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Sisters and Rebels: A Struggle for the Soul of America

Katharine Du Pre Lumpkin’s classic autobiography, The Making of a Southerner (1946), propelled white Southern self-writing away from moonlight and magnolias and toward searing regional critique. Katharine was the youngest of three remarkable sisters who were born into a family of former slaveholders and steeped in devotion to the Confederacy and the cult of the Lost Cause. Elizabeth, the eldest, never strayed far from that upbringing, but Grace, a radical novelist, and Katharine, an activist scholar, were determined to break free. In lives lived on both sides of the Mason Dixon line, they fought to reinvent themselves and their native region and by doing so transform the nation.

Katharine turned to autobiography in the 1940s, which she and other left-leaning feminists saw as a decade in which progressive forces were on the rise and white Southerners might be moved in a new direction. Seizing this window of opportunity, she drew on her own traumatic childhood memories to expose the ingrained racism of her youth and to use herself as an example of how white Americans could learn to see white supremacy in a new way: not as the natural order of things but as a set of unjust power relationships that were being undone before their eyes by social movements in which they could participate.

The idea for this daring project came to her as she was gathering information for a book of reportage and sociological analysis, her first sustained study of the South. Overtaken by emotionally charged memories and hungering for new ways of blending advocacy and scholarship, she began filling her notebooks not only with the fruits of her research but also with personal “recollections and experiences.” By the time The South in Progress (1940) was published, she had embarked on a more intimate but no less political project. Taking the self-in-society as her subject, she turned to autobiography as social critique.

The velocity of change during the war years encouraged her to move in this new direction. The “Double V” campaign for victory over fascism abroad and racism at home, the Supreme Court’s decree that African Americans could not be barred from the Democratic Party’s “white primaries” in the South. Franklin Roosevelt’s historic prohibition of racial discrimination in government and defense industries in response to the black-led March on Washington movement, the increasing influence of left-leaning feminists in labor unions and government agencies—these and other developments gave demands for an end to segregation and discrimination a hearing that would have been unimaginable during the early days of the New Deal.

Convinced that in this climate, changing the hearts and minds of white Southerners was both necessary and possible, Katharine asserted the value of her dual identity as “a social economist and a Southerner” who could speak with the authority of an insider and, at the same time, use scholarship to demolish myths, mystifications, and illusions. Thinking back over her own life and seized by the belief that a new day in race relations might be at hand, she resolved to use her personal story to show that “no matter how deep were [white supremacy’s] roots, and how entangled in our past, nonetheless they could be dug up and cast on the scrap heap as something quite alien to our common human natures.” Addressing The Making of a Southerner to white Southerners “in transition,” she set out “to tell the story of how one Southerner came eventually to learn these plain facts of life.”

It is a measure of Katharine’s ambitions that when she went looking for a publisher, she bypassed the left-wing and academic presses that had brought out her earlier scholarly work. Instead, she contacted the formidable Alfred A. Knopf, founder and director of a major trade press that had published many of the writers of the Harlem Renaissance and was eagerly looking for new writers from the South. Applying for a Knopf literary fellowship, she argued that three things would make her project unique. The first was her “autobiographical approach.” “The Making of a Southerner,” she said, will be “written from the standpoint of one who . . . was reared in the tradition she is interpreting, and who, writing as a participant, is able to tell graphically how Southerners of both the old and the new South, and those who . . were in transition, thought, reacted, and above all, felt.”  Her second qualification was her training as a sociologist and her interest in history, which would, she wrote, “carry me far beyond my own immediate experience.”

Finally, by showing how the past stalks the present, yet taking as her “special point of departure . . . the fact of change,” she was well placed to avoid the traps into which white Southern writers often fell: on the one hand, backward-looking nostalgia, the stock-in-trade of the “school of remembrance” in which she had been raised; on the other, self-deceiving optimism, the bane of those who had been announcing periodically since the turn of the nineteenth century that a “New South” had arrived.

