Histories of Southern Revolt: An Interview with the authors of Dixie Be Damned

A woman in Gastonia, SC struggles to disarm a guardsman during a strike at a mill (Gaston Gazette, Edward Levinson Collection at Wayne State University)

Dixie be Damned is a history book about the South unlike any I have ever encountered, challenging the narrative that the South is a passive, politically conservative region. The authors, Neal Shirley and Saralee Stafford, focus on seven insurrectionary movements that cropped up across the region over the past 300 years. These movements, often ignored in contemporary teachings of Southern history, offer interesting vantage points into how communities resisted the institutions of slavery, racism, industrialization, and police oppression. Dixie Be Damned positions itself as a non-objective history, and the authors are explicit in stating that political histories should be examined via political lenses. The authors use an explicitly anarchist framework to explore a diversity of topics—autonomous zones deep in the Great Dismal Swamp of North Carolina that threatened the political control of the plantation system; the role of women during mill strikes that peppered the piedmont of South Carolina during the 1920s; cross-racial alliances that fought against unjust policing regimes during Reconstruction. Shirley and Stafford also write about the process of recuperation, whereby “legitimate” political actors co-opt and water down radical ideas for their own political gain. In their view, this process of recuperation has grown since the Civil Rights Era to undermine insurrections. I recently spoke to the authors about this process, along with the importance of reexamining historical narratives, the similarities between the past and the present, and how current activists can gain insight from the successes and failures of previous insurrections.


 

A woman in Gastonia, SC struggles to disarm a guardsman during a strike at a mill (Gaston Gazette, Edward Levinson Collection at Wayne State University)

A woman in Gastonia, SC struggles to disarm a guardsman during a strike at a mill (Gaston Gazette, Edward Levinson Collection at Wayne State University)

How do you remember being taught Southern history in schools?

Neal Shirley: I grew up in a family that moved around a lot. We lived in parts of the South and the Midwest, but my family is all from Montgomery, Alabama. I grew up learning two different mythologies. Public schools mostly taught the general version of events, and then I picked up variations on it at home, which centered around the meaning of the Civil War and the meaning of Reconstruction. I learned in public school that Reconstruction was a well-meaning but tragic failure. The version at home was different and focused specifically on the tragedy of white dispossession during Reconstruction. If you were to ask my mom what she thought about Ulysses S. Grant or William Tecumseh Sherman she would foam at the mouth a little bit. It was a very whitewashed, one dimensional history.

Saralee Stafford: My formative years of learning history were in Macon, Georgia public schools. Macon is a post-industrial mill town, in the seat of Georgia’s cotton empire. The narratives I learned were pretty prejudiced and genteel, and really focused on Southern suffering, primarily white suffering. It was about the tragedy of the Civil War. I remember visiting the Confederate Prisoner of War camp in Andersonville, sitting through a lot of in-depth retelling of Civil War battles, and then learning about the North coming in afterwards to really gut the South’s economy. What I learned about reconstruction is that Black and white people tried to work together but the North was too involved. I never heard the Northern side of this history until high school, when I learned about abolitionism and the focus on Northern abolitionism as the moral counter to Southern racism. Very bifurcated history for sure, very extreme in those ways.

 

In academia there is a lot of pressure to stick to one core idea,  to sort of stay in your lane with your head down and only talk about this one tiny aspect of an issue and ignore how it interacts with other issues. Dixie Be Damned has the ethos of a DIY writing project. Did taking this approach give you more freedom as authors?

NS: We wanted more scope in the book. We wanted to do research and write about all of these exciting insurrections, but also wanted to do interpretive work. We don’t spend a lot of time explaining why we weren’t interested in objective history, though, because we wanted to give our readers enough credit to understand our intentions.

SLS: This is a challenging book for academics. We go against the idea that everything needs to be in one discipline and hyper-compartmentalized.

NS: We had a couple of university talks where we went in and interacted with people with much better pedigrees than us, and it was fun to go into those spaces and bring them critiques about the academy and how it limits the kind of research questions that are asked. The kinds of questions that are important for resistance movements to be asking are often very different from the kind of questions academics ask. Academics don’t know how to ask those questions because they are not in the streets dealing directly with recuperation and identity and diversity of tactics. They aren’t dealing with those questions because they are not positioned in that way.

SLS: We also don’t have reputations to ruin!

 

 I think anarchists in the past have made a big mistake in dividing themselves into people who are interested in attack and people who are interested in care. It devalues the care to divorce from the attack and it isolates the attack to separate it from the care. 

