Erstwhile: A History Blog

A Southerner in the West: Tracing sightlines between southern and western identity

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Contributing editor Caroline Grego reflects on the similarities between how southerners and westerners form their regional identities, based on her childhood in the South and living in the West for the past six and a half years as a graduate student.

I am lying in a natural rock hot springs pool at Valley View Hot Springs, looking west over the wide, winter-gold expanse of the San Luis Valley and the forested slopes of the La Garita Mountains. I had camped for the night with my fiancé at the hot springs, nestled in the foothills of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, and we startled awake that morning to the cackles of a coyote pack. We emerged from our tent to the steady, black-eyed gaze of a mule deer peering at us — the apparent intruders in the cottonwood grove, certainly no more than passers-by in the mule deer’s creek-side domain.

Surely, this is the West: a place with the dark-skyed isolation of a sparsely populated mountain valley, the air arid, thin, and spiked with piñon pine. It felt so unlike my humid homeland of South Carolina that, though I have lived on the western half of the continent for the past six and a half years and have travelled frequently throughout the region since I was eight, I am still thrilled by the tactile and aesthetic experience of sheer difference in the landscape. I am struck just as often by the strength of place-based identity shared by both southerners and westerners. The allure of a home-landscape, the fierce territoriality, the fraught historical legacies of both regions, and the ever-more important recognition of excavating the past of both regions join southerners and westerners – whether or not they want to recognize their commonalities. It is, of course, never entirely comfortable to realize that perhaps the foundations of one’s personal identity are shared across regional lines.

The San Luis Valley from Valley View Hot Springs. Photo by author.

Now, I won’t here rehash the multi-generational academic explorations of the boundaries and meanings of the South and the West. Many scholars have done this better than I.[1] Neither am I going to re-litigate historiographic debates on what it means to be a southerner in the West. Nor will I define the characteristics of “southern” or “western” identity. But what I am interested in doing here is taking these two regional identities both seriously and critically to suggest gentle lines of similarity. I consider this especially important at a time when many white Americans have retrenched dangerously into highly localized identities that frequently serve to obscure the struggles of others.

At the risk of essentializing regional identity, I should clear some things up. I asked a few friends and colleagues – westerners or southerners living in the west who specialize in American history – about their perspectives on regional identity. The three who responded agreed on an answer that will be very familiar to historians: regional identities are phantom-like creatures, deeply felt especially upon departure from one’s home-region but extraordinarily unruly. Indeed, “southerner” and “westerner” are such tricky terms that they perhaps ought not be defined at all – a most academic answer, but also a deeply thoughtful response that emerges from a compassionate, historicized understanding of identity. American historians have written much about how regional identities and the regions on which they are tenuously based are products of history, molded by popular culture and collective memory, and infused with both past and ongoing experiences of dispossession, colonization, resistance, enslavement, environmental change – you name it. My friends’ answers to my questions about their identities reflected this scholarship, just as they continue to enrich it with their own work. And yet their answers also hinted at internal conflict, just as mine would if asked about my identity as a southerner: pinning down what it means to be a southerner or a westerner may miss the point of the complexity of each region, but it cannot help but be felt, in a nebulous and squishy way that makes us academics apprehensive.

For the moment, let’s relinquish the question of what binds the West. I am a southerner who has loved the West since I was eight years old. Imagine how it felt as a kid to watch the landscape outside the window of an early 1990s Aerostar minivan leach green, lose trees, and stretch out. Step out at the first rest stop west of the Texas-New Mexico border on I-40, watch a distant thunderstorm blot the unnervingly expansive blue sky, breathe in a storm-breeze carrying the scent of sage, and admire the long, low mesas slung across the plains. I knew then that I was truly “Out West,” the name my family gave to our yearly, two-week camping trips that continued for ten years. During these trips, we narrowly avoided: heat stroke (at Chaco Canyon National Historic Park, one of my favorite National Park Service units and a spot I have visited six times since I was eleven); Hanta Virus (cue my seven-year-old sister asking a park ranger at Navajo National Monument for reassurance that we wouldn’t contract it, and see her little face drain as she walked back to us – “She said an eleven-year-old boy nearly died of it last week!” – expecting me, her sister of the same age, to drop dead right there), and hypothermia (an ill-fated backpacking trip in Gunnison National Forest where we got snowed on several inches overnight). But we also visited thirteen national parks and several more national monuments. Through numerous Junior Ranger programs, visitors’ center dioramas, tours, and books bought at various visitors’ centers, I learned to consider the human histories of those seemingly wild western landscapes.

