Literary Hub

On the Rebel Southern Daughter Who Fought to Expose White Supremacy

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 taught to venerate the Confederacy and preserve white supremacy at all costs. 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 use herself as an example of how white Americans could re-learn white supremacy, 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 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, Roosevelt’s historic prohibition of racial discrimination in government and defense industries in the wake of the black-led March on Washington movement, the increasing influence of left 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 19th 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 from her work at the Institute of Labor Studies, slipping away to the desk in her bedroom on the Manse’s second floor, 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.

Asked by an editor to explain the need for her autobiography and provide a list of related works, Katharine cited a wide range of history, sociology, anthropology, documentary, and fiction. She also surveyed personal narratives written by other white Southerners, hastening to add that “none of these has attempted to do what I have in mind,” for none combined “the method of autobiography…with the widest possible research.” Yet the autobiographical method posed its own challenges. Although literate women had long written about themselves, relatively few had published formal autobiographies, and until the 1970s the few critics 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 ferment of the 1920s and 1930s, those efforts produced a new form of writing: the modern feminist memoir. Evelyn Scott, one of Grace Lumpkin’s closest friends in New York, published Escapade in 1923, a thinly disguised “feminist cri di coeur” about her rebellious young womanhood, and followed it in 1936 with her openly autobiographical Background in Tennessee, an exploration of her grandparents’ lives and the world of her youth. Ellen Glasgow began writing her autobiography, The Woman Within, in the 1930s, but her candid account of her coming of age as an artist and her suffering as a woman was not published until 1954, a decade after her death.

For both men and women, the impulse to write about the self and the South drew energy from outsiders’ desire to know about the region and 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 southern men and women 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.”

Katharine had been reading the work of black autobiographers, intellectuals, and novelists since her years with the YWCA, and from them and her African American colleagues she had learned to see race as both defining and illusory. By using her own life to “trace to its source the complex development of racial attitudes in a caste society,” she 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.

By composing a self made and remade by race and “by so much else besides,” Katharine 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.

book cover

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

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