Northerners are trained to revile the “primitivism” of the South. It’s a reflex borne of the legacy of slavery as well as an American gothic of trailer parks, inbred cousins, moonshine swilling troglodytes, toothless Klansmen wielding Confederate flags, redneck police brandishing fire hoses. In the newsreel of the unconscious, the South becomes the face of drooling unvarnished Bible-drenched racism, the North’s demonic double. It is envisioned as the site of racism’s “original sin,” even though one of the first and largest slave strongholds was in 17th century Manhattan.
But the Black Northerner has a complex, ambivalent relationship to this narrative of opposites. In the early-to-mid 20th century Southern terrorism and economic inequity spurred the Great Migration of African Americans to Northern cities of “opportunity.” The Northern drive was the stuff of legend and lore, firing the prose of writers as generationally diverse as Richard Wright and Toni Morrison. Black church denominations like the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) church played a big role in helping African Americans transition to deeply segregated Northern black communities that were often hostile to Southern transplants. Yet kin and communal ties kept black migrants spiritually and emotionally wedded to the South. As much as the South was the primal scene for black slavery it was also a source of close knit black community, culture, and linguistic traditions. It was a space where African Americans were segregated yet provisionally self-sufficient, forced by necessity to establish their own businesses, schools, banks, medical practices, and cultural centers.
Writer Zora Neale Hurston notoriously rejected the antidote of “Northern” integration. In much of her work she extolled the virtues of black self-sufficiency and rugged individualism. For Hurston, these values were best embodied by her adopted hometown Eatonville, Florida. Reflecting on the 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education decision Hurston wryly noted that “it is a contradiction in terms to scream race pride and equality while at the same time spurning Negro teachers and self-association.” Southern black cultural traditions were an example of that venerable heritage of self-association. Hurston disdained what she perceived as blacks’ tendency to grovel for white moral and social validation. Not only was integration a smokescreen but it falsely absolved whites of their complicity in the institutionalization of white supremacy. Contemporary bromides about the increase of multiracial relationships, expanded U.S. Census categories for multiracial people, and the alleged decline of racial identification amongst the “Millennial” generation only disguise the folly of post-racialism. Indeed, according to a 2011 survey by Colorlines Applied Research Center, the claim that Millennials believe racism has magically receded in the age of Obama is invalid. Race and racism are very much relevant to so-called Millennials, especially when it comes to issues of over-incarceration and employment discrimination.
From where many of us living in areas that have been demonized as ghettoes, inner cities or urban jungles sit, the social construction of the black and brown other is still a vital part of white Christian nationalist solidarity. Poll after poll has shown that the Tea Party and white evangelicals speak with the same voice. Historically, much of this sentiment emerges from the kind of deep white supremacist and class-based resentment exemplified by Richard Nixon’s Southern Strategy. The Tea Party’s antipathy toward the recent Occupy Movement demonstrated that it is not really interested in upending the status quo but in exploiting anti-establishment rhetoric to maintain white supremacy and capitalist disparities in wealth and power. Most of the top Republican presidential candidates have heeded this clarion call to Manifest Destiny. From former House Speaker Newt Gingrich’s entreaty to shiftless black folks on food stamps to Senator Ron Paul’s reputed warning about a black driven “race war,” the politics of black-baiting will never become out of date or unprofitable when it comes to appeals to white nationalism. In trying to shore up its Midwestern and Southern base the GOP has engaged in a particularly fantastical brand of doubletalk, framing the tepid Obama administration as the architect of a war against Christians. It is tempting to attribute this smear to Obama’s specious reputation as a liberal Democrat. Yet there was no such culture war propaganda during the Clinton administration. Clinton was a good Southern Baptist who could quote scripture and hold forth on biblical truths with the best evangelicals. But Obama’s oft-displayed ties to the Black Church have done little to raise his stock with white evangelicals. Apparently no amount of mugging with megachurch pastors or weaving scripture into his presidential addresses will alter the right’s view of Obama as a rabid secularist. For the right, Obama’s fireside God bless America’s have about as much purchase as Phyllis Wheatley’s paeans to the moral purity of Africans did for Virginia slaveholders like Thomas Jefferson. All God’s children may have wings, but in the post-racial U.S. a “nigger” with a bible, a Harvard degree and the biggest seat on Air Force One is still just that.