Photo by author of Casa Rinconada, the largest kiva at Chaco Canyon National Historical Park.

It was a start. Simply because I perceived isolation and quiet during those first visits did not mean that the West was, unlike the South, a gorgeous blank canvas that would one day display the great nation of futurity.[2] Later, living in the West and becoming a student of American history happened to coincide for me. As a graduate student in American history at the University of Colorado Boulder, you won’t earn your Ph.D. without having read at least a few dozen books on western history, even if that isn’t your region of specialty. The South, I knew from a young age, had a past that was complex and poisoned because of slavery and its lingering toxins. Indeed, I wrote a very earnest and overwrought essay at age thirteen railing against the racial and economic privilege on display in my neighborhood and at my socially segregated public school. More than once, I argued with high school classmates that slavery was, in fact, the cause of the Civil War. “States’ rights to do WHAT?” I would crow victoriously (is it more obnoxious to be an angsty teenager or a self-righteous one?). In any case, it is no real surprise that I became a historian. Peeling back the stratum of landscape until the human heart revealed itself, in all its vulnerability, became a kind of excavation that I enjoyed. Both the south and the west have painfully tender histories at their cores, covered by layer upon layer of myth and memory. That beating heart is difficult to reach without careful, dedicated work, though it is frequently lashed bare for many people through the raw force of racism, poverty, or another form of oppression.

Southerners and westerners usually think of their respective regions as the locations from which certain Ur-origin stories of American history emerged: the “Lost Cause” of the South and, in the West, “Manifest Destiny” emblemized by a fabled frontier. Depending on race, ethnicity, locality, religion, political beliefs, and an array of other factors, southerners and westerners, diverse and fractious even if they bear the same regional identity, react very differently to those stories. There is no one type of southerner or westerner. Indeed, those familiar myths about the Civil War and American expansion have been the shaky ground on which many white southerners or westerners have built their identities, or the historical illusion that many other southerners and westerners (especially people of color) have rejected in cultivating theirs. Myth-based identities are all the more dangerous because they are so powerful, as demonstrated by recent displays of white supremacy veiled in a rhetoric of heritage – even as many southerners and westerners understand and have lived the more complex, fraught human histories at the heart of those myths.

I myself study southern history in large part because I feel I ought to understand how the United States came to be, with the knowledge that it didn’t have to be this way (my favorite, albeit rather dismal, rallying cry). Many westerners feel the same way. One friend, a westerner who studies the west, wrote to me that she approaches the region as a space in which settler colonialism launched “repeated assaults on indigenous lands and communities,” and recognizes herself as “a part of that great and terrible story that is still very much alive.” Similarly, I am also a southerner who studies the South and plans to continue doing so for the rest of my career. I proclaim myself a “southerner” with a tinge of wry discomfort – which, as a white southerner who studies southern history, is an appropriate reaction.[3] I half-jokingly refer to my dedication to southern history as being grounded in a sense of civic responsibility. I am obligated, because of where I am from and who I am, to be responsible to my region’s history.

Like in the West, the distinctiveness of southern landscapes is key to southern identity. I go back to South Carolina to reacquaint myself with landscape and history. The immersive experience of the southern landscape is one of closeness, as opposed to the airy vastness invoked by many western landscapes. In South Carolina, tangles of grapevines, knots of switchcane, and sprawling fields of waist-high cotton or head-high corn hemmed in by second-growth pines obscure sightlines.[4] Sometimes I feel paranoid, so heightened are my senses to movement on the leaf-strewn, sinking ground or in the unseen half-distance – even sharper since I nearly stepped on a four-and-a-half-foot long canebrake rattlesnake a few years ago at Congaree National Park. The closeness of the air, rich with a vegetal humidity, enfolds the body and draws sweat from skin in a wet sop of salt and water. Southern waters – salt marshes, swamp-bottom guts, oxbow lakes carved by side-winding rivers, Carolina bays, webbed intertidal waterways, New Deal-era man-made lakes – mark the landscape as obstacles, boundaries, sources of sustenance, or pathways.