This book challenges a lot of historical narratives about the South. One thing that really struck me was how well you used these seven vignettes to really illustrate the concept that the South has been stuck in various cycles of primitive accumulation over the past 300 years. Can you briefly speak to what primitive accumulation is and its recurring legacy in the South?

NS: Primitive accumulation is credited as an idea to Marx, but we take it in a different direction. Primitive accumulation is the phase of time that lays the foundation for capitalism to develop. It’s the act of dispossession that makes capitalism possible. We differ from Marx in questions of linear time and the existence of concrete phases of history. For us, when we look at the South, we see the initial act of dispossession repeated over and over again during different periods. We see dispossession happening during the discovery of the “New World,” during  colonization, and when whiteness and racial identities are created. This continues all the way into the 21st century in regards to the growth of the prison industry as a form of primitive accumulation. So it’s stretched out over time instead of being a distinct moment.

SLS: An important guiding book for us was Silvia Federici’s Caliban and the Witch, which frames the witch hunts of Europe during the 15th and 16th centuries as being an integral part of preparing Europe to be industrialized. Federici didn’t just look at the mass enclosure of land, but the enclosure of people. For example, taking reproductive power away from women can be a form of enclosure. For us, we were really trying to look beyond the idea that the Civil War was simply a moral war. We wanted to show the way in which capital needed to transform a huge part of the country to integrate it into the industrial economy. Not that slavery wasn’t extremely profitable, but that it was a necessary precursor to the world we live in today. We wanted to continue to dispel the notion that race and slavery was tangential to the development of the U.S. into the superpower it is today. That line of thinking is used as a way to say that slavery wasn’t that big of a deal, it wasn’t that profitable, so we don’t owe anything to the descendants of slaves. History is an ongoing process. It isn’t discrete. Slavery wasn’t something that happened and now it’s over, we’re still living with the vestiges of it. We wanted to move beyond the idea of phases of history, we wanted to look at all of the legacies we are living with.

 

I’ve tended to think primarily about the South’s history of controlling labor, which is obviously present in the plantation system, slavery, labor laws during reconstruction, Jim Crow and the difficulties unionizing in the South. You really bring to the forefront the related idea that the history of the South is more about regimes of punishment.

NS: What appeals to me about writing and thinking about labor as punishment and punishment as labor is that it breaks down this artificial division between the state and capitalism—that the state does social control and capitalism deals with labor. If you look at history, social control and capitalism are so intrinsically entwined that it’s impossible to tease one out from the other, especially in the South in relation to white supremacy. When you look at people resisting social control and white supremacy, they are also resisting forms of labor and who does what kind of work. It’s one big struggle. In regards to today, you see hybridization of punishment. The classic Northern modes of punishment are rationalized, modernized, impersonal, done in the public or visible arena. The stereotypically Southern versions of punishment are private, done by the plantation owner or by vigilante white justice. Vigilantism is very connected to modern policing. You really see this come into play after the Civil War with things like the convict leasing system and regimes of labor that are similar to slavery.

 

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A crowd of rioters stream past a smashed police cruiser in the Summerhill neighborhood of Atlanta, 1966 (Copyright by Julius Lester)

I always make the joke that the South isn’t going to rise again but is instead going to drag everyone else to our level. Something that you speak to is the myth that the South is progressively getting better and that all revolts are satisfied by incremental change and that we should all be happy with very piecemeal victories. You make an important distinction: Not all revolts are about incremental changes or about getting political changes, but some are a violent reaction to dispossession and oppression.

SLS: The South has always been used by the rest of the country as the repository for all things that are backwards or regressive. I think that’s been a very necessary counter-narrative to the idea that progress is a responsibility that all of us have. The image of Southern suffering has been absolutely essential to what it means to be an American or to participate in democracy in the South. Living in the land where all of these nightmares have been formed and deposited has always made me very cynical about what this “progress” is that the rest of the country possesses that we don’t get to participate in. There’s the personal experience of that cynicism but also the intellectual articulation of that cynicism, and for us it really comes from us being anarchists. Being anarchists means we have to deconstruct this narrative of progress, which is the only way Southern history has been approached. It’s so intertwined in the left, and so intertwined in the revolutionary left, that we need to be constantly pushing forward towards something better. It’s in that desire for change that people become really accustomed to settling for advancement and that’s how politics have been passed down, on a demand basis. But progress only exists to further the state and capitalism.

 

One thing that is really present in all of the insurrections you write about is the importance of support networks and communal ties. Does it seem like these networks and communities are increasingly difficult to create today?

