Lady Antebellum and the Glorification of the Pre-Civil War South

A few months ago, “Need You Now” by the country group Lady Antebellum was among iTunes’ free downloads. I’m a curious music lover with eclectic tastes, so I snagged the song for my iPod. It was catchy and nice in the inoffensive and pop-y way of crossover country–think Carrie Underwood not the rougher alt-country of Lucinda Williams. I’ll keep the song, which will fit nicely in some future playlist. But the band chafes me. It’s not the music; it’s the name. “Lady Antebellum” seems to me an example of the way we still–nearly 150 years after the end of the Civil War, nearly 50 years after the Civil Rights Ac; and in a supposedly post-racial country led by a biracial president–glorify a culture that was based on the violent oppression of people of color.

According to an article in the Augusta Chronicle, the idea for the name “Lady Antebellum” came after a photo shoot where band members dressed in Civil War-era clothing. It seems harmless–just a nod to the band’s roots south of the Mason-Dixon Line, a recognition of the Old South.

Wikipedia defines the antebellum period thusly:

The antebellum period (from the Latin ante, “before,” and bellum, “war”) was the time period in America from after the birth of the United States to the start of the American Civil War. The Antebellum Age was a time of great transition because of the industrial revolution in America. It also was a time of growth in slavery in the American South. It was a phase in American history when America spread towards the west coast which among historians is generally referred to as “Westward Expansion”.

In the public consciousness, part of this story translates into Gone with the Wind-style mythology about big manor houses set on sprawling plantations; fair, delicate, pale-skinned maidens in frilly dresses; brave and handsome men in gray; and solid, traditional American values. This rosy view of the antebellum South only holds up if you don’t scratch too deep. But we’re not likely to do that and disturb the patriotic version of history. We like myth better.

That is why, over the years, at least two women have gushed at me: “I would just love to go back to that time!” One, a white woman who had recently read the Margaret Mitchell novel that became the classic movie, did not consider that for her to be “Scarlett” I would have to be a darkie working in the fields. My family would have to live in bondage as chattel–our very lives dependent on the whims of our masters. The way of life she associated with the antebellum period, and the economy that supported it, was dependent on free labor and the dehumanization of people of color (not to mention classism and sexism). As an African American descendant of slaves, I cannot overlook that bitter reality. My acquaintance read Gone with the Wind and wondered how grand it would be to be Scarlett O’Hara. I wondered how awful it must have been to be Mammy.

As an amateur family historian, I have scoured wills and bills of sale of Southern landed gentry in search of the names of my great-great-grandparents among the fine china and horses. Once you have done that, it is hard to look at the mythologizing of antebellum Southern culture as benign.

I was thinking about this fact last week as I finished reading Manhunt, by James Swanson. The book was a riveting account of the 12-day search for Abraham Lincoln’s assassin, Confederate sympathizer John Wilkes Booth. Manhunt is a historical account that reads like a James Patterson novel. I couldn’t put it down, despite knowing how the story ended. The book contains thrilling personal narratives of a defining event in American history. Hearing the impressions of President Lincoln’s family, members of his Cabinet, Union loyalists and rebels, made history come alive.

After reaching Manhunt‘s midpoint, I thought surely it would become a book that I enthusiastically recommend to other readers. But I found that as John Wilkes Booth’s saga wore on, Swanson seemed to be lionizing the assassin, which I found disconcerting and not a little offensive. Booth is drawn in purple prose. The author goes on and on about the actor’s luminescent white skin, his thick black hair, his charm and elegant clothing. We learn about Booth’s passionate conviction, his belief that his cause was noble and the inconveniences of life on the run. Booth becomes a hero, while his pursuers are drawn as petty bumblers, eager to cash in on the fame and money associated with bringing in the president’s killer. Swanson even compares Booth to Jesus twice.

Late in the book, Swanson writes about how years after Lincoln’s assassination, Booth has found a heroic fame that Lee Harvey Oswald or James Earl Ray never will. There is no better example of this than Manhunt itself, which seems to forget that Booth–charming stage star though he was–was, more importantly, vain, a murderer, a traitor, a racist and a megalomaniac.

This is yet another example of the soft and fuzzy way we look back on the Confederate cause, the antebellum South and slave culture. I cannot imagine a book set in Germany at the time of World War II that would fawn over the charm and appearance of defenders of the Third Reich or mention how members of the Nazi Party thought their cause noble. We would not draw those opponents as anything but villains for the evil they committed against humanity. Yet, mention the antebellum South or the Confederacy, and some Americans grow starry-eyed. No one thinks of the more than 10 million enslaved Africans who died in the Middle Passage or on some plantation or small farm. No one thinks of the people who were denied their freedom and humanity so that the Southern economy could rise, and that all those Rhetts and Scarletts could sit in their fine houses, showing off their fancy clothes and manners. That America forgets my ancestors, while longing for the “glory days” that their enslavement made possible, is offensive.