Photo by author of an unnamed pond west of Weston Lake at Congaree National Park, with cypress and water tupelo confusing the lines of sight.

In the west, everything desiccates. In the south, everything rots. This is as true of historical memory as it is southern and western landscapes: the hollowing of western history to make way for hardy pioneers and the boundless capacity of American progress; and the festering of racism’s gangrenous wounds beneath the flag of the Confederacy. I have learned, then, to be wary of romantic descriptions of both southern and western landscapes. As a southerner, lush, beatifying depictions of southern landscapes make me particularly uncomfortable. I admire the beauty of Spanish moss as much as the next southerner, but moonlight and magnolias simply won’t do. It is irresponsible and ahistorical to unthinkingly glorify certain markers of the southern landscape without considering what histories have played a part in their construction. Billie Holiday warned us of this when she sang, in her ominous, heart-breaking croon, that “Southern trees bear a strange fruit/Blood on the leaves and blood at the root.” We must be careful when waxing poetic about the muscled, reaching branches of live oaks, prettily manicured antebellum gardens, or the lazy, tannin-stained bends of southern rivers. Those visions of pastoral loveliness could trick away rougher, crueler scenes from the region’s history.

Some tannin-stained floodwaters photographed by the author, at Congaree National Park, a place with its own deep human history.

I have tried to develop a language to describe landscape that sidesteps the blithe nostalgia that makes me so uneasy. Knowing history further irritates that disquiet. Southern landscapes are indelibly and often explicitly marked with histories of the indigenous past – see the shell mounds of the coastal plain – or racial exploitation – see the sunken, weedy slave-dug canals in old rice fields – or poverty – see any half-abandoned country town – or resistance and resilience – see the sub-divided, multi-generational family plots of land whose deeds bear witness to Reconstruction’s Freedmen’s Bureau, despite a white supremacist state that worked very hard to erase emancipatory legacies.[5] These histories are not hard to find, if you are willing to look. The same is true of the West. After all, the empty frontier of the West is a legend, a convenient fiction to justify the erasure of Indigenous history and very real and violent attempts to eliminate Indigenous peoples.[6] Landscapes west of the Mississippi also bear vivid marks of their human histories that stretch far earlier than Frederick Jackson Turner would have had us believe.[7] Near Valley View Hot Spring, the very names of the mountain ranges and the valley itself (as well as its few towns) – San Luis, La Garita, Sangre de Cristo, Alamosa, Saguache – suggest the region’s Hispanic history, which has also undergone various erasures in the West, from before the United States seized the area along with the rest of Mexico’s northern half in 1848.

The rosy Sangre de Christos showing how they got their name, at Great Sand Dunes National Park. Photo by author.

So where does this leave a southerner in the west? I recognize the similarities between how southerners and westerners construct their identities: the deep knowledge of and appreciation for regional landscapes and a fraught history that provokes a variety of reactions dependent on positionality. One of the ways, then, to make sense of the south or the west is to recognize the landscape as an artifact, with a history of its own that has interacted with our human histories.[8] Our view of the landscape must clear the chimera of rugged frontier or gracious plantation from our collective vision. Understanding southern or western landscapes fully and thoughtfully requires not merely accepting southern or western identity as it is presented by the individuals, corporate brands, or popular culture around us, but by probing those landscapes for stories that are usually less easy or self-congratulatory. A richer, more inclusive story begins to emerge, one grounded in the land, cognizant of myth, and productively critical of the region’s history. Tracing these sightlines between how we understand the South and the West, how we construct our identities as southerners or westerners, and how those regional identities are connected to specific visions of history, is critical work. This is especially true today, as white supremacists fashion flawed and inaccurate historical narratives of southern and western history as weapons to justify racial hatred, to perpetuate the Confederacy’s Lost Cause, or to harden the borders of the settler colonial state. History shouldn’t be mishandled as a tool to reify and perpetuate historical patterns of violence – though we must recognize that southern and western histories can be particularly prone to that kind of appropriation. Instead, history should be used to excavate – to reveal deeper, more painful truths about the home-regions that we southerners and westerners are so fascinated and frustrated by.[9] As a historian and a southerner, this is work that I try to do, but I started reaching towards that work long before I trained as a historian. I began it as a southerner.