In the spring of 1944, Knopf turned down Katharine Lumpkin’s application for a literary fellowship but offered her a contract and a respectable $1,200 advance. By then she was stealing every moment she could spare . . . and typing the first sections of her autobiography. “Never,” she told Knopf, “have I worked at anything so absorbing and altogether enjoyable.” She had found the voice in which to write what proved to be her most original and lasting book . . .

Yet autobiography posed its own unique challenges. Although literate women had long written about themselves, relatively few had published formal autobiographies, and until the 1970s the rare critic who took this genre seriously identified it with men. More critical in Katharine’s eyes, she had no models of white Southern memoirists directly confronting the demons of race in their own lives.

A particular “anxiety of self-representation” shaped autobiograph­ical writing by white women in the South. To cast themselves as heroes of their own stories, they had to assert their “claim to membership in the world of words, men, and public spaces” and repress the domestic and bodily experiences that would identify them with the culturally disempowered world of women. At the same time, a female autobiographer who appeared to be too ambitious risked becoming not a hero but a “mannish” woman. Even the spiritual narrative represented by St. Augustine’s Confessions was problematic for women, who tended to ground their religious memoirs in relationships with others rather than, like Augustine, presenting the self as a stage for a climactic battle between the spirit and the flesh. To complicate matters further, women writers were often accused of writing too autobiographically: they were dismissed as special pleaders who represented a “female condition” rather than a more broadly “Southern,” “American,” or “human” experience. Women were supposed to serve as objects of men’s imaginings rather than writing artfully and truthfully about themselves. Yet white Southern women did find ways of constructing autobiographical narratives, often by hiding any trace of anger or ambition and either shoring up patriarchal power or critiquing it only in the most indirect of ways.

In the years after World War II, the impulse to write about the self and the South drew energy from outsiders’ desire to know about the region and white Southerners’ compulsion to explain. That dynamic was most memorably captured in William Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom! (1936) when the Canadian Shreve McCannon demands of his Princeton roommate, the Mississippian Quentin Compson: “Tell about the South. What is it like there. What do they do there. Why do they live there. Why do they live at all.” Between the wars, both regional apologists and homegrown critics told about the South, sometimes in fond or defensive remembrance, sometimes in mild, uneasy critique, sometimes in guilt, anguish, and anger, and often in an unsettling mix of all three. Among the best known of these works were W. J. Cash’s The Mind of the South, a psychologizing critique of his native land, and William Alexander Percy’s Lanterns on the Levee: Recollections of a Planter’s Son, an elegiac defense of a doomed aristocracy. Both appeared in 1941, just as Katharine Lumpkin began imagining her own book.

For all their differences, one remarkable omission tied these writings by white Southerners together. None took up the challenge of confronting the author’s immersion in and complicity with the South’s caste system. By contrast, black Southerners who were struggling to assert their humanity and claim their rights in a white supremacist culture could not avoid confronting issues of racism and identity, and from the antebellum period onward, they turned to autobiography as a weapon in that struggle.

Bearing witness to the horrors of slavery and refuting racist stereotypes by seizing the authority of the written word, the slave narratives traced an arc from deprivation to a quest for literacy and a flight north toward freedom and self-possession. This tradition continued after emancipation, but with a new emphasis. The character of African Americans, Booker T. Washington–style “up-from-slavery” narratives asserted, had been “tested and ultimately validated” in the crucible of slavery, and that trial by fire, coupled with the accomplishments of freedpeople, made them worthy of full participation in American society.

Bound to their children, enslaved women could seldom follow the path to freedom traced by the archetypal male hero. But they and their descendants produced a rich vein of autobiography nonetheless. Deploying and, at the same time, transforming the images of the helpless enslaved girl and the suffering enslaved mother popularized by white women’s abolitionist texts, black women’s narratives often revolved around sexual exploitation, the contradictory meanings of motherhood, and the spiritual search for a place in the “divine scheme of things.”

