The Next Phase of Cultural Work in the South By David E. Whisnant
Vol. 13, No. 2, 1991, pp. 1-10
THOSE of you who know something of my work over the past two decades will not be surprised to hear that being asked to think about promoting Southern cultural heritage” would stir a lot of things in me. And indeed it does- more than Tam able to make sense of in my own head. But my hope is merely to draw us momentarily together to think about some common concerns.
I begin with three vignettes which I hope at least will convey a bit of the complexity we face at this historical moment. The first is of my father’s little shop off his carport in a suburban neighborhood in Anderson, S.C. It is as compact and orderly as a submarine galley. Tools collected over a lifetime line the walls. Shelves and drawers and neat stacks of labeled cigar boxes hold salvaged bits of metal and plastic, bushings and bearings, clips and hangers, links and shims, springs and switches, gaskets and fuses. Junk to some people, maybe, but to him a world of possibilities: a tin can poured full of lead and neatly painted black is a stand for
a work light; a scrap of plastic and a bit of nylon fishing line automatically lowers the burglar bar against the sliding door to the patio; an old lawn mower starter serves as a motor to raise the anchor on the twenty-two-foot pontoon boat that at the age of seventy-six he still hooks behind his truck several times a week and takes to the nearby Corps of Engineers lake.
If Levi Strauss didn’t say it, he should have: bricolage is the method of the have-nots, born of have-to but raised to the status of cultural principle. Though my father’s circumstances are now in fact rather comfortable, they became so only late in his life, and the combination of the necessity to make do and the generationally-transmitted Germanic demand to do it well or not at all evoked early in his life both the habit of bricolage and a finely-honed sense of design. At length both became central features of his personality and world view. When I recently asked him to get me a router arbor I couldn’t find in Chapel Hill, he sent me two: one he had bought for $12.50 and another he had made out of scrap for thirty-seven cents.
My second vignette: a Labor Day festival in the tiny
community of Silk Hope in northern Chatham County near Chapel Hill–skillfully rebuilt steam threshing machines and sawmills and lovingly reconditioned antique tractors scattered about the grounds under the trees; churches serving barbecue and fried chicken suppers; five-gallon churns cranked by Rotary Club men in John Deere and Southern States Coop hats, turning out innumerable big Dixie cups full of ice cream; bleachers full of part-time farmers and full-time textile workers facing a stage set up on a flatbed truck, listening to the Kearns, Buchanan and Swicegood brothers from Welcome, N.C., performing as the Sounds of Joy with drummer Kevin Buchanan laying down the oldtime ragtime gospel beat on a state-of-the-art drum synthesizer, and the elegantly stylish wife of the lead singer selling Sounds of Joy cassettes at a card table just off the corner of the flatbed.
Songs like “Fill My Cup Lord” and “Living In Canaan Now” capture me with memories of my own high school years singing in gospel quartets.
My final vignette: Driving back east a month later on U.S. 76 from Clayton, Ga., to Greenville, S.C., on a Sunday morning after attending the Foxfire board meeting–dropping fast out of the north Georgia hills to the Carolina Piedmont, body memory bringing back the swaying rhythm of the winding mountain roads I learned to drive on when I was barely sixteen: watch down the mountain for the clear curves ahead, roll with the bank, drift across the center line to stretch the radius, feel the reverse tilt as you catch the inside of the next one.
Up on the red clay banks the cultural panorama slides by: tumbledown brickpaper shack follows neat brick rancher; a jumble of single- and double-wides, and satellite dishes everywhere; bushels of apples and jugs of cider lined at roadside stands; one billboard says “Come to Jesus,” and another just says “no”; junk yards and church parking lots jammed, gun shops taking their one day of rest; gospel preachers and sports commentators on the radio, borrowing each other’s metaphors, offering your choice of binary worlds where things begin at the beginning and end at the end, where winners absolutely win, losers absolutely lose, and there is no column for politics. And on nearly all the mailboxes, yellow ribbon after yellow ribbon.