Whatever that means.

A dam-made pond in Lower Richland County, framed with pines. Photo by author.

~

[1] Though I will include some suggestions for further reading here! Three books in particular define the historiography of the “New West,” which, beginning in the 1980s, sought to complicate both the idea of the “frontier” and the legendary lawlessness of the west through the serious study of Indigenous history, the acknowledgment of the importance of government aid to the region, and other new considerations. They include Patricia Limerick’s The Legacy of Conquest: The Unbroken Past of the American West (1987), Richard White’s It’s Your Misfortune & None of My Own: A New History of the American West (1991), and Donald Worster’s Rivers of Empire: Water, Aridity, and the Growth of the American West (1985). In more recent decades, scholars of western history have learned to think of the West not simply as a part of U.S. history but as a deeply plural and mixed place that gave rise to both colonial and indigenous empires and in which Mexicans, Comanches, Utes, Navajos, Apaches, and other indigenous people were essential players. See Steven Hahn’s A Nation Without Borders (2016), Andrés Reséndez’s The Other Slavery (2016), Anne Hyde’s Empires, Nations, and Families (2011), Brian DeLay’s War of a Thousand Deserts (2008), and Pekka Hämäläinen’s The Comanche Empire (2008).  Some of my favorite books on the history of the South include: W. E. B. DuBois’s Black Reconstruction in America (1935); Edward E. Baptist’s The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism (2014); Mart Stewart’s ‘What Nature Suffers to Groe’: Life, Labor, and Landscape on the Georgia Coast, 1680 – 1920 (1996); David Blight’s Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory (2001), which has been getting a lot of attention lately because of the debates over Civil War memory; and Robin D. G. Kelley’s Hammer and Hoe: Alabama Communists During the Great Depression (1990). This is by no means comprehensive and I am leaving off many books that I have found personally influential, but we haven’t got all day here!

[2] The title of the famous article by journalist John O’Sullivan, “The Great Nature of Futurity,” published in The United States Magazine and Democratic Review, 1839. He also originated the term “Manifest Destiny.”

[3] Some white southerners have written compellingly about their identities. Two of the most well-known authors are W. J. Cash in The Mind of the South (1941) and Lillian Smith’s Killers of the Dream (1949).

[4] This language may call to mind Walter Johnson’s writing in River of Dark Dreams: Slavery and Empire in the Cotton Kingdom (2013), page 243; but it also evokes a similar line of thought I used in my MA thesis, completed before I read Johnson in fall of 2013, which can be found online.

[5] I think here of “workscapes,” a phrase coined by our department’s Thomas G. Andrews in his Bancroft Prize-winning book Killing for Coal: America’s Deadliest Labor War (2008).

[6] The historiography on the U.S. government and its settler citizens’ destruction of American Indian communities is too vast to cover here. I’ll just note one recent title that is generating a lot of interest: Benjamin Madley’s American Genocide: The United States and the California Indian Catastrophe, 1846-1873 (2016).

[7] Did you really think we’d get through this without mentioning Turner? Tough luck.

[8] The idea of the landscape as an artifact is owed to the landmark essay collection, The Interpretation of Ordinary Landscapes: Geographical Essays (1979), edited by geographer Donald Meinig, which includes contributions from Meinig and the famous geographer Yi-Fu Tuan. It’s now a common form of analysis among historical geographers and environmental historians alike, and I find it continues to be a useful way to guide our thinking about landscapes.

[9] With some inadvertent allusion here to our managing editor Julia Frankenbach’s recently published, evocative poem on Erstwhile.

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