“Is it possible to love a place and to also disclaim its history?” asks the New Yorker in a story about icons of the Old South coming down. “Does the place begin to disappear when its foundational myths are challenged?”
The South has faced this same dilemma about foundational myths since Reconstruction. Unfortunately, back then, the winners let the losers write history for once. And what bad history it turned out to be — the “Lost Cause” myth in which latter-day cavaliers like Robert E. Lee nobly fought to preserve a doomed but beautiful way of life where kind masters watched over contented slaves, where mint juleps were drunk on marbled porticos by gallant colonels and belles in hoop skirts and where the air was scented with magnolia flowers.
The myth of the Lost Cause was a lie that justified continuing white supremacy and helped bring on 150 years of Jim Crow, lynching and the Klan’s reign of terror over black southerners.
Today, white people across the nation and around the South are finally learning what most of their black neighbors have known since Appomattox: statues of Confederate generals are not monuments to heritage but symbols of hate. Communities across the South are correct to start taking them down at a more rapid pace.
But what comes next? Without its old story, will the South be left with no story at all?
Empty pedestals from New Orleans to Richmond represent a vacuum that people will fill, if not in real life, then at least in their minds.
It would be depressing to live in a part of the country whose pride was so humbled that all it had to offer the world was apologies and repeated acts of atonement, like Germany after denazification.
There must be a better way to tell the truth about the southern past, to start to dismantle white supremacy while allowing Americans who live in today’s multicultural South the pride of place that all people everywhere need and deserve.
The South simply needs to replace its old, inaccurate story with a better account of its past and present. While the historians make the true history of slavery, secession, war and reconstruction available in a compelling way, the public can start to find a story of the South that’s worth being proud of through pop culture.
“What We’re Dealing With Here, Is A Complete Lack Of Respect For The Law”
Here, I humbly offer TV and movies as another way in to a story of the South that has no need of Confederate generals and the Southern Cross flag.
As a kid growing up in Chicago — and thus, a Yankee — I loved watching The Dukes of Hazzard on TV. But probably not for the right reasons. I’m not sure I identified with Bo and Luke Duke as much as I enjoyed witnessing something exotic.
Nobody I knew growing up near Wrigley Field jumped muscle cars over creeks to cross the county line with the local sheriff in hot pursuit. For a city boy back in the seventies, The Dukes of Hazzard was pretty much just another comedy series that mined a thick vein of goofball using the rusty shovel of country-folk stereotypes, like Hee Haw or the Beverly Hillbillies.
Now, having lived in the South for two decades, I’d only watch the Dukes of Hazzard ironically, as kitsch. But after the protests over the death of George Floyd and so many Confederate statues coming down, Bo and Luke Duke’s world hasn’t aged well even as the broadest humor. Their car seems to be the center of controversy: the General Lee had a Southern Cross battle flag on its roof and played “Dixie” on its horn.
I approached watching Smokey and the Bandit again for the first time since it came out in 1977 in the same spirit. I expected another redneck comedy whose days are probably numbered. “This is Smokey and the Bandit,” promised the trailer, with a weak attempt at irony for a film that everybody knew as basically an extended car-chase scene, “the story of a lazy weekend in Alabama…Texas…Mississippi…Arkansas…Georgia.”
A couple of good ole boys bootlegging beer across the Deep South chased by a fat Texas sheriff? That just sounded like the cousin of the Dukes of Hazzard to me.
Well, I couldn’t have been more wrong. The only Confederate battle flag in the whole movie appears on the license plate of Burt Reynolds’s 1977 Pontiac Trans Am, which happens to have been the Georgia state flag at the time.
A variation on the Robin Hood story, Smokey and the Bandit pits the people against the fuzz.
United by CB radio (this movie is definitely from the seventies), a merry band of truckers, gas station attendants and truck stop waiters on every interstate highway and country road in five states help a team of Burt Reynolds as the Bandit and country singer/actor Jerry Reed as trucker Cledus Snow evade blustery Texas sheriff Buford T. Justice played by Jackie Gleason to safely deliver a truckload of contraband Coors from Texarcana to Atlanta in under 28 hours.