Dropping across the South Carolina line, back into the right-to-work country of Strom Thurmond and Roger Milliken, I recall that back up the mountain one local Foxfire board member (a wonderful and gentle man, and a good flattop picker to boot) is trying to help his fellow workers, non-union and anti-union as ever, fight Burlington Industries’ most recent stretch-out and speed-up demand, backed up (as ever) by a threat to close the plant, the town’s major employer.
The initial point of my vignettes, of course, is that when we start to talk about promoting or preserving “Southern cultural heritage” we are talking about an awesomely mixed bag. To try to sort through that bag a bit, I raise a few simple questions, no one of which has a simple answer: What have we done so far? Where do we find ourselves at this historical moment? Where is it that we are trying to go? What are we up against? And most importantly, what are the more and less usable bits of what we cultural bricoleurs have to work with?
The answer to the “What have we done?” question is relatively easy and rather comforting. Through these past several decades we have done a lot more than we were ever formally trained to do, most of us, a lot more than we really had the wherewithal to do with, a lot more than a sober reading of the odds might have suggested we could do. Mostly bricolaging our way through, we have learned to do festivals–a lot of them, and to do them well. We’ve started archives–good ones, important ones. We’ve organized and run oral history projects. We’ve established journals and published books, and made films and phonograph records. We’ve organized tours, mounted exhibits and opened museums in the mountains, across the Piedmont, down in the Delta and along the coasts. We’ve founded organizations and started academic programs about mountaineers and blacks and Native Americans and Cajuns. And in the process we’ve challenged a lot of neglect, cynicism, ignorance, badly-written history and bad policy.
All of this is good. We have good reason to be proud of
it. We should defend it and try to keep it flourishing.
What has happened while we have been doing all this, however, is that the political ground has shifted seismically beneath our feet. As we project our work from this moment, we must remind ourselves continually that most of what we thought of and taught ourselves to do was conceived and took most of its characteristic forms in the narrow breathing space between the reactionary 1950s and the in-some-ways more reactionary 1980s. Consequently, we find ourselves with a set of assumptions, analyses, and organizational forms and activities, formed alongside of the political fault line, which are increasingly unequal to the challenges on this side.
Think about it coldly for a moment: What do the Reagan-Bush-Helms-Bill Bennett years mean for our work? With a rather grotesque symmetry, the Reagan epoch opened with the breaking of the air traffic controllers’ union, peaked with Irangate, and terminated with the savings and loan scandal. The social, political, and cultural costs are incalculable. Public discourse has become so corrupted that taxation itself rather than the uses of tax monies emerged as an absolute evil. Federal funding mechanisms for social programs were dismantled, and private institutions (including especially universities) were starved, cannibalized and sold bit by bit to private enterprise. One after the other, regulatory bodies were shamelessly sacked, defunded, and left to twist in the wind. The common good virtually disappeared as a conceptual category, and issues of power, control and domination were skillfully mystified. Gunboat diplomacy came back in Granada, Nicaragua, and now the Middle East. At length the very idea of humane government itself virtually disappeared from the dominant discourse.
In sum, as we are all painfully aware, the Reagan
imperium is a period which surely historians will note primarily for its ugly machista and jingoistic swagger, its selfishness and stinginess, its policy cynicism and shortsightedness–for a level of malfeasance and flagrant criminality unmatched since the days of the Grant administration, the robber barons or Teapot Dome.
I recite these familiar details because we need to have them freshly if painfully in mind as we think about where we’ve been, where we are going, and what the odds are. The core dynamics of Reagan-Bush politics are especially critical to us because we have chosen to try to work in the public sector with the have-nots. Having just watched Ken Burns’s Civil War television series (a not unmixed boon, I think), I can’t resist comparing our strategic situation to that of Lee’s army just before Appomattox: some brilliant successes behind us, but confronted by an overwhelmingly superior force, and with the historical tide running heavily against us.
So what do we do? How do we maneuver from here?
