Reading Stephen M. Monroe’s “Heritage and Hate”

With a dark red cover featuring the words Heritage and Hate in large san-serif font, it would be hard to ignore Stephen M. Monroe’s new book, which was published by the University of Alabama Press earlier this year. Behind that cover, its subject matter partakes in the legacy of debates and controversies over Southern history, the particular meanings of some symbols and gestures, and the continued uses of those symbols and gestures. Focusing on the concept of “confederate rhetoric,” Monroe explores its underpinning history alongside a handful of fairly recently events at the University of Mississippi (Ole Miss) and the University of Missouri, as well as alluding to universities in Alabama, Georgia, Tennessee, and other states.

At the very beginning of his “Preface,” Monroe immediately caught my attention, as the editor of a project focused on beliefs, myths and narratives, with this: “If we actually take time to trace things as they circulate and enter into various relationships, we can come to discover that many things are unpredictably active and still on the rhetorical move.” Exactly, I thought, and continued on. His early remarks – that he is dealing with not isolated incidents but a “blaring and ongoing rhetorical event” and that he is acknowledging the current scholarly consensus that “there is no single ‘South'” – lay the groundwork for what will be covered in more detail later. And here’s why that matters, he tells us: the Lost Cause is not dead, most Southern universities are predominantly white, and ideas about tradition and identity are deeply entrenched in those universities. 

Next, the “Introduction” brings the ideas into fuller focus. Monroe acknowledges, “Confederate rhetoric was (and is) less disruptive than terroristic approached [like lynching] because it has been incorporated seamlessly into daily life.” These beliefs and narratives become myths, which are assumed to be true because “everyone” [quotes mine] repeats them. And though the use of rhetoric is not openly violent, it is antagonistic. In the next paragraph, he continues, “Words and symbols have always been reliable tools for enforcing control, but during times of incursion, words and symbols become even more valuable and effective to the controlling majority.” Times of incursion, like the Civil Rights and post-Civil Rights eras. What becomes difficult for the (white) majority then is reconsidering what has long been assumed to be true and correct, i.e. tradition, heritage. Ultimately, Monroe writes, students at Southern universities attend these institutions assuming that they are there to “prepare for leadership and to perpetuate conformity.” The problem is that not all students have the same opportunities within that expectation of conformity.

A professor at the University of Mississippi himself, Monroe takes “Ole Miss” as his predominant focus, devoting three of his seven chapters to it.  Chapter one discusses the Confederate history of “Ole Miss,” a moniker that he explains has roots in the Old South and slavery. Chapter two delves into the “Hotty Toddy” cheer and one situation in particular when it was weaponized during racial tensions. And chapter four returns to Oxford to explore “obfuscation” within the university’s culture. The university was, of course, the site of a terrible race riot in 1962 when James Meredith enrolled as the school’s first black student. Since then, there have been other incidents, though none quite as infamous. Monroe gets into various features of the culture there in the years since, including tensions in 2012 in the aftermath of Barack Obama’s re-election, the legacy of an African-American man called Blind Jim, and the presence of Ku Klux Klan imagery in old yearbooks.

Other aspects of Monroe’s discussion in Heritage and Hate leave Oxford and spend some time on other campuses. The third chapter analyzes an episode in 2015 at the University of Missouri when black protestors at the homecoming parade were shouted down with “M-I-Z-Z-O-U.” Monroe takes this response to be a white defense of the university against black interlopers. Part of the sixth chapter tells the story of Stephen D. Lee, the founder of Mississippi State University, who had ties to the Old South.  A bust of Lee on the campus serves as an example, in plain sight, of commemorating and celebrating the antebellum past. 

One thing that I noticed quickly about Monroe’s work was that he was not only parsing his subject in the traditional academic sense, but that he was also making overt assertions about what his conclusions could mean in wider Southern society. In Heritage and Hate, he writes as an academic but also like an activist, using forceful statements about what “should” or “must” occur to change (or improve) (or resolve) racial tensions in Southern culture, specifically within our universities. Monroe makes no bones about his aims in dissecting the episodes he has chosen: he wants to see racism called out and taken to task by administrators, faculty, and students who are willing to confront racist acts and speech as unacceptable. 

Before you think, Well, that sounds simple enough .  .  . other facets of the situation have to be acknowledged, and Monroe does. Some people still embrace racist beliefs and don’t want racist behavior to be unacceptable. Other people believe that racism is a thing of the past, which negates, for them, any need to confront it. Others still remain inexplicably silent when racial tension arises. Finally, we have leaders who attempt to walk a line between protecting tradition and embracing change, and thus attempt to appease all parties. Throughout the book, Monroe addresses the complexities of these varying attitudes and approaches, and how some of them cause, lead to, or enable racist behaviors and racial tensions.

In thinking about beliefs, myths, and narratives in Southern culture, these arguments and the author’s evidence present a distinct portrait of how social and psychological machinations work in the real world. All one has to do is look at the founding dates of most Southern universities and see a year prior to the Civil War to know something of the institutions’ histories. Moreover, even a scant understanding of the Civil Rights movement would allow a person to know about historical issues related to school integration and unequal opportunities. But these obvious kinds of common knowledge don’t lead to a common understanding. Monroe reminds his reader early that “it is taboo to question these foundational traditions,” then in the “Epilogue,” he also mentions this: “Some Southerners dismiss confederate rhetoric as an outdated concern” and as “inactive relics of history that can do no harm.”  Because there is not one South, we find that the dispute over meaning continues.  

Though I didn’t agree with everything in his book, the author and I do see one issue in similar terms: many people who buy into and utilize myths have not given significant consideration to their own beliefs and often refuse to be self-critical, so when they are faced with challenges to their deeply held beliefs, they are appalled, defensive, and often reactionary.  If I understand Monroe’s point in this book, it is that more of us should be self-critical. About that, I agree. Because, if we did, the situation could change for the better.

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