“Because I was born in the South, I am a Southerner. If I had been born in the North, the West, or the Central Plains, I would be just a human being.”
OK, let us admit that Mr. Edgerton exaggerates. Yet throughout the better part of the 20th century there was something approaching a consensus among historians that the American South possessed a distinctiveness lacking in other regions of the country. To be sure, there were naysayers, some finding the South distinctive only in its poverty, ignorance, and laggard economy. Others granted the distinction but located its source almost exclusively in the legacy of slavery and in the continuing efforts of Southerners to perpetuate a racially divided society. Among these, Harry Ashmore, in his An Epitaph for Dixie (1958), suggested that the only peculiarity about the South had been its Peculiar Institution, and that when segregation came to an end, so would Southern distinctiveness. Yet segregation is long since gone with the wind, and the South remains a peculiar place, though arguably less conspicuously so. Certainly, Southerners have begun to resemble other Americans in a number of ways that I, at least, find troubling. But much of this resemblance is superficial. The South remains a distinctive region for reasons that are complex, elusive, and not easily eradicated. Certainly, the legacy of slavery and segregation are factors, as is the inheritance of tragedy and guilt associated with that part of our history. Beyond these, Southerners are also bound together by a shared faith and by a fierce individualism rooted in an ideal of independence that resists the formation of a “mass” society, and which coexists with an acceptance of rank, as long as the forms of mutual respect are preserved.
Most importantly, though, Southern distinctiveness is rooted in its folk culture: its modes of speech; its rich cuisines and rites of conviviality; its varied and original musicality; its arts and crafts; its storytelling traditions; its passion for sport; its legends and superstitions; its humor; and its attitudes toward work and leisure. (For an exhaustive catalog, see The New Encyclopedia of Southern Culture, now four volumes long.) From the South Carolina Sea Islands to the Piney Woods of east Texas, these overlapping folk traditions thrive, and, despite many local variations and anomalies, they bind Southerners together into a unique people, regardless of race or class. Nor is Southern folk culture exclusively a product of the rural South. Charles Joyner, in his Shared Traditions (1999), insists that for the most part folk culture is portable, that it also thrives (and is sometimes transformed) in urban milieus. Moreover, the folk traditions of the South are virtually always biracial, transcending racial hatred and resentments. As more than one historian has noted, African slavery was a relatively late development in the North; when slaves arrived in places like New York or Pennsylvania, they entered long-established communities and had very little role in shaping the local cultures. Indeed, in the North, they were never more than ten percent of the slave population of colonial North America. In the South, slaves were among the earliest settlers. Blacks and whites in the South have always been fellow travelers, and have as often as not lived cheek by jowl.
Nowhere is the reality of African influence so forcefully illustrated as in the history of Charleston, where enslaved Africans arrived with their Barbadian masters in the 1670’s. Together they cleared the swamps, shared the perils of the Yemassee War, and harvested the first crop of Carolina Gold, creating the rice culture that would make Charleston one of the busiest and wealthiest ports in the New World. The children of the planters were nursed by African slaves, and the bonds of enduring affection they formed were real, if decidedly unequal. Those same children—especially the boys—shared in the play of enslaved children and, as they grew older, shared the blood rituals of the hunt and thrilled to the same fables and “haint” tales. Indeed, the folk culture that emerged in the Carolina Lowcountry was a unique blend of European and African practices. If the foodstuffs that graced the table of the “big house” were more plentiful than the fare consumed in the slave quarters, the recipes were often much the same, and often African in origin. (Think yams and hominy grits.) If black slaves brought with them indigenous musical styles, they also adopted European instruments like the fiddle (without which no Christmas feast on Lowcountry plantations would have been complete). Similarly, the Lowcountry dialect was a fusion of English, West African, and Caribbean speech; the Gullah of the slave population was distinct but not far removed from the common speech of the masters. Most importantly, perhaps, blacks and whites in Carolina shared a common piety, and if the black expression of that shared faith veered toward a more potent “enthusiasm,” it is also true that the plaintive hymns of the enslaved subtly shaped and informed the spiritual lives of the masters.
