March 26, 2011
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When I arrive in the Deep South in June I will do so with some familiarity. What I know about the South I have learned through literature, history, and political economy. I read and loved Richard Wright when I was in high school. Reading stories about the Jim Crow South made me believe that life in Boyle Heights – a tough Los Angeles inner city community – was not so bad after all. “Uncle Tom’s Children,” his collection of short stories, convinced me that I had it pretty good and that I actually enjoyed a surfeit of opportunities even in the inner city. Wright was the first author that sent me to the library to search for his other books.
I have observed, as many others have, that the Deep South resembles Latin America in many respects. As a student of political economy and Latin American Studies, I have thought a lot about export commodities (staples) and their effects on society and politics during the 19th century. The region’s economic engines, namely cotton but also other plantation staples, had a little something to do with this. I have also been learning about the Civil War. Shelby Foote’s magnum opus, “The Civil War: A Narrative,” has been instructive. By the middle of the 19th century, the South was a separate nation; it had developed its own way of life and its own vision of republicanism based on states’ rights and slavery. It took a Northern invasion to keep it within the American republic.
Overall, I have difficulty grasping the cultural consequences of a plantation economy, Civil War, and Jim Crow. Today, moreover, important structural transformations are underway: industrialization, a growing Latino population, the return of African-Americans, and political polarization. I look forward to reflecting on all of these themes from the perspective of my day to day life in Montgomery, Alabama.