It’s the makeup of the Bandit’s friends that makes this movie such a great southern story. Plenty of the Bandit’s CB buddies are white southerners, like the nice old lady whose CB handle is “Good Witch” and the young woman who goes by “Hot Pants Hilliard.” But several other CB radio operators are black southerners who are obviously old friends of the Bandit.
My favorite is a hearse driver in his twenties who goes by the handle “Grave Robber” and arranges a convoy of cars to block Sheriff Justice and slow his pursuit of the Bandit.
When the sheriff’s son Junior, his sidekick throughout the chase, notices the holdup from the impossibly long funeral procession and says “Damn, he had a lot of friends, didn’t he,” the sheriff replies, “ If they’d a cremated the sum-bitch. I could be kickin’ that Mr. Bandit’s ass around the moon by now.”
A “New South” Whitewash?
Don’t be taken in by the veneer of racial comity in Smokey and the Bandit, writes film scholar Jason Tebbe. Though he says it’s “still a big load of stupid fun,” Tebbe rejects the film as propaganda to peddle a sanitized “New South” that’s supposed to be more appealing to Yankees, “a big celebration of a modern South where the old hatreds are gone but its quaint charms live on. In the 1970s, during the Sun Belt’s ascendancy, the best way to deal with the region’s uncomfortable past was simply to forget it, and focus on the future.”
Tebbe finds it dishonest that the film ignores all the tragedy found along the route that the Bandit travels from east Texas to Atlanta, with bloody Civil War battles like Vicksburg and towns where activists were murdered during the civil rights movement including Jackson and Philadelphia, Mississippi.
But this is asking a road comedy themed by the country hit “Eastbound and Down” sung by Reed to act like a documentary scored by mournful backcountry spirituals.
It’s a movie about a fat sheriff, fast cars, a truckload of illicit beer, CB radio lingo and girls, OK?
More seriously, Smokey is at least partially realistic. For all its obvious racial issues, the South has never been only about racial conflict. In the 1970s when the film was made, ordinary white and black people worked together in a respectful way every day, just as they do today.
But even if that weren’t the case, and the South was really just a place of unremitting racism and violence, then what’s wrong with creating a vision of a better world? Ever since Thomas More’s Utopia, aspirational art that depicts things not as they are, but as you want them to be, has always been a powerful tool of social change.
And when it comes to Smokey, there’s more. There’s a key moment of cultural critique among all the broad gags. This hint of something deeper can be found in the music for the film.
Along with Reed’s contemporary country hit, the musical score features the tune from a single Civil War song, “Marching through Georgia.” I can’t see how it was put into the film’s score by accident just because the original words mention Georgia. Along with “Dixie” and “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” “Marching through Georgia” is one of the best known classics in the Civil War musical canon. Country singer Reed would have recognized it even if nobody else on Smokey’s set did. But this Union Army song written by popular composer Henry Clay Work, a Connecticut native living in Chicago during the Civil War, is about as far from “Dixie” as you can get.
“Marching through Georgia” celebrates Sherman’s march from Atlanta to Savannah in 1864, the most destructive campaign targeted at civilians in the Civil War. Well into the 20th century, white people across the South hated the song. In Gone with the Wind, it’s sung by a black carpetbagger who rides into town with a menacing white Yankee after the war to prey on the defeated South.
In Smokey and the Bandit, when the Bandit’s Trans Am and the Snowman’s tractor trailer finally pull into the grounds of the Truck “Roadeo” in Atlanta at the end, “Marching through Georgia” is played not in mourning for the Lost Cause, but in celebration for beer delivered and an epic journey completed.
If you’re looking for Mississippi Burning, you’ll be disappointed. But for a fizzy take on a version of the South where white people and black people get along and have some fun working together to fight the Man, Smokey and the Bandit pops open a cold can of refreshment.