A groundbreaking volume weaves a new narrative of the South from its ancient past to the present, drawing on top scholars’ work in global and Atlantic world history, histories of the African diaspora and environmental history.
“Expansive” seems a fitting word to describe A New History of the American South (UNC Press, May 2023), and yet it may still not fully capture the scope of a Southern history that begins with the Ice Age.
The book, edited by W. Fitzhugh Brundage, the William B. Umstead Professor of History, begins about 16,000 years ago, when archaeological records suggest that the area was first settled by people who crossed the Bering Strait from Siberia into North America and made their way south. These Native peoples influenced the region’s development for thousands of years afterward.
The book concludes with UNC professor Kenneth R. Janken’s recounting of key developments in the 20th century Black freedom struggle.
In creating a “new” history of the American South, Brundage said the team of scholars had to establish key parameters for the project. What is the region’s geographical reach? Where should the history end? Where should it begin? In all, 16 eminent historians contributed essays to the work, including four from UNC.
“Rather than looking upon this history as leading us to the South that exists today, we stated that this would be a history of a place with no assumptions of how it would appear to us today,” Brundage said.
To provide just one example, the history would not begin with Jamestown. The first permanent English community in North America, established in what was then the colony of Virginia, was certainly pivotal. Looking at Jamestown from a contemporary perspective, Brundage said, the early settlement was “the fountainhead of English conquest of what is now the United States.”
Yet in the 1600s, the Spanish and French presence in North America would have seemed just as significant. “In 1650,” he added, “no one would have assumed that the Anglo-American conquest of the North American continent was inevitable.”
The American South has undergone profound transformation and upheaval throughout its history, Brundage said. “Some of these changes are present throughout the United States, but some are specific to the South. No other region was as dependent upon slavery as the South.”
The book covers three eras of Southern history that Brundage references in the introduction: the ancient era to the American Revolution; the “long 19th century,” covering 1780 to 1890; and the “long 20th century,” covering 1890 to the beginning of the 21st century.
Brundage is the author or editor of numerous books, including Lynching in the New South: Georgia and Virginia, 1880-1930; The Southern Past: A Clash of Race and Memory; and Civilizing Torture: An American Tradition, which was a finalist for the 2019 Pulitzer Prize in History.
In addition to Janken, professor of African, African American and diaspora studies, the other UNC contributors are Peter Coclanis, the Albert Ray Newsome Distinguished Professor and director of the Global Research Institute; and Blair L.M. Kelley, the Joel R. Williamson Professor of Southern Studies and new director of the Center for the Study of the American South.
Brundage said he believes the book will provide value for both general readers and historians. “We’ve written this volume to make the history of the South accessible to the largest possible audience and to make that history usable.”
Kirkus Reviews gave it a “starred review,” writing: “To learn of the South’s past as it is viewed today by leading historians, this is the book to read.”
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By Deb Saine ’87
Published in the Spring 2023 issue | Chapter & Verse
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