SLS: I think yes and no, depending on where you are positioned. We lived in a majority woman and queer scene in Durham, where the politics are very focused on care and support, and how they can be forms of revolt. In other places there are serious struggles with those things. I hear from other folks in more urban areas that they get to experience a lot of things that I am not as familiar with, like ten or 14 day uprisings that happen in places like the Bay Area. But I hear that a lot of support work gets lost when there are a lot of political actors interacting in a scene.

NS: It’s a larger question of where communal support comes from during insurrections. One of the things I hear people say when they read the book is, “All of the conspiracies and attacks that happened on North Carolina plantations were really cool, but we don’t have a Great Dismal swamp to run to today.” It corresponds to this idea that all of our communal ties are gone. I think it’s a mistake to allow the kind of attitude to prevail that basically asserts, “Oh well, it would be nice if we could have this sort of old fashioned, historical insurrection like the ones you wrote about, but we can’t because we live in late capitalism and no one takes care of their grandparents anymore.” We have to improvise in how to care for one another. There are new forms of care that are possible and happening now that we overlook. The kind of things that I saw and heard about in the Oakland commune and Occupy Oakland in Oscar Grant Plaza were phenomenal, new types of communal care that I don’t think anyone in that city thought were possible a year before that. That is good to keep in mind: that the conditions right now create new possibilities for networks of care. I don’t share total cynicism towards networks of care. I think they are increasingly important. I think anarchists in the past have made a big mistake in dividing themselves into people who are interested in attack and people who are interested in care. It devalues the care to divorce from the attack and it isolates the attack to separate it from the care. In rebellions like Ferguson, the care networks and communal support networks are neighbors who are sharing their goods, watching each other’s kids, and people aren’t identifying that as a network of care. I think that’s a limited view.

SLS: I do think that networks of care are often the first things that break down when repression hits, and that is why people become cynical or pessimistic about insurrectionary possibilities. It takes a really strong historical consciousness to remind each other that the atomization that happens is exactly what repression wants, it’s their goal. It takes a lot of work to build relationships after a riot or a commune.

 

In some ways the South is really the heart of the origin of global capitalism, and it’s the heart of some incredible forms of resistance. I want people to be proud of that.

You put forth a slightly different definition of the New South, one explicitly rooted in the idea of the state’s interest in co-opting violent resistance by creating leadership opportunities for certain segments of oppressed populations. Do you see this dynamic emerging in today’s current climate of revolt, especially around the anti-police movement?

SLS: Absolutely, unfortunately. We saw it first in Charleston around the Walter Scott shooting. The immediate charges brought against the cop were said to be the only thing that kept that city from going up in flames. We saw the riots in Baltimore end the day they decided to bring charges and arrest the officers who killed Freddie Gray. We are seeing this demand emerge for the jailing of killer cops, and I think the quick response of the state saying “this is something we can do, this is something we can control” can cut the riots short. Some would say this is a victory, that we are seeing killer cops behind bars, but for those of us who are looking for something more, the charade of the court to bring these “rogue” police to justice just serves to reinforce the concept of the evolution of policing.

 

What lessons would you like people to take from this book, especially in regards to informing political resistance and revolt in the South?

SLS: If you want to see what resistance to empire, capital, white supremacy and patriarchy looks like, look at movements that really shook the ruling class and made them invent new ways to exert social control. You should not just look at political histories that you are used to. The book helps you reimagine who are actors of revolt, who are revolutionaries. Anarchists and communists in North America have their ideas of who their heroes are and what revolt has looked like, and we try to reimagine a lot of that. I think today is a good example of that. Whether you’re on the streets of Ferguson or on the streets of Columbia, South Carolina when the Klan was run out, it wasn’t communists and anarchists and outsiders, people with these very big political identities on paper, who did that. It was people in neighborhoods that heard that something was happening and they were sick of it. It was moms and kids and people who had gone to city hall meetings and wanted to see something else. We really need to adapt, to stop looking at our inspiration in a sectarian way. That’s a big thing that I want people to do.

NS: I feel like I grew up in a place where a lot of people were like, “Oh, too bad you live in the South. You gotta live in a place where things are more exciting.” I’m sick of that bullshit. Some of the most inspired and resistant communities that have ever happened in the world happened in the South. It’s where displacement and the origin of whiteness and white supremacy occurred, but it’s also the origin of a lot of inspiring counters to those things. In some ways the South is really the heart of the origin of global capitalism, and it’s the heart of some incredible forms of resistance. I want people to be proud of that.

 


Dixie Be Damned is out now, available through AK Press. The authors will be speaking at Mid-City Library on October 13th at 6:30pm. For more info, check out the book’s page on akpress.org

 

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