We need at the outset, it seems to me, to take a fresh and more toughminded look at the culture of the South, question many of our accustomed assumptions, elaborate some more serviceable analytical and explanatory systems, reorient some programs and practices, and restrategize politically. So I would like to suggest some steps we might take, at least conceptually. What can and should happen practically will depend too much upon local resources and circumstances to generalize about very comfortably. That will be for each of us to figure out in our individual places of work.
If I have a central thesis here, it is that if our emerging cultural analysis and agenda are not fused to and integrated with a larger progressive agenda for social, economic, and political transformation, they will not be worth spending time on. Why? Because the relentless movement of the reactionary juggernaut in the years ahead will make transformation such a preeminent structural necessity that any oppositional cultural agenda not centered on transformation will be self-marginalizing.
We must not forget for even a moment that these are ugly, hardball times. I have little doubt that when the roll is finally called up yonder, this will go down as one of the ugliest, most willfully ignorant, corrupt, narrow-minded, meanspirited periods in the history of the United States government The Mapplethorp and NEA flap, tragic as it is, ultimately has little directly to do with art; whether clean or dirty; it is merely one of many red herrings being used to mask a broader and deeper ideological and political agenda of mystification and domination.
So how, in the midst of such times, do we achieve some clarity? How do we maneuver our ragged little battalion into the most advantageous position? What objectives must be given strategic priority?
In a recent piece in Southern Changes, I marked out what seems to me an unavoidable first step: to recognize the severe analytical and functional limitations of our accustomed set of essentially liberal assumptions and approaches to cultural work.1 I reemphasize the nub of that article as my point of departure: the grand fallacy of the recent silly and vacuous political campaign arguments over liberalism is that liberalism is far too little rather than too much, too puny rather than too strong, too circumscribed rather than too encompassing.
We must get ourselves beyond a liberalism that naively invests its energies in polite discourse with knaves and fools, grants outright the legitimacy of virtually every established institution, and makes easy peace with gradualist and meliorist approaches to urgent social needs.
More specifically, we must subject the very notions of “tradition” and “heritage” to more thoroughgoing criticism than we have usually been disposed to engage in. Central as those notions are to our discourse and practice, they are soft, ill-focused, and obfuscatory in some ways that have been problematic in the past and will be increasingly so in the future.
Through the last twenty years in which I have in some way been involved in these kinds of activities, “tradition” has been the pivotal buzzword. To call something traditional has been to say it is good, worthy of filming, recording, writing a book about, archiving, or putting on a stage or in an exhibit. Of course we recognize that there are bad traditions. So when we say tradition we implicitly mean good traditions, but even that understood correction is not sufficient The fact remains that we have hung much of our analysis and programming on a term that needs far more careful scrutiny than we have yet given it.
We all know, of course, that there are overtly reprehensible traditions: of violence, oppression, racism, sexism, bigotry, jingoism, xenophobia and the like. Part of what is so disturbing about David Duke, Jesse Helms, Strom Thurmond and their like is that so much of what they are and do is profoundly traditional, and that the millions of southerners who vote for them (as well as the tens of thousands of nonsoutherners who send them money) recognize it as such. Thus when we contemplate the current regional, national or international scene, it is essential to remind ourselves of the scale at which “tradition” is implicated. One might indeed argue that as a source of mischief and grief in the world at present, traditional values, beliefs, practices, and structures easily
hold their own with corporate cynicism, ideological rigidity and nationalistic fervor.
I suggest, in fact, that “tradition” is problematic precisely because it functions so readily as a kind of analytical short circuit, causing us to gloss over the internal politics of cultural systems (perhaps especially the gender-linked politics), not to raise certain questions, and not to push others as far as they need to be pushed. One could cite numerous areas in which the need for such pushing is indicated in our beloved southland. Some that come immediately to mind are the traditional anti-unionism of so many southern workers; the traditional disregard for the environment; the traditional sexism, anti-intellectualism and political regressiveness of much southern religion; the latent and overt violence of southern sports and car culture; the macho swagger and jingoism of much southern country music, and so on and on.