By using her own life to “trace to its source the complex development of racial attitudes in a caste society,” Katharine sought to do what only Black autobiographers had done before: confront the “role of race in making Southerners what they are.” She also defied gender conventions, sometimes in straightforward comments about women’s “secondary role” but more often as subtext, on the slant. In so doing, she propelled white Southern autobiography in a new direction. Eloquent and analytical, revealing but not confessional, The Making of a Southerner became the first of a long procession of autobiographies in which white women and men sought to use their own lives to show how the culture of white supremacy was reproduced and how it could be overcome. These works of passionate self-examination and regional critique evolved with the civil rights and women’s liberation movements of the 1960s and 1970s, eclipsing entirely the literature of mourning, remembrance, and defiance on which the Lumpkin sisters and their generation had been raised.

*          *          *          *

Looking back at her childhood, Katharine stressed a series of ruptures on which her refashioning turned. The first and most shocking of these occurred in 1903 when she was about six years old. Playing in the yard one summer morning, she was startled by a terrible noise:

Of a sudden in the house there was bedlam—sounds to make my heart pound and my hair prickle at the roots. Calls and screams were interspersed with blow upon blow. Soon enough I knew someone was getting a fearful beating. . . . I edged over so that I could gaze in through the kitchen window. . . . Our little black cook, a woman small of stature though full grown, was receiving a severe thrashing. I could see her writhing under the blows of a descending stick wielded by the white master of the house. I could see her face distorted with fear and agony and his with stern rage. I could see her twisting and turning as she tried to free herself from his firm grasp.

That “white master,” whom Katharine leaves unnamed, was her father. Terrified and trembling, she covered her ears and crept away. The beat­ing was an open secret, omnipresent but never spoken of by the family or the neighbors, who could not help but hear. There were no repercussions from the outside world.

In the wake of this event, Katharine struggled to parse right from wrong. “To my hesitant question, ‘What had the cook done?’ I was told simply that she had been very ‘impudent’ to her mistress, she had ‘answered her back.’ . . . Small child though I was, . . . I knew ‘impudence’ was intolerable.” Confronted with such a provocation, what else could a “white master” do? Katharine knew that not so many years before it had been right “for Southern white gentlemen to thrash their cooks.” She knew as well that her father had ridden with the Klan on its midnight raids against the former slaves. But these were stories “removed from all sight and sound.” The violence she had seen . . . was visceral and ugly: a tiny woman, an enraged man, the thud of a stick on flesh and bone. To a girl who was subject to the disciplinary power of a man who was “head and dominant figure . . . final authority, beyond which was no higher court in family matters,” the beating may have been so disturbing in part because of the dangerous possibilities it rep­resented. What she remembered was this: her desperate wish to distance herself from a woman to whom such things could be done.

“Thereafter, I began to be self-conscious about the . . . signs and symbols of my race position,” signs and symbols that drew her into a magic circle of privilege and safety by policing the line between Black and white. That line was never etched in stone. For even as segregation hardened, the two races continued to pursue “separate lives lived together,” parallel and relational, each conditioned, however unequally, by the other. Whites might walk at their ease through the scenes of official segregation, oblivious to the people of color all around them, free to enjoy the fruits of white supremacy with little thought of how they were achieved. Yet they depended, at every turn, on Blacks’ phys­ical and psychic labor. Blacks, for their part, might create a separate world relatively free from white pressure or surveillance. But, except for the most independent members of the Black middle class, none could escape the “felt menace of possible violence” or forgo working in white homes and businesses and shopping in white-owned stores. Almost no one, white or Black, could avoid the “haunting sense of proximity,” the “distanced nearness” that pervaded Southern life. The modern system of segregation was built person by person, encounter by encounter. And those encounters ranged across the whole spectrum of human possibility: desire, pleasure, or mutual respect could crop up in the most unlikely places, yet each interaction also created a mine­field where laughter could turn to menace, love to loathing, camarade­rie to insult and rejection. Weighing the past, anticipating the future, reading the body and between the lines, Black and white Southerners created a hybrid, hierarchical culture with its own rituals, secrets, and half-hidden meanings: a culture of Jim Crow.

