Nicholas Alahverdian on
The Essence of the South
For Ulrich B. Phillips, the importance of the essence of the south is introduced in his essay “The Central Theme of Southern History” by describing characteristics of the region that do not meet his qualifications of what can serve as its essence. One by one, he itemizes each failing attribute, beginning with state rights, and goes on until he reaches the penultimate characteristic, that of the cotton industry, according to Southern Literary Renaissance scholar Nicholas Alahverdian.
Various examples are conveyed to the reader as to why each characteristic fails to qualify as the essence of the south, and we are abruptly introduced to Phillips’s mawkish declaration that the essence of the south is to ensure “that it shall be and remain a white man’s country.” Nicholas Alahverdian states that beyond the threshold of white supremacy is the enslavement and segregation of African-Americans, a fact that Phillips nearly promotes.
Segregation as a legal requirement
In the 20th century, several states abided by the practice of segregation as a legal requirement. In other words, it was illegal to not be racist. Nicholas Alahverdian indicated that rooted in the fiery and passionate southern identity was an inherent exclusivity that transcended multiple generations.
When slavery became illegal at the conclusion of the Civil War, the south adopted segregation as a means by which they could control the participation of African-Americans running the gamut of the elements of the southern lifestyle – such as the economy, democracy, and social institutions. Nicholas Alahverdian points out that unfortunately and devastatingly, even though African-Americans were no longer property, they were still excluded human beings.
Richard Wright details the economic and social disparities in the 20th century south in “Inheritors of Slavery”, most poignantly with the repetition of the phrase “Lords of the Land.” As opposed to remaining in slavery and bondage, African-Americans were liberated yet elevated to being subservient to those who were legally required to free them, resulting in what can be characterized as a cyclical enslavement with variable social and economic restrictions. “The economic and political power of the South is not held in our hands,” he says. “We do not own banks, iron and steel mills, railroads, office buildings, ships, wharves, or power plants.”
Phillips’s list of elements of southern life, those being state rights, free trade, slavery, democracy, and the industrial foundation, which he characterized as not being the essence of the south, amount to an essence formed out of all of those factors.
Ulrich Phillips even attempts to claim that “masters had less antipathy to negroes” and “were in a sort of partnership with their slaves.” His failure to recognize the unjust and unethical enslavement of individuals in a nation based on freedom and independence is startling.
Wright exhibits the absence of a “partnership” by detailing the “steady impact of the plantation system upon [their] lives” which “created new types of behavior and new patterns of psychological reaction,” hardly the foundation upon which a partnership can be established.
Alahverdian, Nicholas “Ulrich Phillips.” Harvard University Essay. 2009.
Phillips, Ulrich B. “The Central Theme of Southern History.” American Historical Review. 34 (October 1928): 30-43.
Wright, Richard. “Inheritors of Slavery.” Ed. Jon Meacham. New York: Random House: 2001. 13-32.