Etymology

I am among rebels! They are only overcome and not subdued. In Spirit, language, conduct, feeling, in all essential things they are rebels as truly today as when the Arch-traitor Jeff Davis was on the throne of their bogus Confederacy. Their names for all Northerners are "Northern Infidels," "Mercenary Vandals," "Scum of the earth," etc. etc. They are Bombastic, ignorant, lazy & defiant, and the women are the very personification of His Satanic Majesty ....

-- Music teacher from Massachusetts at the University of the South in Sewanee, Tenn., 1869.

A recent "New York Times" book review section ran a review of T.R. Pearson's latest novelistic journey down South to take his readers "inside the otherwise lackluster skulls of hillbillies and white trash" [reviewer's description].

Along about a third of the way through this generally glowing write-up, the reviewer opens a paragraph by noting, "Rednecks may compose the last minority that is still fair game for insult from almost any quarter." But he doesn't pick up this thread, and instead returns to the book's praise. You can almost hear the pause, the glimmer of doubt, and the "but who cares?" before he plunges on.

I have met many real Southern people, living in real places, dealing with the complex work of building up true multi-racial communities where no race feels excluded. I have seen them often and eloquently acknowledging the stain on their region's past, even as they assert their right to feel pride in that place, both past and present.

And I have seen many non-Southerners who gloss right over the fact that slavery, racism, and segregation were national experiences. Nothing done outside the South really counts as racism to them since, well, it wasn't the South.

A lot of Freedom-Rider wanna-bes who missed the bus in 1965 come looking for some redneck racists to bait, so they can go home and sit back in the easy chair in the comfortable suburban neighborhood up North where there's not a black face for 10 miles, and feel like heroes.

I ask them, "What have you done in your community?"

I have heard voices of a New South -- intelligent, articulate, involved in community, aware of the past but with faces turned toward the future. They were born since 1970. Civil Rights for them is history as much as Civil War. They've grown up in desegregated schools, fed from lunch counters where all were welcome, ridden buses with no preference except who gets there first and courtesy.

Warriors fought so that such a generation could exist in this land. Those who fought the good fight from 1955 to 1965 -- and before, and beyond -- made this possible. The NAACP made this possible. And part of knowing how to fight is knowing when you've won. It's knowing when to stop. These are not children. They're adults, ready to take their turns at the tiller of their communities, states, and nation. They can be proud of what their home is without lying about what it was. In that, they are ahead of most of the rest of America.

They will likely be here to see the 200th anniversary of our Civil War, and the 100th of our Civil Rights movement. Ignore them at your peril. They will write your epitaphs.

I have lived most of my 40 years within an hour's easy bike ride of the Mason-Dixon Line. That mark on the map is so much the seam between the two cultures of America, in the popular mind, that it apparently gave a name to one of them -- Dixie.

If the actual cleavage, when it came in 1861, was along a muddy river a few hundred miles south of this line, the credit goes to a crafty Maryland governor who called in a federal coup on his own state before his enthusiastic secessionist legislature could meet to join the rebellion. Still, Baltimore stoned the boys in blue when they marched through, and cut the telegraph wires to the capital and sent far more sons south into the gray regiments, where they fought far better under the stars and bars than those who enlisted under the stars and stripes.

And Maryland was a slave state (delicately relabeled a "border state" in the rhetoric of the Civil War). Maryland is Dixie. But I've always lived on the Mason side of that line, among the spacious barns built by the Hicksite Quakers and the Pennsylvania Germans. I've lived and worked in Lancaster and Chester counties, and spent thousands of hours in their archives and historical societies and newspaper morgues, poring over the evidences of their past. I've written three books and numerous journal articles, and discovered a few facts about American history that were otherwise unknown.

I've also talked to the people who live there now, and collected their stories, visited their villages and watched them grapple with challenges. I can claim to write with some authority on this little corner of the American experiment.

I remember reading Mason's and Dixon's journals, the account left by the two London astronomers on their great camping jaunt into the wilderness to make a marvel: a line across the face of the earth longer and straighter than anything a human being had ever done. They carved it right through the forest, felling the trees and clearing the brush on either side and planting granite boundary stones every five miles, marked with the coat of arms of the Penns on one side and that of the Calverts on the other. When they passed close enough to some tall hill, they would scale it to delight in the view of that white straight gash in the green, stretching unbroken and unbending to the horizon.

The markers, the few that haven't been stolen or buried, sit tangled in briers in the wood lots scattered among the farms that cover this territory now. Most are Amish farms now or rich folks' horse farms. And they look about the same on both sides of the line. Fair Hill could be Kemblesville. North East could be Oxford. A hamlet called Lewisville literally straddles the line. So does Sylmar, as its name suggests (PennSYLvania + MARyland). Not until I drive three hours down the Eastern Shore does the landscape start to feel different.

And in the old antebellum censuses that I've studies, the big sheets from 1850 and 1860 with the names lettered in script in ink faded brown, the same family names occur on both sides of the line.

People lament the lack of manners and of personal and social responsibility in America, but they tend to forget that those values went down with the old South, along with distinctive local cultures (except the ones that can be packaged and sold), because there's no progress or profit in any of those things.

That's one reason why, in the 1880s and '90s, at the height of the Gilded Age, the entire nation was wrapped up in nostalgia for the Old South. How ironic that the reflexive desire for old values that had been thrown over made up an essential element -- from minstrel shows to Joel Chandler Harris to Aunt Jemima to "Gone With the Wind" (the movie, not the book) -- of the emerging mass consumer culture.

Some people, otherwise sympathetic, object to ascribing "social responsibility" to the Old South. Yet it is there, as part of the aristocratic code that the South believed itself to be following. That is, it was part of a deliberately cultivated set of values among the ruling class. How well it was achieved varied from individual to individual. But on the whole it was a stronger vein in the regional culture of the South than of New England and the North.

Personal and social responsibility don't spring naturally from hardscrabble farmers, industrial workers, or striving mercantile capitalists. A coal miner doesn't want to be a philanthropist. He wants to be a shopkeeper, because he thinks shopkeepers don't have to work. In our fixation with "democracy," we dismiss the ante-bellum Southern sense of noblesse oblige because it springs from that dirtiest of words, "aristocracy." Old South values are often written off with the sneering label "paternalism." Yet this was bound up in the aristocratic aspirations of the Southern gentry, and it was very deliberately cultivated among them.

The founders never meant America to be a pure democracy; they would have been horrified by that idea. We were to be a mixed government, balancing regional economies, balancing central and local powers, balancing class interests. Men like Jefferson, Washington, and Madison felt deeply -- and personally -- the obligation of a wealthy landed gentry toward personal and social responsibility, both for the sake of the nation and as an example to others.

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