Panic in the South

The Crucible of Race: Black–White Relations in the American South Since Emancipation

by Joel Williamson
Oxford University Press, 561 pp., $25.00

When Henry Ford made his famous pronouncement that “history is bunk,” he spoke for many Americans. Compared with the citizens of most other countries, Americans have been little inclined to dwell on the triumphs or tragedies of the past or to recognize that contemporary problems and concerns may have roots extending far backward in time. But Ford’s off-handedness about history has been less common among southerners than among others. A heavy legacy of slavery, secession, military defeat, racial violence, legalized segregation, and wide-spread poverty has set the South apart—or did so until recent historical trends narrowed the economic divisions between the sections and revealed that racial injustice and conflict were national, and not just southern, problems.

To a considerable extent the intellectual and literary history of the South in the twentieth century has taken the form of a confrontation with this complex and peculiar historical experience. In the writings of Ellen Glasgow, William Faulkner, Allen Tate, Robert Penn Warren, and William Styron, the past often functions as a palpable weight on the present—a kind of ancestral curse or collective trauma that must be probed to its depths if self-awareness or expiation is to be achieved. The notion that the intellectual is not a free spirit or detached observer but shares the fate of his “folk”and responsibility for their sins has given modern southern literature much of its agonized intensity.

The best nonfiction that white southerners have written about the South shares this tendency to view history in a direct and personal way. Wilbur J. Cash’s masterpiece of cultural intuition, The Mind of the South, is the most famous and influential of a vast number of books written by journalists and essayists on the general theme of how the contemporary South is rooted in its peculiar past. For these southerners in search of their identity, purely historical events and personages could take on the vividness and emotional power of personal recollections.

Professional historians are supposed to be more detached, objective, and restricted in scope and subject matter than novelists and social critics, but the best southern historical writing has gained more than it has lost from a deep moral and philosophical preoccupation with the meaning of the southern experience. The usual tendency, as in the work of C. Vann Woodward and David Potter, has been to save the boldest reflections on “southern identity” or “the nature of Southernism” for addresses and essays, while apparently concentrating on more limited, conventionally historical questions in their books.

Joel Williamson’s The Crucible of Race is a remarkable mixture of careful, empirically based historical work and free-wheeling cultural commentary in the vein of W.J. Cash and other imaginative writers on the southern psyche. Williamson, a professor of history at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, is a white southerner. More than most of his predecessors in the great tradition of southern self-examination, Williamson has a thoroughly biracial view of the region’s history and strongly empathizes with …

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