I don’t like what the Confederate flag stands for and hate to see it flown. I think a century is not long enough to turn an assassin into a hero. And a middle-of-the-road country band with a name that harks back to pre-Civil War days doesn’t feel benign to me. You may say that I am thinking too hard. I say that sometimes society doesn’t think hard enough about the elements of history we cherish.

Originally published at What Tami Said on 1/20/10.

Comments

  1. Oh…wikipedia as a source? That's not good.

    But I completely agree with the rest of this post.

  2. This is so fantastic. The comparison to how we treat Nazi Germany is spot-on; why is the attempted genocide of one people beyond horrific but the enslavement of another is romanticized? I'm also not a fan of how we romanticize the "movement west" of White Americans and gloss over the horrible atrocities committed against American Indians, though I think killing that would be even harder than killing the romanticism of the antebellum South.

  3. As a white, Southern descendant of slave owners, I agree with you totally. I understand that people want to be proud of being Southern, but there are many MODERN things about the South to be proud of, that ALL people from the South can be proud of regardless of race or ethnicity, like the delicious food and drinks associated with the South, or the beautiful nature from the swamps and bayous of places like Louisiana and Florida to the beaches along the Gulf and Atlantic coasts to the Appalachian and Blue Ridge mountains and more, or even "Southern hospitality" and the ideal of politeness and good manners. There is absolutely no need to continue to perpetuate and glorify the culture of the Confederate and Antebellum eras. There is nothing to be proud of in the history of enslaving an entire race of people. There is nothing to be proud of in an economy and culture that was dependent on this forced labor. The Antebellum period was only glorious if you were rich, white, and male. If you were female, poor, or non-white, it was an oppressive existence, and to glorify that period is to glorify oppression and slavery. I am not generally a fan of country music anyway, but I refuse to listen to a band named "Lady Antebellum" because that is not an era we should be nostalgic for, and for the American public and for the band itself to ignore the racism and oppression inherent in such a name is disgraceful.

    • People use the sides drawn in the Civil War to ignore current bigotry and segregation. The conversation about slavery is so "safe" for people who live in the North. In Northern cities, discussions of race show a certain holier-than-thou attitude. Of course, who benefited from the slave labor? Only the slave owners, or their much richer Northern compatriots who supplied the American Industrial Revolution with slave-produced commodities from the South? The North was totally complicit in slavery. Just as in sweatshop labor today, are Americans off the hook for buying products made by slave labor just because we, ourselves, don't own the slaves and publicly tsk-tsk over their situation? And surely after the Civil War, the North has few no great strides to speak of. Didn't the KKK start in Wisconsin? After Brown v the BOE, didn't the largest number of school segregation cases happen in Ohio? If you're in a non-Southern city right now, are there really no noticeable racial divisions by neighborhood? By the way, we just had a census–where exactly ARE the most segregated cities? Are they in the South? Think again, dearies.

      • jurassigothinthecity says:

        @ Tami Winfrey Harris: Amen, amen and thank you, Madam!

        I'm another born-and-raised Southern white woman who has to agree with both Brandi and RedCeres.

        @Brandi: All these women who romanticize Ms. Scarlett O'Hara or even Melanie either never learned their history or have forgotten it. These women were social slaves, complicit in and committing atrocities against the real slaves. The wealthy white women could not vote, had few rights and couldn't even "own" the slaves with which she grew up once her father, brother or husband passed away. The little power she had would have been over the slaves.

        These Scarlett Wannabes also forget that slave owners–rich people–only comprised about 5% of the Southern white population. Most of the rest of us were, as the slave owners referred to us often, "poor white trash." However, Master was extremely adept at getting working class and farming whites to believe that they, too, could become rich slave owners if they just helped police the slaves. The movie "Mississippi Burning" captures the Confederate/Jim Crow mentality perfectly when agent Anderson says, "My old man was just so full of hate that he didn't know that bein' poor was what was killin' him.

        @RedCeres: Thank you! Living in Los Angeles for 10 years, I've encountered that same holier-than-thou attitude. To that I will just paraphrase the late, great Mr. El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz, aka Malcolm X, when he said, "Long as you South of the Canadian border, you're South." It's really easy to point the finger, however well-deserved it may be, to avoid dealing with their own privilege and bigotry.

  4. I guess some country music acts feel they have to pander to a big bulk of their audience and this glorification of the civil war era is spot on.