If one sums all of those traditions (and more of the sort) into “heritage,” it is clear that we have a good bit of toughminded self-criticism, reconsideration and restrategizing to do, and that the necessity to do it comes as much out of the unfortunate stability of the heritage itself as it does from the new political landscape produced by the seismic shifts of the past quarter century. My little vignettes were thus meant to suggest that while there is great strength and much to admire in southern culture, there is also much that is at once both profoundly problematic and profoundly traditional. Those problematics are abundantly in evidence in our new Encyclopedia of Southern Culture and in a raft of recent books.
The paradox that emerges from this mix is that we find ourselves engaged in a counter-hegemonic struggle with a dominant culture that has already (and long since) achieved substantial hegemonic control of and integration with southern culture. Hence we are armed with a double-barrelled weapon, one barrel of which is aimed straight at our foot if not back into our face.
What I am saying, then (to leave that grotesquely contorted image), is that “tradition” and “heritage” are not fine enough screens for the tasks that face us. The years to come are going to require some better analytical and programmatic instruments. As a starter, I would suggest that we accustom ourselves to subjecting every element of both “tradition” and “heritage” to at least two higher order tests: the test of serviceability within the cultural group itself, and the test of generalizability beyond it. Though both need careful definition and exploration, I hope two brief examples will suggest what I mean.
The first is all too familiar: though it is certainly traditional for cultures to be split antagonistically along gender lines, such a split is not serviceable within a culture because it displaces energy in unproductive directions, distorts and rigidifies potentially creative social processes, and denies and frustrates human potential.
And what of the generalizability test? Consider for a moment the fact that probably there is no more traditional aspect of southern life than the commitment to absolute private property rights. “This land is mine,” a Kentucky coal fields resident told me years ago, “and if I want to dig a hole in the side of the mountain, I’ll dig it.” More dramatically, many Ashe County, N.C., residents demonstrated in the latter stages of their years-long struggle against Appalachian Power Company’s plan to dam the New River that if it came to a choice between the dam and accepting Wild and Scenic Rivers Act restrictions on their absolute right to use “their” property, they would take the dam. (See Stephen W. Foster, The Past Is Another Country: Representation, Historical Consciousness, and Resistance in the Blue Ridge (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1989).)
Clearly such positions are neither serviceable nor generalizable. They are not serviceable because when used by others–multi-national coal and energy companies, for example–they serve as a rationale for precisely the forms of exploitation that historically have left so many southerners in poverty and servitude. And surely in the midst of the growing ecological crisis it is clear that such positions are not generalizable; this old creaking planet has already been poked so full of holes that it is screaming in protest.
So what faces us, I am suggesting, has at least as much to do with transformations as with continuities: the recent transformation of the political landscape; the consequent requirement to transform our own analysis and practice; and the absolute necessity to conceive of what we do culturally in the context of broader social and political transformation. What I want to focus on is the required transformation of some of our analysis and practice.
The first task, I fear, is no less than to help our constituency move with us from one explanatory system to another which, if not entirely new, is markedly different. Unfortunately, we are terrified by the interval, the chasm between deconstructing and dismantling one explanatory system and the emergence of another one. Moreover, most people, it turns out, have a rather low tolerance for indeterminacy and ambiguity in the first place. I sometimes think this may be especially true in the South, where most of us were raised on aphorisms, proof texts and a historical schemata rather than nuanced dialectical and historicized argument. (Within a broader frame one could of course argue that this sort of formation is characteristic of the people of the United States in general, but my concern here is with its implications in the South.) Such a predilection turns out to be particularly dysfunctional in
times like these, when the structural subtleties, ambiguities, indeterminacies and contradictions of the interlinked social, economic, political, and cultural systems in which we find ourselves mount daily.
I think there is also a cultural preference for unidimensional, essentially exotic explanations of social and cultural phenomena, rather than systemic and structural ones. It matters little whether the exoticism is religious (sin or God’s will), economic (free enterprise or taxes), social (drugs or welfare cheaters), or political (communism or demonized despots); give the public the choice between an exotic, unidimensional explanation and a systemic, multidimensional one (which Lord knows they actually have access to seldom enough) and most will choose the former nearly every time.
