Reclaiming the American South's Global Ties
March 03, 2010
Economic historian Peter Coclanis offered "a breathless international romp through Southern history" during the Lawrence and Theresa Salameno Lecture on March 1 at the Martin Institute.
More than 200 students gathered to hear Coclanis, a history professor and associate provost at the University of North Carolina, offer a different perspective of the South in his lecture, "Home and the World: The American South in a Global Perspective."
The South as painted by Coclanis is not an isolated, provincial region best known for its "poverty, oppression, narrow-mindedness and pinched lives."
"Today, the South is part of the world," said Coclanis. "Far fewer are cognizant that the South has been part of the world for a long time, indeed from the very beginning."
Coclanis traced the role of foreigners in settling the South, noting with humor the bumper sticker reading "Native Americans had bad immigration laws."
From 1500-1800, settlers came to the South from regions as diverse as Greece, the Barbary states and the Philippines. At least 50 languages were spoken in 18th century South Carolina.
Coclanis said there is evidence that Olaudah Equiano, one of the most prominent Africans involved in the movement to abolish the slave trade in Britain, was actually born as a slave in South Carolina.
Coclanis challenged issues of southern identity. Is Carl Sandberg, born in North Carolina, a Southerner? What about Richard Wright, a native of Mississippi? Or Jane Fonda, when she was living in Atlanta as the wife of Ted Turner?
While Coca Cola is readily identified as a Southern company because of its base in Atlanta, few realize that its rival Pepsi, though headquartered in the north today, originated in North Carolina during the 1890s, Coclanis said. He asked whether UPS, headquartered in Atlanta, should be considered a Southern company.
Especially in the 19th century, the South "continued its international engagement in worldliness" and was more export-oriented than the rest of the nation, Coclanis explained. Cotton, tobacco and rice were traded internationally.
"The flow of ideas moved into and out of the South with much greater regularity and intensity than many would have us believe," Coclanis said.
The South was "very much engaged in the transatlantic conversation," not just in ideas about high culture, but in the useful arts as well, evidenced by patents on rice mills and cotton gins in England, France, India and Peru.
While slavery limited economic opportunity for immigrants on plantations, in Southern cities, foreigners found work. Irish immigrants represented 23 percent of the white population of Savannah, 22 percent of Memphis and New Orleans, 16 percent of Mobile and 14 percent of Charleston, Coclanis said.
After the Civil War, through World War II, the South "was shaped and characterized by its relative isolation," Coclanis said.
From 1870 to 1950, the region experienced an outflow of almost four million people, most of them African-American; 16 percent of them white.
But African folk ways, food, language and religion were still a part of the South, and "marginal and lesser-known groups" moved to the region and established successful businesses, including Lebanese, Italians, Germans and Austrians, Coclanis said.
The South was hardly deserving of the criticism heaped upon it by H.L. Mencken in his essay, "The Sahara of the Bozart," which argued that the South was as sterile intellectually as the Sahara Desert, with no art galleries, symphonies, theaters, opera houses or great works of literature.
Southern fiction was on its way, Coclanis said, along with the boll weevil, which invaded from another international place - Mexico - in the 20th century and wreaked havoc on the cotton crop, in addition to inspiring music and musicians.
As an example of international influence on the South, Coclanis cited Kiawah Island, a barrier island off the coast of South Carolina, now home to the PGA tour and Ryder Cup. He traced its history, from its settlement by the Kiawah Indians to its ownership by wealthy southerners and eventually, in the 1970s, by Kuwaitis.
Coclanis is the author of seven books and more than 160 articles, essays and book reviews, said John Rodrigue, the Salameno professor of history at Stonehill, who introduced him.
His study of rice production in the low country of South Carolina led him to more global studies on the economy of rice in southeast Asia. He recently returned from Thailand and Burma and will travel soon to Vietnam, said Rodrigue.
"The South has been increasingly international since the Second World War, especially in the last decade or so," Coclanis concluded. "It has been increasingly hospitable to outsiders, foreigners, and especially their money."
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