Black and white intellectuals and the politics of multiculturalism.

Many Americans think of the South only in terms of two events: the Civil War and the civil-rights movement. This has also been buttressed, since the 1960s, by an interest in the “Southern strategy” that the Republican Party began to pursue with Barry Goldwater’s vote against the Civil Rights Act in 1964 and that reached an apex with Richard Nixon’s mastery of racial code words (“states’ rights,” “law and order”) in the 1968 presidential campaign. A new history by Anders Walker, The Burning House: Jim Crow and the Making of Modern America, touches on many of these events and their lingering legacies, but Walker directs our attention elsewhere: to those intellectuals who, in the second half of the 20th century, sought to save some of the unique qualities of Southern culture.

The South, Walker argues, did more than offer heroic moments of black auto-emancipation and shameful moments of white supremacy; it also served as the arena for an ongoing debate over multiculturalism. This might seem like a strange assertion at first, as the politics of multiculturalism are usually framed in the context of the late 20th century, when conflicts over how to define a country’s cultural identity exploded in Europe. But Walker’s provocative thesis is this: Beginning in the 1940s, black and white writers—from Zora Neale Hurston to Robert Penn Warren—began to worry about what might happen to the South’s culture in the wake of integration. These writers were not defenders of segregation; in fact, most were active in helping tear it down. But they feared that the region might also lose some of its cultural heterogeneity: In particular, they worried that it might lose its distinct white and black cultures and become flattened into the more homogeneous culture found in the rest of America.

One might argue with this thesis on a variety of accounts. Thinking of the South as having two distinct cultures, one white, one black, as opposed to one culture that was a mixture of the two, is already highly questionable. For that matter, it is unclear if the rest of the nation was truly as monocultural as some of the intellectuals in Walker’s book seem to believe. The work of historians like Jon Lauck, for instance, reminds us that the Midwest has its own rich literary and cultural heritage—to say nothing of the significant racial and ethnic cultures that permeated other regions of the United States outside the South.

Even so, Walker has opened up a fresh way of thinking about the intellectual history of the South during the civil-rights movement, and he also asks some tough questions about how we should remember its legacy. A professor of law at Saint Louis University, Walker focused his first book, The Ghost of Jim Crow, on the white Southern moderates who, under the guise of promoting gradual progress and “respect” for African-American culture, tried to slow the implementation of the Supreme Court’s landmark Brown v. Board of Education ruling in the late 1950s. In The Burning House, we get a different set of ghost stories about the afterlife of Jim Crow, but it’s a book that follows the same line of reasoning, showing how the multicultural arguments made by intellectuals who wanted to sustain the South’s cultural heterogeneity had their own unintended consequences, ending up being used by Supreme Court Justice Lewis Powell in his effort to undermine affirmative action’s constitutional standing.

To tell this story, Walker gives us a wide-ranging intellectual and literary history, beginning with the rise of the Southern Agrarians in the early 1930s. Hurston and Warren, as well as James Baldwin, William Faulkner, Harper Lee, Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison, Flannery O’Connor, Eudora Welty, and Stokely Carmichael, all make appearances. Not all of these people were from the South—Baldwin and Carmichael grew up in New York, for instance—but nearly all of them spent much of their lives fighting against or writing about the region’s segregation. For these writers, culture and politics were never far apart. This was particularly true for Warren, who saw the cultural strength of the South as proof that the region needed nothing more than to reform its Jim Crow system—as opposed to a wholesale revolution overturning it. Other writers discussed in the book, such as Faulkner, promoted a similar ideology of the South being culturally superior to the rest of the nation due to the biracial and bicultural system arising from Jim Crow.

Walker doesn’t pull any punches when it comes to these white intellectuals. Their arguments for a biracial culture ultimately served to empower white Southerners, not black ones, and Walker’s story is very much about the untenable nature of their position. White Southern liberals had to choose between civil and human rights, on the one hand, and white-supremacist regimes, on the other; there was no middle ground. Seeking to preserve the South’s biracial character, in a context in which black Americans and their culture were not treated equally, figures like Warren ended up only helping to reinforce African Americans’ unequal status in the South. And so it is not surprising that many of these arguments were later invoked by people like Powell.

Walker’s argument becomes trickier when it involves those black writers who also expressed trepidation about the future of the South’s black culture and wanted to find a way to preserve it. In particular, many of these black intellectuals and activists worried about what would happen if, as Baldwin put it, black culture was integrated into the “burning house” of the United States. For Walker, this is what makes this generation of black writers so historically intriguing. They found the moderate position taken by white Southern liberals like Warren baneful, and they frequently challenged it. Yet they also questioned the bleak, materialist ethos of modern American culture and hoped that black culture might be able to…

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