Though the idea for this project only came to me in recent years, the experience that prompted me to consider how beliefs, myths, and narratives drive Southern culture came about fifteen years back. I was in my early 30s and was involved in a Civil Rights history project at a time, in the early 21st century, when commemoration efforts were ramping up. For the project that yielded this experience, we were interviewing a plethora of people to gather stories about what happened in the South during that time of massive change.
Among the interview subjects was one older white man who had had firsthand dealings with the movement. As he spoke about the realities on the ground, as he saw them, he reminded us to be careful about judging people who had been taught since early childhood that the mixing of the races would bringing about the end of Western civilization. His comment raised my eyebrows, since rarely during this kind of work did I hear anyone make a move to defend Jim Crow-era whites. Having been born after the movement was over, I was not in a position to question what he had seen and experienced firsthand, but I’ve also never forgotten it.
What the man did with that comment was complex. To underpin a defense of white Southerners who either participated in or were bystanders to Jim Crow segregation, he used a narrative of who they were, and he used a companion narrative to underpin a way that he wanted that main narrative to be interpreted. And it all fit into one sentence that was simply constructed and used no difficult words.
His main narrative told us that the white culture that had created, embodied, and supported Jim Crow segregation was propped up by an apocalyptic fear of complete societal collapse. After all, who could endorse the downfall of everything he knows and understands, or even be willing to take the first steps toward inciting it? The end of Western civilization is an unappealing thing to consider, and I assume that most pre-Civil Rights white Southerners did consider it unappealing. My assumption is supported both by segregationist politicians’ speeches from the 1950s and ’60s and the vote tallies in those elections. The narrative, built on a myth, said that integration could never be allowed, and the elections results said that most white Southern voters believed that was true.
But it’s that other narrative in his complex remark that brought the first narrative out of the past and into the present. Be careful (today) about judging people who . . . bought into this other narrative (from yesterday). Here, we have a second narrative, this one from post-Civil Rights culture, that says that, looking back, it wasn’t their fault, and thus, they shouldn’t be blamed in the aftermath. The old mythology, which was their folklore spread through word of mouth among communities, said that the people fighting for change and equality were bad and wrong; they were agitators and antagonists, who didn’t understand what was right and whose only goal was to cause trouble. A thinking man would ask, how was this narrative spread? The same way that all folklore is, through people they knew and trusted: family, teachers, neighbors, preachers, friends. And that’s how beliefs, myths, and narratives drive a culture.
However, by the late 20th century, an examination of this history was forging a new narrative, which would be supported in the 21st century by museums, curricula, documentaries, digital archives, historical markers, public art, oral history collections, and other resources. A new folklore would also emerge. It would be based on a completely different idea, that the movement was a righteous cause, and it would include the voices of those previously silenced. What it would not include is a defense of white supremacy.
Playing my own small role in historical projects and commemoration events, I’ve watched the new narrative take shape over the past two decades. Narratives are like water – they are never at rest, and they take the shape of the vessel – and this new one has taken shape in the vessel of the 21st century, when witnesses to actual events are elderly or have passed away, leaving the old narrative to remain as a relic.
However, no societal narrative is ever fully cohesive or all-encompassing. The dimensions of its formation are almost like what we see in the movie Inception, where every time we go down another level . . . there’s another level. In the South, these dimensions also relate to the old Quentin Compson quote: “The past is not dead; it’s not even past.” The beliefs, myths, and narratives layer through time like the overlapping shingles on a roof, allowing for steady historical flow while some of the substance evaporates in misty heat.
I’m pleased to note that the segregationist narrative was clearly wrong: the end of Western civilization didn’t come. Though our society is still not fully integrated, and though the vision of equality described by Martin Luther King, Jr. has not been achieved, many of the legal impediments to an integrated America have been removed. And in that battle over the remaining bastions of inequality, narratives and myths are among the prime weapons. We make our choices based on what we believe to be true, and the social and political forces that want our support know that, so the mythmaking continues. This is the basis of current arguments over whether to trust science or the media or the government. False narratives are harder to spread if people look primarily to what can be proven with documented evidence.
There’s also one more important aspect to this matter of narratives— the idea, “If you don’t tell your story, someone else will.” I believe that’s true. For centuries, European men and American men of European descent created the narratives about people of color, women, and LGBTQ+ people— who they were, what they thought about, what they were capable of, and what they shouldn’t be allowed to do. And the people affected by these narratives were largely powerless to combat them, because their own narratives of themselves were discounted, ignored, or silenced. In more recent years, these narratives have appeared, been discovered, been published and shared, and they show rich and vibrant histories that lived below the surface of mainstream culture for centuries.
The 21st century is a time for storytelling, for creating new narratives, debunking old myths, and asserting the importance of more accurate beliefs. That’s largely what we’re doing on social media, creating and endorsing myths and narratives with what we post and share. My hope is that the new narratives – modern Southern folklore – will be based on facts and evidence, and will not be in a position to need to be excused or forgiven in the future.