Race & Gender in Southern US Commemorations

A review of Performing Place: Race and Gender in Contemporary Southern U.S. Commemoration, by Chandra Owenby Hopkins.

In her dissertation, Chandra Owenby Hopkins complicates contemporary portrayals of southern identity by examining sites that interrogate the popular concept of “the southerner.” She chooses three cultural groups and associated commemorative events on which to focus: the United Daughters of the Confederacy and the “Confederate Memorial Day,” the Native southerner and “Frontier Day,” and the Gullah-Geechee and the “Sea Islands Festival.” She argues that the three chosen sites present alternate southern identities which reimagine history and place in order to connect with memory and heritage; these identities are also examined through the intersection of race and gender as informing specific performances of individuality. The commemorative events are spaces where participants are able to enact their identities in a place of historical and cultural significance. Throughout her dissertation, Hopkins analyzes a combination of historical background information, literary and dramatic texts which inform each southern identity, observation at each festival, interviews of participants, and performative readings of identity within each site.

In the first chapter, Hopkins lays the foundation of her dissertation and provides the epistemological underpinnings of her contentions. She delves into contemporary imaginings of “the southerner,” including the 1936 novel and 1939 film, “Gone With The Wind;” chef and entertainer Paula Deen; and Cash Money Records and the “Dirty South” hip-hop culture as examples of an identity that is considered by outsiders as both exotic and racist or backwards. She contends that these images do not reflect the complexity and/or diversity of southern identities which cannot be reduced to the black/white essentialist binary. Thus, Hopkins draws upon Marvin Carlson’s concept that they are “repositories of cultural memory” to examine how performance and dramatic sites might be spaces in which cultural groups might share and re-inscribe memory, identity, and place (Marvin Carlson, The Haunted Stage: the Theatre as Memory Machine. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2001, p. 2). She uses Saidiya Hartment’s “reading against the grain” for her racial and gendered analysis of the included dramatic literature (Saidiya Hartman, Scenes of Subjection: Terror, Slavery, and Self-Making in Nineteenth-Century America. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997). For her descriptions and analyses of public performances at each site, Hopkins employs Clifford Geertz’s theory of thick description (Clifford Geertz, Local Knowledge, Further Essays in Interpretive Anthropology. New York: Basic Books, 1983, p. 69) and Michel de Certeau’s observation practices in “Walking in the City” (Michel de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life. Steven Rendell, Trans. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984). Finally, her approach to public space is informed by Doreen Massey’s notion of how public spaces construct ideas of gender and race (Dorren Massey, Space, Place, and Gender. St. Paul: University of Minnesota Press, 1994) and Yi-Fu Tuan’s idea that place can be imbued with notions of home, identity, and memory (Yi-Fu Tuan, Space and Place: The Perspective of Experience. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1977).

In the second chapter, Hopkins examines the United Daughters of the Confederacy’s 2011 annual “Confederate Memorial Day” held in Oakland Cemetery in Atlanta, Georgia. Oakland Cemetery is one of the oldest and largest cemeteries in the south, with approximately 6,900 Confederate soldiers interred there; hence, the cemetery provides an historic site to commemorate the Confederacy. The United Daughters of the Confederacy (UDC) is a white heritage group which seeks to memorialize the Confederacy and honor the military honors of the descendants of Confederate soldiers. Hopkins argues “Confederate Memorial Day” is a site where the UDC members reconstitute themselves in the image of the loyal and long-suffering “southern belle” or “southern lady.” Employing Joseph Roach’s “genealogies of performance,” she contends that the contemporary performance of an imagined ideal by UDC members is drawn from characters in Bronson Howard’s 1888 play, Shenandoah; Margaret Mitchell’s novel and film, “Gone With The Wind;” and Doris Baizley’s 2000 play, Shiloh Rules (Joseph Roach, Cities of the Dead: Circum-Atlantic Performance. New York: Columbia University Press: 1996, p. 25).