Paradoxically, these preferences, traditions, and predilections are central structural features of both of the cultures we are dealing with: the mainstream hegemonic culture and the remnants of most subsystems that remain doggedly in opposition to at least some aspects of it. Regionally, they help account for the ugliest parts of the history of the South; nationally, they support George Bush’s simpleminded thousand points of light voluntarism, a commitment to an idealized free enterprise that has never existed in the world and never will, a destructive hegemonic masculinity, a biosphere-raping policy of open-ended growth, and the political Ludditism of minimal government and taxation. Internationally, they lead to (among other things) a rhetoric-shrouded, military-backed and hypocritical neo-dollar or petro-diplomacy. This suggests that the first part of our agenda is somehow to orient our cultural work toward a heightened understanding of multidimensional, nuanced and structural rather than unidimensional exotic and symptomatic explanations.
Hence it seems to me that our principal task in the future is no longer to preserve, conserve, protect or
promote a whole culture as conventionally conceived, but to insure the health of, and a healthy trajectory for, a significantly reconstructed and integrated social, political and cultural order. And beyond that, to help ourselves and our neighbors to understand and accept the necessity for that reconstruction, and deal with the terror of bridging the chasm between the old explanatory systems and emerging ones that promise to get us beyond the present order to some new one.
If we are to begin to do either of these things, we are going to have to search through the traditions, the heritage to locate their most humane, progressive and transformative elements. We must look first of all for the transformative elements of southern culture, and then for ways to link their transformative possibilities to a larger humane agenda for change. This means that we are going to have to search through and relate ourselves to some other cultures as well, ending our cultural isolationism and reaching toward some kind of global solidarity.
This latter necessity derives from the inadequacy of our past analysis, from the tectonic political shifts I have already referred to, from emerging political cultural dynamics elsewhere in the world, and from the recent and ongoing demographic transformation of the South from a primarily bi- or tricultural region to a multicultural one, a demographic transformation that offers us at once a challenge and an opportunity. So what are some possible models, or components of models, and where are they?
What happens if we look for them first at home? Obviously it is a good news/bad news situation. The bad news is first of all that with Native Americans we blew it virtually completely. Genocide, ghettoization and forced removal rendered much of that critical and transformative potential forever irrecoverable. The remaining vestigial potential for creative syncretism continues to be mostly ignored and wasted. With blacks the record is more mixed, of course. There the bad news is about as bad as could be imagined, but we also find more good news. Much was destroyed, much was lost, but much remains, and the ongoing syncretism will continue to benefit the whole South. The arrival of so many Hispanics and Asians offers us yet another opportunity; hopefully we won’t blow it as badly with them as we did with Native Americans and blacks.
As an exemplary longitudinal example of the potential, one need only look at the development of southern music and southern rhetoric; as a dramatically transformative-political cultural event, the civil rights movement stands as paradigmatic. Other political cultural movements come to mind as well: the southern abolitionist movement, the anti-lynching movement, the populist movement, the brown lung and black lung movements, and of course numerous isolated strikes and other political actions.
So we are not without instructive resources within our own regional history. The problem is that political struggles have too seldom been fused to culture in a conscious way in the South, and even when they have, the fusion has too often either appealed to the most reactionary elements of the culture, or (even if that unfortunate scenario was avoided) they have not had much of a culturally transformative effect.
Moreover, far too many initially and explicitly cultural movements in the South have aborted politically. One thinks, for example, of the birth of country music in the 1920s, the growth of bluegrass in the 1940s, the advent of rockabilly in the 1950s and sixties, and the Appalachian and Cajun revitalization movements in the 1960s and seventies. Each arose out of some of the deepest structural contradictions of American life; none has yet pursued those contradictions as rigorously or as far as they beg to
be pursued. The one I know best for the moment–I’ll call it hillbilly nationalism–for the most part stopped at the boundary of private property and free enterprise. Others stopped at still other marked or buried boundaries.
