S&T researcher writes of white southern identity at turn of 20th century

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On December 9, 2010

Southerners are storytellers, and many of the stories told during the volatile years at the turn of the 20th century reflected a conviction that all southern whites, regardless of their religion, class and ethnicity, were bound by a love of family, home and community, and an uncompromising belief in white supremacy. Dr. Trent Watts examines his theory in his new book One Homogeneous People: Narratives of White Southern Identity, 1890-1920.

Watts, a member of the English and technical communication department at Missouri University of Science and Technology, explores how these white southerners explained their region and its people to themselves and other Americans through narratives found in a variety of forms and contexts, including political oratory, fiction, journalism and correspondence.

“I grew up in Mississippi and have always been fascinated with the long shadow that the post-Reconstruction years cast on the South,” says Watts. “The perceived threat of black aspirations to civil rights resulted in the creation and widespread acceptance of the ideal I call ‘pan-whiteness,’ that all white southerners are one community, a notion that proved persuasive and tenacious for generations.”

The book, which is published by The University of Tennessee Press, includes three extended essays on related themes of race and power and illustrates how similar the idea of pan-whiteness is across different classes and generations. The final essay focuses on Mississippi’s Neshoba County Fair, an institution that was established in 1889.

“The fairgrounds include more than 600 cabins, all owned by white families. In a county almost one-third black, the fair is the embodiment of the largely unspoken power of whiteness and racial exclusion.” Watts continues, “Neshoba County became notorious in 1964 when three civil rights workers were murdered there. The fair is a nostalgic celebration of community and a mandatory visit for would-be state office holders. Given the county’s past, such a combination seems problematic.”

Watts joined Missouri S&T’s faculty in 2003 and was named associate professor in 2010. He holds a Ph.D. in history from the University of Chicago. Before coming to S&T, he taught American history at James Madison University. At S&T, Watts teaches courses on American literature, southern culture, and representations of the American South in film, among others.

In addition to writing One Homogeneous People, Watts edited White Masculinity in the Recent South, a collection of essays by 13 scholars that examines southern male stereotypes. His work has appeared in Southern Cultures and The New Encyclopedia of Southern Culture. He is currently working on a history of sex and sexuality in the recent South and a book of photographs taken by civil rights activist Rev. Ed King.

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On December 9, 2010. Posted in News, Top Headlines