Historians Respond to Southern Belle

Here is some more video from the new documentary, Southern Belle.  In this segment historians respond to the attempt on the part of the organizers to remove any discussion of slavery from their program.  They address the following question: Why would the “yeoman” farmer go to war with no dog in the Civil War fight?  The list of historians interviewed includes, R. Blakeslee Gilpin, Assistant Professor of History, University of South Carolina; Carroll Van West, Director, Tennessee Civil War National Heritage Area; Tara McPherson, Professor of Critical Studies, University of Southern California  School of Cinematic Arts and Stan Deaton, Director, Georgia Historical Society. Additional films can be viewed on the documentary’s website.

In light of a series of posts written by Brooks Simpson (see here and here) I assume that it is appropriate for the historians featured in this video to respond to what is clearly a distorted and even dangerous interpretation of the past.  Those two posts stemmed from the following comment.  I see absolutely no difference between the advisory services provided by these historians and the commentary from those serious and not so serious historians, who are concerned about the implications and spread of the black Confederate myth.

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14 comments… add one
  • Mel Fleming II, PhD Aug 15, 2012 @ 21:23

    This was disgraceful. A woefully revisionism viewpoint which made the South, appear as victims of an unjust president, Abraham Lincoln. They glass ocer slavery as ut was a minor pccurrence in the history of things. Rge perfect mirror of cultural supremacy. These young women should have been more intelligent, and aware of this. I blame their parents, who in my opinion, probably wish the issue of slavery would go away.

  • Kate Halleron Jun 20, 2011 @ 18:30

    From your previous post: “The film reveals why the stakes in teaching this romantic, segregated history are high. By promulgating a southern identity that erases emancipation as a cause of the Civil War and glorifies a disempowered female image detached from the brutality of the lifestyle that supported her, the camp ultimately reinforces divisions between race, gender, and geography in the present. To understand the Athenaeum Girls’ School’s icon of the Old South is to better understand the issues that continue to define and divide America today.”

    Am I misunderstanding you then – you think this is all just harmless fun? That’s not what I took away from your first post on the subject.

    • Kevin Levin Jun 21, 2011 @ 1:12

      Not at all. I am simply suggesting that the girls are probably not motivated by racial concerns. You suggested that some of these girls would be shocked to learn of their mixed blood ancestry when all they may want to do is play Southern Belle.

      • Margaret D. Blough Jun 21, 2011 @ 3:42

        Of course, the risk is that the people running the “school” can get some heavy-duty indoctrination, sugar-coated in the parasols & crinolines. This is a risk one does not face in attending, say, a Disney princess camp.

        • Kevin Levin Jun 21, 2011 @ 3:47

          You can see this clearly in the video on the justification of slavery. The girls learn the standard Lost Cause claims that slavery’s moral foundation could be found in the Bible as well as the claim that black owned slaves – the latter without any context. Are the instructors teaching context or are they themselves justifying slavery? Can the girls discern the difference?

          • Marianne Davis Jun 23, 2011 @ 18:45

            You have taught kids of this age, and I have raised two daughters. We both know that though teenagers lack judgment, they have intellect. Even girls who got the Lost Cause in place of mother’s milk are responsible for their choices, whether they like Barbie in hoop skirts drag or not. We might expect them to be thoughtless about the past of some of their fellow Americans. More than that, though, I find their evident lack of intellectual curiosity or skepticism most disappointing.

        • Andy Hall Jun 21, 2011 @ 4:38

          The indoctrination lies as much in what’s left out, as in what’s included in the “curriculum.” But I also don’t get the sense, from watching the interviews with parents, that the kids are getting much different historical messaging at the camp than they experience at home. This doesn’t seem, from the videos, to be the sort of summer camp one signs up for on the spur of the moment, or a whim.

          I also have to say, I got a weird “beauty pageant” vibe to the whole thing. It’s not a pageant per se, of course, but otherwise it’s very much about creating and conforming a highly structured, uniform, and restrictive standard.

          • Kevin Levin Jun 21, 2011 @ 4:40

            There are a number of references to the failure of the public schools for failing to teach “correct history” etc., which makes me wonder how many of these kids are home schooled.

    • Margaret D. Blough Jun 21, 2011 @ 3:56

      Kate-Ironically, there’s a rather moving article, “Healing Slavery’s Wounds” in People magazine, of all places, of descendants of slaves and/or owners coming together through genealogy research & coming to terms with that and each other.

      • Kate Halleron Jun 21, 2011 @ 4:36

        Thank you, Margaret – I’ll have to look for that article. I did find this NPR report, with a similar title – http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=5239251

        The book ‘Slaves in the Family’ by Edward Ball is also a very moving tale. I highly recommend it.

        • Margaret D. Blough Jun 21, 2011 @ 6:43

          Kate-There’s also Henry Wiencek’s “The Hairstons: An American Family in Black and White.” It’s particularly meaningful to me because for many years I worked closely with my agency’s HR Director, who was born into the Black branch of the Hairston family. She spoke highly of the book.. One of the most stunning accounts in it was of a white antebellum Hairston who clearly genuinely loved one of his slaves, treating her as his wife. He died unexpectedly and prematurely and, on his deathbed, kept himself alive, apparently by sheer will power, long enough to make a will in which he not only freed their approx. 5 year old daughter but made her his sole heir, which would have made her incredibly wealthy. He did so even though members of his white family, learning of his intent, harassed him on his deathbed.. The family broke the will but a nephew who supported him bought the freedom of the common-law wife. When the daughter (who’d been hidden at another plantation) rejoined her mother after the end of the Civil War, she and the nephew fell in love and lived as man and wife and had 6 children. The story is striking not so much because of the happy ending, which is nice, but for the brutality with which the white family treated a dying man. Greed was a major factor, but it’s also clear that much of the fury would not have been there had the common-law wife and daughter had been white.

  • Kate Halleron Jun 20, 2011 @ 16:45

    When I saw the first post on this, my thought was, ‘it’s like RenFaire. Girls like to dress up in pretty clothes and pretend they’re princesses.’

    But of course the difference is that partakers in RenFaires know it’s a fantasy. This is being taught as ‘living history’, which is what makes it a travesty.

    How many of these Southern Belles would faint away if they found out, as I did, that they’re one of the 30 percent of white Americans who have African ancestry?


    I’m sure that ratio is higher in the South due to our shared heritage – we share not only the history but the DNA. Denial of that shared heritage is a denial of our very essence as Southerners.

    • Kevin Levin Jun 20, 2011 @ 16:54


      Thanks for the comment. I think you have to be careful here. The girls may not give it a second thought if you were to suggest such a thing. Although I have not seen the documentary in its entirety I get the sense that these girls simply want to play Scarlet for a couple of days. They are just having a little fun at history’s expense.

  • Scott MacKenzie Jun 20, 2011 @ 13:18

    Notice how there isn’t a single African American, or any visible minority for that matter, among the students. I wonder why.

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