The third chapter focuses on the 2011 annual “Frontier Day” at reconstructed New Echota and the Cherokee and “Native southerner” participants. New Echota was formerly a Cherokee capital and the site of the signing of the Treaty of New Echota, which began the move westward known as the Trail of Tears. After this time, the land was parceled out to white settlers and used for farmland until the 1950s when an archaeological dig was authorized in advance of the founding of the New Echota State Historic Park which includes several reconstructed and re-placed Cherokee buildings of significant cultural value. “Frontier Day” was originally organized by a combination Cherokee artisans and storytellers with state park officials in an effort to re-presence Cherokee culture at this historic site. Hopkins interrogates the performances of Cherokee identity by enrolled Cherokee members as well as those who claim Cherokee ancestry who are not enrolled tribal members. She posits that these “Native southerners” choose “Frontier Day” as a site to perform their Cherokee identity because the location is of historical and cultural significance. Hopkins also draws upon Diane Glancy’s 1996 play, The Woman Who Was a Red Deer Dressed for the Deer Dance, and Gerald Vizenor’s notion of “survivance” as connections between current performances of Cherokee identity at “Frontier Day” and resistance of previous attempts at cultural erasure (Gerald Vizenor, ed., Survivance: Narratives of Native Presence. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2008).

The fourth chapter considers the Gullah-Geechee’s 2011 “Sea Islands Festival” at St. Simons Island, a contested location for the African American community that once called it home. The Gullah and Geechee peoples were originally brought as slaves to the United States from Africa specifically for the purpose of rice and cotton farming. Due to the often uncomfortable locales, these slaves were left in relative isolation, allowing for the retention of African languages and cultural practices (as discussed in Lorenzo Dow Turner’s Africanisms in the Gullah Dialect, Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1949, 2002). The Gullah and Geechee peoples are the descendants of those slaves who remained on or near the land of former plantations on the barrier islands known as the “Sea Islands,” maintaining their language and cultural practices. St. Simon’s Island is an example of the growing trend towards tourism and the influx of white inhabitants on many of the barrier islands, to the point that St. Simon’s population is now only 2.8 percent African American. Hopkins discusses Fanny Kemble’s Journal of a Residence on a Georgian Plantation in 1838-1839; Dion Boucicault’s 1859 play, The Octoroon; and Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel and play, Uncle Tom’s Cabin as contested sites of popular images of slave experiences. She posits that the Gullah-Geechee peoples utilize the space of the “Sea Islands Festival” to perform their place-based identity, preserve and perform cultural practices, and reinscribe themselves into the landscape, where several historically and culturally significant locations are currently threatened with erasure through continual development of housing projects.

In her conclusion, Hopkins reiterates her focus on place-based identity as performed at and informed by the three commemorative events in that she argues that place is both the material site central to memory and how one fits within one’s community. She also uses an intersectional approach to examine the race, gender, social status, and economic status interactions in the various southern identities with which she engages. She contends that these performances of southern identities challenge previously conceived notions of “the southerner” through the incorporation of the contemporary racial diversity and cultural history not often found in today’s media. As such, Hopkins’ dissertation is an important intervention in American studies in expanding the concept of “the southerner” and exploring performances of various southern identities. It also makes a significant contribution to theatre and performance studies in resituating the performance of identity as inseparably informed by culturally and historically significant locations.

Tiffany Noell
Department of General Studies
South University
Tiffany.Noell@yahoo.com

Primary Sources
“Confederate Memorial Day,” Oakland Cemetery, Atlanta, Georgia
“Frontier Day,” New Echota State Historic Park, Calhoun, Georgia
“Sea Islands Festival,” Gascoigne Bluff Park, St. Simons Island, Georgia

Dissertation Information
University of Kansas. 2012. 236 pp. Primary Advisor: Henry Bial.

Image: The crumbling Harrington School on St. Simons Island in 2011.

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