  5. amber dawn says:

    "No one thinks of the more than 10 million enslaved Africans who died in the Middle Passage or on some plantation or small farm. No one thinks of the people who were denied their freedom and humanity so that the Southern economy could rise"

    You say "no one" twice. That's not fair. First, because I'm a female who DOES know her history, and ISN'T at all a fan of the confederacy/romanticized antebellum period. And second, I don't have friends or close family that buys into the civil war romance either. I'm not even going to mention the fact that I would rather die than be Scarlett O’Hara. No amount of money would suffice as a fair trade for my freedom or anyone elses.

  6. oh you have got to be sh/tting me. Really?

  7. docrighteous says:

    White person's version: 'As an amateur family historian, I have scoured wills and bills of sale of Southern landed gentry and ordinary farmers and found the names of human beings among the fine china and horses. Once you have done that, it is hard to look at the mythologizing of antebellum Southern culture as benign.'

    In fact, it's hard not to be nauseated.

  8. hmprescott says:

    I teach U.S. history and just want to point out that if you look at the wills of many northern families you'll find human beings as well. For example, at the time of the American revolution, the state of CT had thousands of slaves, more than the other New England colonies combined. Slavery was not abolished completely in CT until 1848. Racism persisted in both the north and the south well after slavery ended — the KKK had chapters all over the United States.

  9. Fernandezink says:

    Has anyone seriously asked the band about how they feel the name is being received and whether they considered the meaning of the word. I think it would be seriously riveting to hear them respond directly to these concerns on their perceived insensitivity.

  10. Thank you for succinctly putting into words something that has been bothering me for a long time about this group.

  11. I respect your opinions and history but i would suggest you read more history. Slavery is not the only thing and possibly not the primary thing represented by the confederate flag. It is always refreshing to hear someone take responsibility for racism,the profitthey gain from others racism and/or ignorance of the realities of other’s lives. Hopefully you will continue to grow in your knowledge and understanding.

    • I would suggest YOU read more history. The entire purpose of the Confederacy was to preserve the institution of slavery. If you think otherwise you’re delusional.

    • Actually it was. Like all modern warfare, it was commerce and economy (money and its preservation) which drove the Civil War. When President Lincoln was elected those states who depended on agriculture and free/forced (same difference) labor feared for their economic welfare and chose to succeed rather than lose it. The entire basis of the Confederacy was in keeping the institution around for as long as possible. The funny thing is that the Civil War accelerated the decision to ban slavery within the US. Go figure. I <3 history.

  12. And their song is a rip-off.

  13. I think you are looking to much into the same. The Civil War happened. It is part of American history. You were not a slave. Get over yourself! My family came from Ireland and we were treated like slaves when we came to the US too. Don’t be a fan of Lady A then, they don’t need you!

  14. Yes Amber the Irish were treated hideously in America and as they were treated as slaves THEY WERE NOT BROUGHT HERE AGAINST THEIR WILL AND SOLD so you can get over it just try to pick up a history book, a non fictional history book, play Lady Antebellum and read.

    I think you are looking to much into the same. (that would be too not to) maybe that book learnin’ will help with your spelling

    • fbeauregard says:

      The Irish were, however, brought to Barbados and other Caribbean locales as slaves in the previous two centuries. If you forgive the shift in nomenclature, they were also brought to Australia as prisoners/slaves. (the Australian “immigration” was actually happening at the time of the Antebellum south)

      My initial reaction to the name Lady Antebellum was a groan deep in my belly. The saddest part is that the name SOUNDS nice to the ear. People who don’t remember or don’t care will think “Oh, how beautiful” and then somehow, the connotation is changed. Boo.

  15. mackattack says:

    Antebellum is the name for the time in history in which the United States was at peace prior to the civil war. Its about a time of peace, not slavery. You can get as offended as you want, but it seems at though their name was originally antebellum and when Hilary Scott came into the group they added Lady. They probably called it Lady and Antebellum at first, which got shortened to Lady Antebellum. Most people call them Lady A anyway, so you really need to get over the antebellum thing–It’s really nothing against black people.

    • While the antebellum period was a time of official peace, for slaves it was a period of constant toil and degradation. The “just get over it” argument is so infuriating. I once heard the Pulitzer Prize winning Civil War historian Shelby Foote say that blacks should be like Jews and get over slavery. The absurdity of comparing Jewish slavery thousands of years ago in Egypt to American slavery shows the misguided way that those who idealize the antebellum South think. The comparison of America to the way that Germany (and Japan) dealt with the genocidal racial supremacy that pervaded their societies. Germany faced anti-Semitism face on and outlawed Holocaust denial. Japan never fully faced up to its atrocities, and ethnic Koreans brought to the country during the war period as forced labor still face widespread prejudice, job descrimination and housing discrimination leading to economic disadvantage. Interestingly enough, Gone With The Wind still remains a favorite of Japanese who were alive during the post-WWII period. I guess racial supremacy, just like misery, loves company.

Speak Your Mind

*