novel, my awareness of those issues did not keep me from reading it with some enjoyment at the time. I’ve never been sure why.

But this week, while dealing with my own rage and anguish at the murders in Charleston and reading a large number of well-reasoned essays by very smart people, I suddenly realized why I accepted that book at face value when I was young. The atmosphere in which I grew up romanticized the South and the Confederacy to such a degree that even though I knew while reading that slavery and Jim Crow were evils that needed to be eradicated, I accepted Margaret Mitchell’s romantic view as the status quo.

Living with such contradictions is inherent in growing up as a white liberal in the South.

The man who killed those nine people was apparently influenced by racist hate groups. But those hate groups are just the ugliest face of the “southern way of life” promoted by those who still insist on honoring the Confederacy. And if you grew up in one of the regions that promotes those attitudes, that erects statues to Confederate generals, that teaches the Civil War as “us” and “them,” that flies the Confederate flag on state government property, it’s easy to see that as normal even when you reject the political implications.

Rebecca Solnit began a Facebook post on the Charleston murders with the phrase, “If only the south had lost the war.” I hate to disagree with Solnit, of whom I am a serious fan, but the South did lose the war. What it didn’t lose was the peace.

Generations of southerners were raised in an atmosphere that not only oppressed Black people with violence and unfair laws, but also glorified a bunch of people who were traitors to their country. Right now at the University of Texas in Austin – Austin, the place in Texas that’s supposed to be different – there’s a campaign to remove a statue of Jefferson Davis from the campus.

Dear God, we should have done that when I was in school! But it never occurred to me back then, even as I was supporting Black political actions. It was a given: we honor those rebels, even those of us who know they did wrong.

That’s what I mean about winning the peace. It is accepted in the South to honor people who committed treason so they could continue owning other human beings, and it’s so accepted that even people who hate everything those people stood for don’t think about the implications of all those statues, all those holidays.

It’s why you get Texas governors making absurd statements – from Rick Perry suggesting Texas could secede (even while running for U.S. president and even though it would be treason to do so) to the current idiot occupying the post giving into the fear that federal military exercises in Texas (home of many U.S. military bases) were somehow a violation of “states’ rights.”

Those statements sound shocking outside of the South, but in the South – even if you didn’t vote for those people and disagree with every word they say, including “and” and “the” – you accept that kind of rhetoric.

The people of the South must stop pretending that the kind of southern heritage romanticized by Mitchell and kowtowed to by white politicians can be separated from slavery and racism. It can’t.

It’s time to move on.



Southern “Heritage” Should be Gone — With the Wind! — 26 Comments

      • Didn’t mean my different reaction as a criticism! I’m not sure why I read the book at all — maybe to see if the book and movie were different. (Not enough for me to like the book any more than the movie.)

        • I didn’t take it as criticism. Looking back on it, I’m surprised I didn’t hate the book back then. Maybe I thought hating Scarlett was enough. (I think I should look at that from a feminist pov, as I ponder all this today.)

  1. I can’t remember now who it was I saw characterize Reconstruction as the second phase of the Civil War, but it’s a good way of looking at it. And although the North won the first phase, it did not win the second.

    • Yes. I hadn’t thought of it quite this way before, perhaps in part because Reconstruction is portrayed as a great evil in the South. But I think it’s true, and probably explains why the white southern fight against the Civil Rights Movement and the legal changes passed in the Sixties was so violent and virulent.

  2. Hate is hate. I twitch whenever I see an Iron Cross or Swastika tattoo — my wife is Jewish.

  3. I only read GWTW when I was in high school, and I hated all the people in it, so it never had that effect on me.

    I was born in Indiana, in the late fifties. By the time I got to high school, any sympathy I might have for the “Lost Cause” was lost. It’s affected me so much I can’t even read mysteries in the South, because the “charming Southern belle” chokes me.

    • All the people in GWTW were awful, pretty much.

      I don’t think I can read anything set in that milieu either, unless it’s about Black people told from their point of view.

