Packing away the Old South's icons

The Citadel forsakes 'Dixie,' but experts see a resurgence of region's rich cultural history.

In Oxford, Miss., the Old South is reborn every time the University of Mississippi football team scores a touchdown. Rebel flags wave and peals of "Dixie" rise up through the thick, humid air.

But hundreds of miles away in Charleston, S.C., a military academy older than the Confederacy itself is playing a different tune. In the shadow of Fort Sumter - where the first shots of the Civil War were fired - The Citadel has forsaken that former staple of its repertoire, saying "Dixie" no longer fits the image the school wants to project.

In between lies the South, a region struggling with how to honor a centuries-old heritage that, to some, is a symbol of oppression and backwardness. From "Dixie" to Aunt Jemima, many symbols of the South's history have become divisive as outsiders flock to the booming region and others across the US glimpse it on radio, television, and film.

The idea of the Old South remains strong among those who live here. Yet as the region tries to move into the 21st century while keeping one foot firmly planted in the past, the divisions are deepening. And in coming years, battles like the one over "Dixie" will determine what parts of the South's legacy survive its changing cultural landscape.

Political correctness?

In South Carolina, The Citadel's decision has not gone unnoticed. Two state senators have asked Citadel President Maj. Gen. John Grinalds to clarify the school's position.

The lawmakers, known for their interest in Southern history - and defense of the Confederate flag - accused General Grinalds of using political correctness to phase out "Dixie."

Not so, says a Citadel spokesman. "It's not so much about being politically correct, but a social consciousness," says Cmdr. Bruce Williams. "Some people feel uncomfortable when it is played. We will still play the song when it is appropriate, say, when the Daughters of the Confederacy are meeting on campus."

More than that, other school officials say there is a need to prepare cadets for the broader world that exists beyond traditions and beyond the Mason-Dixon Line. "One must have appropriate respect for the past, but ... we are training our students to address the issues of 2000 and beyond," says Frank Mood, chairman of The Citadel Board of Visitors.

"At this time in the life of our state, the college, and the nation ... we cannot appear provincial or reactionary. We need to be a progressive, forward-looking institution mindful of where we are going."

Indeed, a hush of heightened sensitivity is falling on many aspects of the South's past. In some places, the Confederate flag is already off limits, because of its ties to slavery and to the anti-civil-rights activists who used it to protest integration in the 1940s, '50s, and '60s.

Hiding the lawn jockeys

Other changes are more subtle. Certainly, regional kitsch such as Aunt Jemima knickknacks and African-American lawn jockeys are still prominently displayed in some roadside tourist traps. But many other gift shops now hide them from view in fear of customer protests. One collector of such trinkets says she often has to specifically ask stores if they have them.

She, for one, doesn't see the big deal. "I collect Aunt Jemimas for fun and to remind people of how far we've come," says Hannah Becker, an African-American school teacher who collects Aunt Jemima pitchers, salt and pepper shakers, and cookie jars. "You can't forget where you came from or you won't be able to know where you are going."

Ms. Becker says the collection celebrates her African-American ancestry.

She even has a concrete African-American lawn jockey on the bottom step of her sprawling front porch. She says she has taken flak from neighbors about its blatant racism.

"They don't like a little black boy standing on my front porch," she says.

"Never mind that I am black, too. That doesn't matter."

But like Becker, many Americans are also becoming more interested in the South - for its literature and culture.

Since the grandfather of Southern studies programs began in 1977 at the University of Mississippi in Oxford, a host of colleges have started offering classes and master's programs in which students can learn about everything from kudzu to Faulkner to moon pies.

Southernization of America

"We used to hear about the Northernization of Dixie, we now hear of the Southernization of America," says Davis Moltke-Hansen, director of North Carolina University's Southern studies program.

"We are seeing a return migration among African-Americans to the South," Mr. Moltke-Hansen adds. Also, as the world changes shape and national borders don't mean quite what they used to, questions of regional identity come to the forefront."

Susan Glison, assistant director of the Center for the Study of Southern Culture at the University of Mississippi, completely agrees. But she says that the Old South that many are seeking to recapture exists only in the imagination.

"The best creation of the New South is the Old South," she says. "The idea is still pervasive that the South is a mythic place of verandas, plantations, and mint juleps."

Enduring romanticism

That view is overly romantic, Ms. Glison adds. "When you think about it, very few people existed within that framework of the life on the plantation, the whole image of what many have of the South," she says.

Still, the remarkable endurance of that image shows how deeply rooted the sense of culture is here.

"The idea of the South has always been more powerful, and it's that idea that continues to be popular with those who like to sell the South in tourism [as well as] those who like to protest the past."

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