|Image from Gone With the Wind|
This exchange in the Daily Mississippian begs the question, what are the values of the Old South? Are they indeed courtesy, graciousness, open hospitality, proper etiquette, and manners? A website promoting a similar annual ball in South Carolina describes their event as, “An old- fashioned War Between the States Ball” (oldesouthball.com). The home page features a quote from Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind: "There was a land of Cavaliers and Cotton fields called the Old South" The full text of the introduction to the famous novel reads:
There was a land of Cavaliers and Cotton Fields called the Old South. Here in this pretty world, Gallantry took its last bow. Here was the last ever to be seen of Knights and their Ladies Fair, of Master and of Slave. Look for it only in books, for it is no more than a dream remembered, a Civilization gone with the wind...
So we’ll add to our list of Southern values celebrated in Old South balls: a pretty world, gallantry, knights and ladies fair, master and slave.
Here’s what we have so far for Old South values:
- open hospitality
- proper etiquette
- a pretty world
- knights and ladies fair
- master and slave
|Image from oldesouthball.com|
Let us for a moment review the dates associated with Old South balls. These events purport to celebrate Southern values, yet are centered on a particular time period, the 1860s, within the South’s 300-year history. Then there is the tradition of the ball, established in 1920, not 1939. In 1920, the women’s suffrage movement gained the vote for women, the first game of the Negro National Baseball League was played, prohibition went into effect, the second rise of the KKK was picking up steam, and the great migration was underway, a movement that allowed “African Americans began to build a new place for themselves in public life, actively confronting economic, political and social challenges and creating a new black urban culture that would exert enormous influence in the decades to come.” (history.com)
|Protests at an Old South ball in 2009|
The timing of the establishment of the ball and its focus on the Confederacy notwithstanding, what do we make of the values it claims to be upholding? All of the values listed above point to a patriarchal culture that sets wealthy white men at the top of a hierarchy that controls women, non-whites, and poor whites. Courtesy, gallantry, and graciousness may have been practiced among the ‘knights and ladies fair’, but these virtues did not cross the color line. And what kind of hospitality was extended by plantation owners to slaves and poor whites?
The old South, like many cultures in 1865, was not a merit-based society. Men rose in power and influence according to the color of their skin and the wealth of their fathers. Women rose or fell in society based on their relationships with men. Women were not encouraged to have aspirations outside of being a wife and mother. Of course, that’s if they were women of means. Poor women of every color labored. They did not have pretty dresses and invitations to balls.
The law student who defended the Old South ball wrote that he is “tired of hearing about it.” His gallant forefathers no doubt were spared this irritation. They could walk away from the wailing of slaves separated from their families and brutalized by the whip, and retreat to the plantation house where the gracious ladies spoke only pleasantries.
Southerners pride themselves on their manners – not cussing, men holding doors for women, refraining from hard liquor on Sunday, and saying ‘ma’am’ and ‘sir’ when speaking to elders. Do people really need to attend a plantation-era ball to learn these manners? What of the other old South values these balls claim to promote? Are these appropriate for modern culture? With their patriarchal foundation, do they create a perception to be proud of?
Patriarchy promotes the interests of the few above the well-being of the many. It is a system contrary to democracy, social mobility, and human dignity. Its pillars are violence and injustice. Now, you might counter that going to an Old South ball doesn't mean you agree with these values. But the problem is that the purpose of Old South balls is to promote these values whether you buy into them or not. There are better ways to teach manners and to celebrate Southern culture without romanticizing plantation life.