Two new tomes of nonfiction grapple with the South’s racist history while rustling up hope that this complex region can lead a better way forward.
Recent years have seen the massacre of black worshippers at a South Carolina church, fierce debates over the memorialization of white-supremacist American leaders and the ascendancy of a president who admires Andrew Jackson, a slaveholding Tennessee “populist.” As progress toward racial equality seems ever in danger of being erased, Americans have sought to make sense of the present by looking to the past—and looking south.
Two decades after Confederates in the Attic, Massachusetts-based journalist Tony Horwitz dips back below the Mason-Dixon Line and into an ongoing national conflict in Spying on the South. The book retraces an antebellum journey undertaken by Frederick Law Olmsted, who explored the southern U.S. as the country careered toward civil war. Olmsted wrote dispatches for northern newspapers that were later collected into The Cotton Kingdom, a window into a society structured around slavery. Horwitz similarly seeks to shed light on the region. Pondering the “inescapable echoes of the 1850s” in today’s politics, he travels down the Ohio River on a coal barge, finds the remnants of a massive cotton and sugar plantation in Louisiana and even embarks on an uncomfortable mule ride through Texas. Horwitz is an amiable narrator who marries a journalist’s knack for scene-setting and chatting folks up with the ability to tell a good historical tale. Back up north, he concludes with a walk through New York’s Central Park, the crowning jewel in Olmsted’s subsequent career as a landscape architect.
Jacquelyn Dowd Hall’s Sisters and Rebels is a master class in how to write history. The founding director of the Southern Oral History Program at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Hall tells the story of three sisters from the Lumpkin family, whose father was a violent Reconstruction-era Klan member. While one daughter followed her father’s Lost Cause ideology, more compelling are the two who struck further out. Katharine Du Pre Lumpkin became involved in interracial organizing with the YWCA, enjoyed a prolific career as a sociologist and authored The Making of a Southerner, which explores the roots of racism and sexism in her own childhood. Grace Lumpkin moved to New York, joined the labor movement and wrote the influential proletarian novel To Make My Bread. Hall deftly situates each moment of these women’s lives within its historical context, producing a vital, timely narrative about how attitudes are formed and how they can be reshaped. This triple biography is also a corrective to histories of the South that emphasize its white male bigots, as Hall places women’s progressive political and intellectual work at the book’s heart. Despite being about a single family, Sisters and Rebels is breathtaking in its historical scope and flawlessly executed. The arc of the Lumpkin women raises at least the possibility of redemption—that the sins of the father need not be repeated by the daughters.