  4. I was talking to my son the Army officer about this, and he pointed out to me that nearly every active Army base in the south and west is named after a Confederate general. Fort Bragg, Fort Hood, Fort Lee, Fort A.P. Hill — look it up. I have no idea what they can possibly do about this. In mitigation, you have to seriously dig into history to figure out who the Bragg that Ft. Bragg is named after — snap question, you don’t know him, do you? Neither do I. So at this point maybe the name simply means the Army base, and this is not a high priority.
    And where I live (Virginia) is stiff with things named after Lee. Every tenth item, I would judge: subdivisions, stadiums, highways, schools, towns, even universities (Washington & Lee). There are also a heavy sprinkling of things named after Jefferson Davis, including the highway, and even Jeb Stuart, who has a high school named after him.

    • This is another one of those things I should have realized, but hadn’t quite. I mean, I probably knew that many of those bases were named for Confederate generals, but it didn’t strike me as out of the ordinary because of the general atmosphere.

      I’d argue for changing them now, even if most people don’t know the history, because it’s a useful way to bring the little things we just accept to the front. At the University of Texas a few years ago, there was a fight over renaming a dorm that had been named for a Confederate soldier and UT law professor who had co-founded the Florida branch of the Klan and advocated white supremacy. The dorm was renamed. I didn’t know this history when I was in law school and I doubt many students did, but the campaign to change things opened eyes.

  5. I spent some formative years in Maryland and Virginia. I came away convinced that the South never admitted losing the war. They just went underground waiting for the right time to strike back. Lee didn’t surrender his sword, he thought Grant was a blacksmith and wanted him to sharpen it. etc. etc. etc. etc.

    Balls and cotillions and dashing romantic heroes is what Mitchell was selling. Not the down and dirty everyday life of people without money and influence.

    • Yep. My great-great (give or take a few greats) uncles came home from the war and said if the Yankees wanted their guns they could come and get them. Which, of course, no one bothered to do.

  6. I loved Gone With the Wind, but because of Scarlett. How many books had a heroine like that? But I grew up in Southern California and it was like a story about an alien world. I’m with you Nancy. It is time to move on and say goodbye to such bloodshed, violence and false pride.

    • It really would be fascinating to do a feminist analysis of Scarlett. OTOH, she is ambitious and a survivor, but lives in a world in which women are not supposed to be anything but helpless. OTOH, her values are awful and she does believe the world revolves around her.

  7. I have this vague, hard-to-explain feeling that Scarlet (whether Mitchell meant her to be or not–I suspect not) is a metaphor for the South portrayed in the book. She’s a user, she’s callous to the suffering of the people she relies on, she’s all about appearances except when it suits her purpose. She’s a sociopath living in a sociopathic society.

    I find GWTW compellingly readable, but I knew early on when I read it that other than her determination to survive there was nothing admirable about Scarlet O’Hara.

        • In my experience, things are always sneaking on the page when writers aren’t looking. I love reading reviews of my story “Three O’Clock in the Morning” because they tell me what that story is really about. Most of them are better explanations of it than I can give.

  8. The weird thing is, I am convinced that Scarlett O’Hara is based on Becky Sharp of Vanity Fair. There are too many corresponding points for it to be coincidence. But I wonder if Mitchell read V.F. when really young, and missed the savage satire of silver fork novels that the book was intended to be.

    • You’re probably right. I’ve heard the Becky Sharp comparison before, but I must confess that I’ve never read Vanity Fair.

      However, I think there are a lot of women like Scarlett, especially in cultures that limit women’s lives to making good marriages.

  9. I agree about tearing down monuments to the Confederacy. What about building monuments for those who died at its hand?

    During the Civil War, the citizens of Wichita Falls, Texas, slaughtered a group of German settlers, evidently fearing that they would aid the Yankees if they attacked (they never did). Where is the monument and the message about the outcomes of bigotry? The South should be littered with memorial plaques memorializing lynching victims.

    • Excellent idea. The key is to change the culture. That’s an excellent way to start the process.

      We should also put up more statues to African American leaders. I suggest Wichita Falls put up a statue to Charlye Farris, the first Black woman licensed to practice law in Texas. It was her hometown and she practiced law there for many years.

      Not to put it all on poor Wichita Falls, but it has a lot of examples. I had to sue a nightclub there for refusing to admit Black people in the late 70s.

      • The whole issue of monuments and cemeteries is a separate can of worms. (Cemeteries, for instance, are controlled by a quite separate suite of laws; you cannot probably tinker with a dead person’s monument or tomb without permission of the next of kin.)
        I expect that all of this will take a long, long time. And therefore there is no point in getting the panties into a knot about it.