“As soon as I could read,” Katharine remembered, “I would carefully spell out the notices in public places. I wished to be certain that we were where we ought to be.” It was easy for a white child to find the line sep­arating “White” and “Colored” in some places, more difficult in others. Streetcars were especially troublesome, as no wall or rail provided a tan­gible dividing line. If whites were standing in front, the conductor might order Blacks to give up their seats and move to the back, perhaps with a tap on the shoulder, perhaps in a “loud rough voice so all could hear.” What should “a little white girl” do in such a situation? Stand quietly in front? Or take some bone-weary woman’s seat, glimpsing as she did so “the still dark faces in the rear of the car, which seemed to stare so expressionlessly into space”? The streets too could be hazardous. They belonged to Katharine and her kind, yet they were also public space. Sometimes a Black child might hesitate for a moment before she stepped aside. Should Katharine push and shove or should she give ground, avoid a scene, let the moment pass?

Longing, as all children do, to feel at one with her surroundings, she clung more anxiously than ever to the bulwark of her parents’ certainties and protection. She tried to forget the dissonant image of violence in the kitchen at the center of her family’s life. But never again could she enfold herself quite so securely in their assumptions about the benev­olence of patriarchy and the righteous superiority of their race. Never again could home be so simply a safe, sheltering place. Her confidence had been fissured as if by an earthquake, leaving on one side innocence and trust and on the other mixed feelings and, faintly at first, the hair­line cracks of doubt.


From Sisters and Rebels: A Struggle for the Soul of America by Jacquelyn Dowd Hall. Copyright (c) 2019, 2020 by Jacquelyn Dowd Hall. Excerpted with permission of the publisher, W.W. Norton & Company.


Further Reading

William L. Andrews, “An Introduction to the Slave Narrative,” Documenting the American South (quote), http://docsouth .unc .edu/neh/intro .html.

_________________, ed. Sisters of the Spirit: Three Black Women’s Autobiographies of the Nineteenth Century. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1986.

Braxton, Joanne M. Black Women Writing Autobiography: A Tradition within a Tradi­tion. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1989.

Brodhead, Richard H. “Two Writers’ Beginnings: Eudora Welty in the Neighbor­hood of Richard Wright.” Yale Review 84, no. 2 (Apr. 1996): 1– 21.

Fields, Karen E., and Barbara J. Fields. Racecraft: The Soul of Inequality in American Life. New York: Verso, 2012.

Jennifer Fleischner, Mastering Slavery: Memory, Family, and Identity in Women’s Slave Narratives (New York, 1996).

Friedman, Susan Stanford. “Women’s Autobiographical Selves: Theory and Prac­tice.” In The Private Self: Theory and Practice of Women’s Autobiographical Writ­ings, edited by Shari Benstock, 34– 62. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1988.

Hobson, Fred C., Jr. But Now I See: The White Southern Racial Conversion Narrative. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1999.

______. Tell about the South: The Southern Rage to Explain. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1983.

Mason, Mary G. “The Other Voice: Autobiographies of Women Writers.” In Women, Autobiography, Theory: A Reader, edited by Sidonie Smith and Julia Watson, 321– 24. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1998.

Nellie Y. McKay, “The Narrative Self: Race, Politics and Culture in Black American Women’s Autobiography,” in Women, Autobiography, Theory: A Reader, ed. Sidonie Smith and Julia Watson (Madison, WI, 1998), 96-107.

Phillips, Jerry. “Slave Narratives.” In A Companion to the Literature and Culture of the American South, edited by Richard J. Gray and Owen Robinson, 43– 56. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2004.

Smith, Sidonie. A Poetics of Women’s Autobiography: Marginality and the Fictions of Self- Representation. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1987.