Fortunately, we are not left dependent entirely upon our own purely regional history and experience. There are important conceptual, analytical, and strategic lessons to be learned, and policy modules to be borrowed from other sectors: from the women’s movement, from gays and lesbians, from the peace and antinuclear movements, from the environmental movement Fortunately, the literature about all these is growing, and is instructive, the organizations are growing and proliferating, and a new generation of young people is coming along.
We also have much to learn from current Native American struggles. Through 400 years they have had ground into their minds and hearts and bodies the elemental truths that the juggernaut is relentless and essentially without conscience; that the vast majority of its agents cannot and must not be trusted, that whatever the rationalizing language; the agendas are at bottom cultural; that it is not inches they are interested in, but miles; that liberal consensus constructed across major boundaries of power is neither trustworthy nor durable; and that achieving clarity about one’s own culture and history is an essential guide to tactics and strategy.2 The next most proximate examples lie to the south in Latin America. The powerful new genre of the testimonial opens to us the experience of countless working class and indigenous people who have drawn upon the more transformative elements of their culture for purposes of political struggle.3
The post-1960s nueva canción movement that blended traditional music with politically transformative texts is also instructive.4 The journal Cultural Survival regularly documents not only the decimation of indigenous groups in Central America, the Amazon rain forests and elsewhere, but also their imaginative culture-based strategies of organization and resistance. Some are international in reach, such as the ethnopolitical Coordinated Indigenous Organizations of the Amazon Basin (CIOAB) ,designed to defend indigenous values, reinforce the unity of indigenous communities, press their interests before national governments and international bodies, and push toward autonomous and environmentally sensitive development outside dominant paradigms.5
I suggest, then, that we can no longer afford to keep ourselves so isolated from such analyses and dynamics, so great is their potential for cultural and political clarification, as well as for the building of crucial alliances. We must not only ally ourselves with such groups and movements, but must come to understand our own political cultural dilemma characteristically and habitually in the context of those insistently analogous ones of Quebec Mohawks, Quiché highlanders, Somoan islanders, Khmer refugees, and Andean campesinos.
In July 1990, to raise one specific possibility, representatives of 120 Indian groups met in Quito, Ecuador, to celebrate 500 years of Indian resistance to colonial and neo-colonial oppression, discrimination and exploitation. For some of us to begin to turn up at such meetings would constitute not only a major step forward but also a promising reorientation of our political-cultural vector. Such connections would at the very least open our own cultural past and present to more nuanced examination, but beyond that they would be inherently politicizing. And they would almost inevitably lead to an awareness of links to larger structures, and hence to a vitally necessary habit of structural analysis.
A potentially useful clarifying metaphor for this work would be one drawn from Frantz Fanon: the overall transformative task that faces us may usefully be thought of as a task of cultural decolonization and transcendence. Speaking of the agonized and violent decolonization of North Africa in the late 1950s, Fanon said that for “cultured individuals of the colonized race (or region, in our case) … the demand for a national culture and the affirmation of the existence of such a culture represent a special battlefield. While the politicians situate their action in actual present-day events, men of culture take their stand in the field of history.”
At least so far, our particular historical field is more tranquil than Fanon’s was, though it is less so every day. In any case, we must bear clearly in mind that it is a
historical field on which we find ourselves arrayed. And that field–textured by swamps and bayous, paved over with highways and shopping malls, folded into mountains and valleys, punctured by deep mines and high rises, laced with creeks and rivers–has witnessed both many a lassy making and many a lynching, many a corn shucking and many across burning, many a hoedown and many a shutdown. We grew up to the whine of fiddles and of spindles, the clack of cloggers and of looms, the lonesome wail of honkytonk singer and of factory whistle. Our rhetoric is the rhetoric of talltale teller and snakeoil hawker, of black preacher and white television evangelist, of squaredance caller and mobile home salesman.
