Looking South

The Near Past
Tone and tension in writing about the modern South
Joseph Crespino, Assistant Professor of History

Exploring Southern Spaces: The new terrain of Emory's multi-media scholarly journal


Vol. 10 No. 3
December 2007/January 2008

Return to Contents

Prediction as the Cure
Gazing into the human body's crystal ball

The "engineers" in bioengineering

“I find it interesting that it’s incredibly difficult to define health without talking about a default position—you know you have health because you’re not sick.”

“There’s significant new ethical ground to be broken here. . . . We’re collecting a large amount of personal information. How do you protect it, who stores it, how do you store it, who has access to it?”

Defending basic science

Looking South Exploring Southern Spaces
The new terrain of Emory's multi-media scholarly journal

The Near Past
Tone and tension in writing about the modern South

Stories from the Frontlines
Or, How to survive co-authoring a book (with your spouse


I’ve always envied my colleagues who study the history of fascinating and exotic locations around the world. It affords them the most exciting research trips. They scrutinize medieval texts in Florence, brush up on the British mandate in Cairo, or puzzle over the politics of mobs in Paris. I, on the other hand, study the region of my birth, the American South. On research trips I usually find myself finishing off a long day at the archives with a meal at Ruby Tuesday’s. And then it’s back to a Days Inn in such places as Wingate, Hattiesburg, or Clemson.

It’s not that I don’t enjoy studying southern history. Understanding the roots of the cultural and political peculiarities of white southerners—those folks who are, more or less, “my people”—is what drew me to the study of history in the first place. And having the opportunity to write and teach in Atlanta has been ideal. I attended undergraduate and graduate school outside of the South, but I am now back in my home region with an expertise that allows me to reflect critically on the origins of important issues of the day. Still, living in the South and writing about relatively recent southern history has its challenges, ones that go beyond the dearth of international travel and interesting cuisine.

One big problem is that I end up arguing with all sorts of antagonists. Colleagues who study the distant past of faraway places only have to worry about their fellow academics. For me, every family gathering has the potential for heated debate. I also use a fair amount of oral history in my research, which, given my interests, can make for tricky negotiations. My first book was about white segregationists (In Search of Another Country: Mississippi and the Conservative Counterrevolution, Princeton UP 2007), and I had to find ways to identify with my subjects enough so that they would let down their guard. On the other hand, I didn’t want to pretend to be pro-segregation. Journalists talk about the process as the need to go “behind enemy lines”—to disguise your intentions so that interview subjects will speak honestly, and if you’re lucky, express themselves as they might in private, when unknown and potentially hostile listeners are not in their midst.

It’s an inherently duplicitous process. I try to be as fair as I can in presenting these people’s views, but inevitably my judgments diverge from theirs. A few months back, I ran into one of my oral history sources at a book reading. He was decent enough to come out to see me, and he mentioned only in passing as he left that he always knew I was “pretty liberal.” Another interview subject from an earlier essay that I wrote simply refused to acknowledge several letters that I sent him.

One of my colleagues asked during my Emory job talk whether I felt self-conscious about the tone in which I wrote about southern segregationists. At the time, I said that all historians had to be aware of their tone, and that my topic and time period were no different. But as my project matured, I realized that I had thoughtlessly fallen into a pattern of writing about my subjects in a way that most journalists and scholars before me had written about them. The tone was one of plausible objectivity and thinly veiled condescension. It was not only that I was parroting the tone of the secondary literature that I had read. I realized that as a white southerner writing about white southerners, I was preoccupied with making sure that the reader never mistook my subjects’ views for my own. I began to realize that this concern affected not only my tone but also my choices of topics. I was often emphasizing the most objectionable and inane aspects of segregationists’ views and behavior. There was plenty of this behavior to choose from to be sure, but there were also intelligent segregationists who had interesting and previously ignored perspectives on important political issues of the day. Yet I found myself, like most of those before me, focusing primarily on the buffoons.

The breakthrough for me came when I realized the need to be more dispassionate. There were two problems with the dismissive tone of my early drafts. First, it violated the scholarly commitment to objectivity. Scholars should try to be objective, sure, but I also know that objectivity is something to aspire to, not something that one can or should be entirely literal in pursuing. More importantly, the moral condemnation that lay so close to the surface got in the way of any attempt to understand southern segregationists on their own terms. This was the key to my project. A colleague who peer reviewed my manuscript said that it was one of the first books to attempt to take southern segregationists seriously. I think that’s true. The danger with the monolithic, dismissive portrait of earlier civil rights scholarship is, as civil rights scholar Charles Payne once wrote, that it reduces white southerners to “the ignorant, the pot-bellied, and the tobacco-chewing,” images that “easily supplant more complex and realistic images of racism.”

Trying to develop a more complex and realistic understanding of southern racism is exactly what my book tries to do. Some critics may feel that I overemphasize the role of white southerners in modern conservative politics or that I overstate the role of white racism in the success of the southern Republican Party. Others may think that I am too understanding of, or morally neutral towards, southern racists. My hope, however, is that my book will provide fresh perspective on recent southern history, and in doing so, help us think in a more sophisticated way about the role of white southerners in shaping modern American politics. The ultimate goal is to play some small role in re-imagining the sclerotic historical narratives that contribute to the intense polarization that has come to characterize American politics since the 1960s.

That’s a pretty ambitious aspiration I suppose. But then, it’s what motivates me to spend those nights in cheap hotels in small southern towns. The good news is that I recently was able to present some of my research at a conference for the British Association of American Studies. So that takes care of the international travel. Unfortunately, the meeting was in Leicester and the cuisine was quintessentially British. I guess I should be careful what I wish for.