For all these reasons it was not surprising to Charlestonians, at least, that in the aftermath of the Emanuel AME shootings last June, this old city—long accustomed to flames and destruction—remained peaceful and united in the face of the horror wrought by a troubled young man named Dylann Roof. In Ferguson and Baltimore the streets erupted in a fury of barely contained violence after the deaths of black men at the hands of police. Here in the Holy City only two minor acts of vandalism against Confederate memorials marred what was otherwise a massive outpouring of sympathy and grief by Charlestonians from all walks of life, regardless of race. The Emanuel AME Church (better known locally as “Mother Emanuel”) was transformed virtually overnight into a shrine. The crowds flocking to the church to pay their respects were so large that the city sealed off several blocks of Calhoun Street for almost a week to accommodate the throngs. In churches all over the city black and white congregations attended vigils and prayer meetings for the victims and their families. Many thousands more joined the “Unity Chain” that stretched across the city’s most prominent bridge. It might be objected that things might have been different had the Charleston deaths been the result of police shootings. In fact, only two months earlier, in North Charleston, a black father of four children, Walter Scott, was killed by an officer in what was clearly an act of excessive force. No rioting resulted. Instead, when the ubiquitous Al Sharpton indicated that he might attend the funeral, Scott’s family firmly rejected the proposal, saying that they “didn’t want another Ferguson type of circus here.”
In its coverage of the aftermath of the Charleston shootings, the national media expressed admiration and surprise but made little attempt to find a cogent explanation for the city’s exemplary conduct. Perhaps the real reasons would not be pleasing to a largely secular intelligentsia that thinks of race relations—and, indeed, all human relations—almost entirely within a context of rights and reparations, pitting deracinated individuals and groups against one another in an endless struggle for power and recognition. Almost half a century ago, in The Lazy South (1967), David Bartleson stigmatized what he termed a degraded “southern ethic” that, in his view, “recognized no social obligation beyond the familial sphere.” Southerners, he claimed, clung to a “pervasive particularism” and had “a total inability to conceptualize social unity in terms other than personal relationships.” The oft-vaunted Southern flair for courtesy and hospitality he dismissed as “devices for minimizing social friction.” By contrast, Professor Bartleson upheld the Puritan example of community, for the Puritans, it seems, “thought of themselves as small societies before they established communities.” Real communities, he asserted, “are communities of consent and common goals.” Well, perhaps we are today in a better position to see that communities founded upon mere “consent” are rather fragile mental constructs lacking integrity or endurance. Our Savior’s parable of the Wise and Foolish Builders comes to mind. The Puritans, of course, were a formidable lot, but their successors leave something to be desired. Is it really necessary to argue that, for example, the “gay community” is a meaningless coinage? In what meaningful sense can ten million homosexual Americans, having nothing in common but the collective affirmation of the licit nature of their sexuality, be a “community”?
In Charleston, however, and in most of the South, it is still possible for individuals to speak to one another as “persons,” as men and women who are not finally defined by race, caste, sex, or sexual orientation but by a selfhood rooted in family and local community and, most importantly, by a mutuality made possible only by the awareness that each of us is the unique creation of a loving and forgiving God. Thus, the most important reason for Charleston’s unanimity in the aftermath of the Mother Emanuel shootings was the magnificent act of public forgiveness extended by the families of the nine victims. In an astounding act of moral generosity, the families set an example that will not soon be forgotten. Beyond that was the simple fact that Charlestonians, black and white, share a great deal that transcends race—a common faith and culture that allows us to talk to one another, that nourishes a level of trust and genuine tolerance difficult to find in many regions of the country. This is not to deny that racial divisions and animosities exist, but it is to assert that we deal with these in our own way, one that includes a good deal of humor and forbearance. I can readily concede that a “pervasive particularism” stripped of any mooring in transcendent reality will almost certainly result in suffocating moral self-enclosure. But as that wise Russian Nikolai Berdyaev noted some years ago, moral life must be “centered in the person and not in generalities. Personality is a higher value than the state, the nation, [or] mankind . . . ” It emerges out of the family, which is not simply a biological order but one of love and sacrifice, and finds its apotheosis not in some “bloodless and abstract spiritualism,” but in the particularity of a God Who is Himself three Persons, Who extended the ultimate act of forgiveness at a particular place and time, so that the scattered and degraded human flock might find a perfect and lasting unity.