So our job is above all a job of sorting, of ransacking cultural systems here and elsewhere for their serviceable, generalizable, transformative elements. This is the difficult and threatening but also familiar bricolage job of imaginative reassembly that at its best has in the past produced the varieties of southern speech, built environments, dance and music. The difference now is that we must begin to pay less attention to what has pleased us in the past or pleases us in the moment than to what will serve us in the future.
As we do so, we must take great care that our work not be pacifying, mystifying, and depoliticizing. In his book Gender and Power, R.W. Connell notes ruefully that within the politics of gender, intellectuals are frequently finetuned into system serving behaviors: priests blessing the established sexist forms of social practice, male psychotherapists talking the tensions out of wealthy urban women and drugging or hospitalizing rural poor ones, social planners adjusting the welfare system to mute the evidence of structural, gendered inequality. Such tendencies are no less present in the politics of culture. As we try to move beyond defensive and celebratory regional strategies to critical and transformative global ones, it is supremely important that we keep our self-reflexive critical senses sharp.
One of the most moving and clarifying books I have read lately is Gloria Anzaldúa’s Borderlands/La Frontera. Anzaldúa is a Chicana lesbian feminist who understands what it means to grow up as a border woman in the midst of multiple contradictions. Addressing herself at one point to what she calls “movements of rebellion and cultures that betray,” she speaks of how her own rebellion was complicated by the dominant paradigms of Latino culture–paradigms that shackle, shame, and cripple women particularly, but which “make macho caricatures” of men as well. “Conozco el malestar de mi cultura,” she says; “I know the sickness of my culture,” and “I feel perfectly free to rebel and rail against [it].” So although like a turtle she4 carries her cultural home on her back, she refuses, she says, “to glorify those aspects of my culture which have injured me.” With other dark-skinned women who have been “silenced, gagged, caged, bound into servitude,” she “stokes the inner flame” and looks toward a new mestiza culture that may at last break through the “despotic dualities” of the past.
Anzaldúa’s images of borderland and turtle and flame are instructive, for our South is an ever more contested borderland between two ancient hegemonic orders. Like Anzaldúa we carry our culture on our backs as impediment, as refuge, as reminder of who we are and how we were formed. Like her, we can speak of those movements of rebellion that we have in our blood (movimientos de rebeldia que tenemos en la sangre). Like her, even as we love and defend the culture that is ours, we must keep clear about those parts of it that have betrayed us–perhaps most of all by denying us the freedom to move confidently and unapologetically into those new borderlands where elements of a newer, more vital, more humane culture must be forged.
David E. Whisnant teaches at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Since 1970 he has worked extensively with local, state, regional and national cultural Programs, folklife festivals, filmmakers and record producers, and private cultural institutions. He is currently working on a book on the politics of culture in Nicaragua.
1. David E. Whisnant, “Letting Loose of Liberalism: Some Thoughts on Cultural Work and the Limits of Polite Discourse,” Southern Changes 12 (August 1990): 1-11.
2. For the colonial period in North America, this history is laid out in abundant detail in James Axtell, The Invasion Within: The Contest of Cultures in Colonial North America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1985), and for the post-Revolutionary period in Francis Paul Prucha, The Great Father: The United States Government and the American Indians (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1986).
3. See for example I, Rigoberta Menchu: An Indian Woman of Guatemala, edited by Elizabeth Burgos (London: Verso, 1984), and Moema Viezzer, Si me permiten hablar: testimonio de Domitila, una mujer de las minas de Bolivia (Mexico: Siglo Veintiuno Editores, 1977). For an excellent compact survey of culture-based resistance movements, see John H. Bodley, Victims of Progress, (3rd. ed., revised; Mountain View, California: Mayfield Publishing, 1990).
4. See Nancy Morris, “Canto porque es necesario cantar. The New Song Movement in Chile, 1973-1983,” Latin American Research Review 22, no. 2 (1986): 117-36.
5. Stefano Varese, “Los dioses enterrados: el uso politico de la resistencia cultural in digena,” presented to Smithsonian Institution symposium Seeds of Industry, Oaxtepec, Morelos, Mexico, September 6-8, 1990, pp. 13-14.