Teaching Southern History Through Myths

When I arrived in my teaching position and learned I’d need to teach a course called “Virginia and the Old South,” my heart sank. How was I going to turn that into something that sounded so old fashioned into an engaging course? But as it turned out, I came up with a spin on the class that has made it one of my favorite classes to teach, albeit under a new title: “Race and Myth in Southern History.”

We start out the class by discussing the difference between history and myth, and I give the students a handout with definitions and a list of the main components of a myth about the past (drawn from theorists but accessible for undergrads). From then on, each week tackles a different myth from European contact to Reconstruction.

While the first couple of weeks I present to them about the myths, for most of the course, small groups of students do that. We then contrast the myth with the reality, based on their readings and short lectures from me. The students who present on that week’s myth then write a short paper contrasting myth and reality, citing the lectures and readings as well as their own research.

There are a number of benefits to this approach for students: their stereotypes and preconceptions about the South are overturned; they learn to critically evaluate narratives about the past; and they see clear connections to present-day stories, images, and symbols. Given that most of the students in the class aren’t history majors (it’s an upper-level humanities elective in our liberal arts core), these lessons are just as important as the historical content.

Here’s the basic syllabus. I assign sections of J. William Harris’s Making of the American South each week, in addition to the readings listed below

Week 1: Defining the South and Myth
Mythology handout

Week 2: The South as Empty Eden
Reading: Camilla Townsend, Pocahontas and the Powhatan Dilemma, 3-66

Week 3: Pocahontas
View clips from animated film in class
Reading: Townsend, Pocahontas and the Powhatan Dilemma, 66-159

Week 4: skip myths for a week; cover AmRev, library visit to research myth presentations

Week 5: The Virginia founders as heroes
Includes a short lecture on Thomas Jefferson & Sally Hemings
Reading: Clint Smith, How the Word is Passed, ch 1

Week 6: The Bible Belt
Reading: Harris, Making of the American South, p. 117-120; Heyrman, Southern Cross, p. 3-76, 253-260

Week 7: Enslaved people as powerless, happy servants
Reading: Horton and Horton, Slavery and the Making of America, 67-159

Week 8: Midterm

Week 9: Southern Belles
Reading: Clinton, The Plantation Mistress, p. 3-35; Glymph, Out of the House of Bondage, intro, ch. 3 [have students contrast Clinton & Glymph, then discuss development of historiography on women & slavery–they really get it!]

Week 10: Land of Plantations
Reading: Steven Hahn, “The Yeomanry of the Non-Plantation South”; Stephanie McCurry, “The Politics of Yeoman Households”

Week 11: Field trip to local plantation, with related reading

Week 12: Lost Cause part 1: origins of the war
Reading: Alexander Stephens, “Cornerstone Address,” (March 21, 1861); Ta’nehisi Coates, “What This Cruel War was over”

Week 13: Lost Cause part 2: the course of war
Reading: Gallagher, Myth of the Lost Cause, ch. 1; Horton & Horton, Slavery & the Making of America, ch. 5

Week 14: Emancipation & Carpetbaggers
Reading: Horton & Horton, Slavery & the Making of America, ch.  6; Degler, “Myths of Reconstruction”

Final exam: Watch Gone with the Wind (I also provide students with a link to the script), identify examples of how the myths from the 2nd half of the class appear, and explain the historical reality

Please feel free to contact me at cgood [AT] marymount [DOT] edu if you need more details!

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