Southern History A Burden to South, Benefit to American Image of Identity

March 20, 2002

Los Angeles, Calif. -- The South not only bears the burden of a negative history, but also serves as a foil for the aspiration and image of the American identity, according to a Penn State geographer.

"The South as a geographic idea -- the identity of the South -- typically stands for a set of negative characteristics," says David R. Jansson, graduate student in geography.

These characteristics include racism, violence, poverty and xenophobia.  While those outside the South embrace these attributes for the South, the Southern population also adopts this image as its own burden to bear.  While there is some truth to this Southern characterization, the rest of America has perhaps perpetrated it more as a way to establish an American identity.

"American national identity is created in part through representing the South as the exclusive location in the U.S. of this set of negative characteristics," Jansson told attendees at the 98th Annual Meeting of the Association of American Geographers in Los Angeles today (March 20).  "By representing the South as backward, racist, violent, intolerant and poor, America comes to know itself as progressive, enlightened, peaceful, tolerant and prosperous."

He adds that when an incidence of racism occurs in the North, it is viewed as an aberration, something outside the normal.  However, if that same act occurred in a Southern state, it would be no more than the expected status quo.  Racism and poverty are not what America is, but it is what the South is perceived to be, according to the Penn State researcher.

Part of this dichotomy occurred when historians wrote slavery out of the history of the North.  Once slavery was banned outside the Southern states, it was no longer an element of the Northern psyche.  Historians erased Black Northerners from the history books along with the Northern slaves, Jansson says.

"The standard history of American slavery taught in the schools ignores the reliance of the North on Southern slavery," says Jansson.  "Thus while the South is burdened with its history, the national story of America is one of steady progress and triumph."

The burden of Southern history is not necessarily a bad thing for the South, as it puts the population on notice that people can do bad things and that historically bad things happened.  Unfortunately for the rest of America, when such things as poverty, racism and intolerance are deemed to occur in the South and not the rest of the country, it makes the American public less able to see what is going on in their own backyard, says the Penn State researcher.

"When we spatialize human flaws by claiming that things like racism and poverty are inherently Southern, we erase these problems form the national identity, impairing our ability to recognize their existence outside the South," Jansson says.  "Racism and poverty exist everywhere in the U.S., and if we blind ourselves to this reality by assuming these are Southern problems, we help perpetuate injustice rather than stamp it out."

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Contacts:
A'ndrea Elyse Messer (814) 865-9481  aem1@psu.edu
Vicki Fong (814) 865-9481  vfong@psu.edu
EDITOR: Mr. Jansson is at 814-235-7673 or at djansson@psu.edu by email.