Nostalgia Isn’t What It Used to Be

Bryant’s Minstrels (without blackface). Photo: Library of Congress

Unless you’re a white southerner.

Have you ever returned to a place from your childhood? Chances are, the present reality seemed smaller, duller, less magical. Thomas Wolfe told us “You Can’t Go Home Again.” But he was wrong, and as a white southerner, he should have known better.

You can go home again — if your present and your past are both illusions.

My sixth-grade music teacher, Miss Brownie Brown (her nickname had nothing to do with her pinkish-white skin tone — after all, the South is the Land of Illusions) would visit once a week. She’d preface our singing with a simple catechism: “Who was the greatest composer who ever lived?” And the auditorium would echo with “Stephen Foster!” Then we’d launch into a festival of his tunes, like “O Susanna,” “My Old Kentucky Home,” and “Ol’ Black Joe.” Little white children indoctrinated with songs about places, times, and people they never knew — and that never existed, at least as portrayed.

One song from these performances (not by The Greatest Composer Who Ever Lived) stayed with us through high school, the “unofficial national anthem of the Confederate States”: “Dixie.” If you grew up south of the Mason Dixon Line, you’ve probably heard it a few million times, but probably not in the original dialect Miss Brownie Brown taught us. Here’s the first verse and chorus (I won’t persecute you with the other two verses):

I wish I was in de land ob cotton,
Old times dar am not forgotten,
Look away! Look away!
Look away! Dixie Land!
In Dixie Land whar I was born in,
Early on one frosty mornin’;
Look away! Look away!
Look away! Dixie Land!

Chorus:
Den I wish I was in Dixie, Hooray! Hooray!
In Dixie Land I’ll take my stand
to lib and die in Dixie;
Away, Away, Away down South in Dixie;
Away, Away, Away down South in Dixie.

Source: https://hymnary.org/text/i_wish_i_was_in_the_land_of_cotton from The Assembly Hymn and Song Collection: designed for use in chapel, assembly, convocation, or general exercises of schools, normals [i.e. schools for training teachers], colleges and universities

The dialect here, like that in many of Stephen Foster’s songs, is linguistic blackface, but in this case it’s literally so. The composer D. D. Emmett wrote the song around 1859 for Bryant’s Minstrels, a group of blackfaced white men who performed songs and skits enacting the demeaning stereotypes of Black people that white audiences found so amusing.

The subject matter of “Dixie” is even more preposterous than the dialect: a freed slave living in the north wishes he were back in “the land of cotton.” It’s no wonder that the song became popular in the South — before, during, and after the Civil War — where it popularized the notion that Blacks were happier under slavery.

A century after the song’s creation, we sang “Dixie” at football pep rallies, unaware (not that most of us would have cared) that our fake nostalgia was based on a song that itself was based on fake nostalgia (and written by an Ohioan no less!).

But what did reality matter? The song inspired us with Southern pride in our brave football team. Of course our opponents were as Southern as us (maybe more so if they were from Valdosta), and they probably sang “Dixie” at their pep rallies with as much enthusiasm as we did.

All this would be funny, if it weren’t so tragic.

The revelation of photos of Dylann Roof (the murderer of nine African Americans at a prayer service in Charleston, SC) with a Confederate flag helped impel a movement to remove the Confederate flag from the state capitol (my take on Nikki Haley’s mixed / mixed up message here). But what is more disturbing than Roof’s flag worship is the fake nostalgia embedded in his manifesto:

I have read hundreds of slave narratives from my state. And almost all of them were positive. One sticks out in my mind where an old ex-slave recounted how the day his mistress died was one of the saddest days of his life. And in many of these narratives the slaves told of how their masters didn’t even allow whipping on his plantation. (Source)

You might be wondering why Dylann Roof had been reading hundreds of slave narratives. Apparently Roof took the killing of Trayvon Martin by George Zimmerman as proof that Blacks were launching a war on white people, and he said he wanted to find out why Blacks hated white people so much. He concluded that there was no reason for this violent response, because most white people in the South, not to mention white people in the north, didn’t own slaves. Besides, Roof argued, there was no reason for Blacks today to resent the history of slavery because these narratives show the institution was not disliked by slaves themselves.

I don’t know which narratives Roof read, but I have a feeling he did more misreading than reading — and he used his misreading to concoct the notion that slavery wasn’t a bad thing at the time (a particularly pernicious application of confirmation bias).

Now what he did with this misreading, with this fake nostalgia, is more frightening than his love of the Confederate battle flag. Roof concluded that since there was no historical reason for modern Blacks to be angry with white people, then their anger, which Roof classified as “black on white violence” was unjustified. And since this violence was so irrational, the only way to respond to it was with equal violence. Roof’s murder of nine unarmed, innocent men and women during prayer was in his eyes an act of self-defense.

The catalyst for my reflections here was a Medium article by a woman who attended a Trump rally in New Hampshire and found the attendees warm and welcoming toward her, not violent or intimidating. My first reaction was “This doesn’t sound like what would happen in my red state” and I began to wonder if the nostalgia that “Make America Great Again” evoked in people in New Hampshire might be different from the nostalgia that southern Trump supporters feel. My initial hunch was that an extremely violent person like Dylann Roof wouldn’t be so likely in the Granite State.

I don’t mean to imply here that white southerners have a monopoly on self-deception, any more than we’re the only people who appreciate bourbon and NASCAR and Patsy Cline. But I think that our heritage and our response to that heritage make us a good population to start with when examining the danger of remembering things the way they weren’t.

Neurological and cognitive research has shown that false memories can be created, and that sometimes they seem more real than verifiably true memories. (WebMD for a simple overview)

Nostalgia can be an attractive response for a number of reasons, among them that it can give us a sense of a better world — the good old days. We can enjoy thinking about a comforting past, even as our present world is in shambles. But when that past world never existed, and when the values and ideals we cherish today are equally removed from reality, then fake nostalgia can become a lethal and inescapable trap.

Music: Discovering the lost and forgotten. Politics: Exposing injustice. Screenwriting: Emotional storytelling.

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