Fun “Dreaming of Dixie”
When my mentor, Dr. Karen Cox asked me to introduce her at the Levine Museum, I had no problem agreeing to it. For everything that she has done for me, it was the very least I could do. I honestly could not think of something to write down. How do you write an introduction for someone who has helped you develop as a student and a professional? So I winged it. Apparently it was good. I am glad. But what I did not expect was for the Chancellor of UNC Charlotte to be in attendance, the Dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences and a host of others. That made things a tad shakey mc shakey nerves. But I made it through and really enjoyed the talk as well as the discussion that took place, got my mind racing and thinking about if times have changed.
Karen L. Cox’s book, Dreaming of Dixie: How the South Was Created in American Popular Culture takes a look at the perception of the South following the end of the Civil War/into the Reconstruction Era. What I got out of this is that the Lost Cause may have been lost in practice, but the theory survived well into the Civil Rights Era. Most scholars, academics and those interesed in history will say, “duh,” but I think the one thing that has been missed, is that there is a sense of agency suggesting that those who are being mocked with these Southern stereotypes eventually took matters into their own hands to make a few dollars as this crazy idea of the South was being perpetuated and promoted.
Make no mistake about it, the bigotry, racism and just all in all ignorance that these stereotypes breed are horrible. Nothing was more telling than when a Dr. Cox presented a slide during the lecture that showed in color the advertisements used for “Coon Songs”. The image of a black face with big red lips and wide eyes made many in the room gasp loudly. Part of me wanted to say, “really? Ya’ll didn’t know those images were real?” but then I realized that we live in a day and age where folks don’t think racism really exists so the gasp wasn’t all that shocking anymore. But what I thought was interesting while reading the book was that as visitors were coming down South to “step back in time”, Southerners were playing along as well, understanding that they provided some sort of alternate reality and someone was willing to pay for it so why not? Now I expected this from the Southern Belles with their hoop skirts and massive plantation homes, but what made me chuckle was and cringe at the same time was the fact that there were African Americans who capitalized as best they could on the ignorant visitors by playing along. The old woman who could tell you about the slavery days, but would only do so at the prompting of money…the white tourists not only bought into instances like that, they ate it up!! The very group these tourists deemed unintelligent and childlike were the same ones who decided, if you’re going to pay for it, I might as well get paid. It’s like…they took advantage of the situation, but at what cost? Likewise with the “Coon Songs”, Dr. Cox points out that some of then were written and performed by African Americans, like Paul Laurence Dunbar, who knew these songs were horrible, and did nothing to move the society forward, but in order to get ahead, hard choices had to be made. And then it made me think about how that relates to society today, and the perception that the South still holds on to…an ignorant and backwards region …to make a buck. Look at the reality shows, look at how people still talk about those “old timey days” and some even reflect fondly about how life “used to be”. Look at the people who are participating on shows like “Swamp People”, you know there is a group of people who think that’s how everybody in Louisiana does exactly what they do, so why not make a dollar, or a couple thousand?
What I really think got a lot of the room thinking though was the discussion of one Aunt Jemima. While the story of how Ms. Jemima was a product of an advertising agency based on the “Mammy” stereotype was shared with the group, there was an older gentlemen who stated that Ms. Jemima was a real person. To give this man credit, I think he saw Aunt Jemima as a composite of many black women he knew in his lifetime. I give him that credit because he did list a few of his family friends’ maids that reminded him of the pancake icon. As the mood in the room shifted from a variety of feelings mainly, shock, discomfort and disbelief, I realized that there are many who are still out there “Dreaming of Dixie” and wondering when those good ol’ days of darkies picking cotton, cooking meals and knowing their station in life while Southern Belles entertain gentlemen callers on the porch amidst a mint julep or two, will return. For those who don’t believe that the legacy of slavery still exists or that we should still get over it and not discuss it, think about this. Slavery was not just about whites owning black people and looking at them as less than human. It was not just a business model of capitalism and inhumanity, it was something that created a mindset, and ideals regarding how people should be viewed. That mindset and those ideals are what we are still fighting today. Not seeking out the truth and having honest conversations about slavery and what it’s done is how these stereotypes about the Old South, and its people are still floating around in today’s pop culture. Minstrel shows may not exist in the form from the early 1900s, but they’re still out there. I think those of us who are still awake, should really help out those who are still “dreaming of Dixie”.