Review: Family Values in the Old South
Craig Thompson Friend and Anya Jabour, eds. Family Values in the Old South. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2010. 257 pp. ISBN 9780813036762.
Family Values in the Old South opens with a quote from the famous and infamous Gone With the Wind (1936). Mammy chides Scarlett, “Ef you doan care ‘bout how folks talks ‘bout dis family, Ah does” (1). Family Values takes on the task of illuminating the facts about southern family life while recognizing the role fictions have played both in creating and obscuring those facts.
Craig Thompson Friend and Anya Jabour have put forth a collection of essays that directly addresses one of today’s most hotly contested political issues, family values, and the historical subfield it has spurred. Family history has been a staple of social history since the 1960s, but recent politics and explorations in other subfields, such as gender and post-colonial studies, have reinvigorated the field with new questions and new challenges. Friend and Jabour confront the historical fictions of an idyllic southern family that both politicians and historians have embraced in recent years invoking “the good old days” during which family values ensured close knit, responsible, moral family units which reinforced an interdependent, responsible, moral society.
Family Values presents a portrait of southern families that recognizes the diverse family forms which rarely conformed to the stereotypical nuclear family, highlights the resistance of individuals against patriarchal authority, and depicts the limits of that diversity and agency in the face of a pervasive southern family values which reinforced patriarchal authority and racial hierarchy. Family history, in recent years, has continued to refine and expand definitions of the American, or southern, family, but has also realized the significance family construction and family networks had on the larger political framework of American society. Family Values is part of this larger historiography, tapping into many of the main historical questions surrounding the forms and functions of the family including member roles, how race affected southern families, and how families utilized their kinship connections to negotiate their legal status and political futures. The introduction of this collection challenges the reader to investigate the roots of the myth of the southern family, including what family life really looked life, what realities challenged the authority of patriarchs, and to what degree southern family values emphasizing patriarchal authority put limits on the ability of women, children, slaves, and poor whites to assert agency. The book is divided into three parts: “Defining (and Defying) Southern Family Values,” “Measuring Families’ Value,” and “Family Values and Social Order.”
Part one investigates the definitions of family values and their influence on southern society. Nancy Zey contends that orphanages enabled women to gain power in the patriarchal society of the South by emphasizing women’s maternal instincts within existing definitions of southern family values. Emily West asserts that cross-plantation marriages offered “a space for love, support, companionship, and a sense of independence” for slaves as well as provided an opportunity for male slaves to exhibit “‘heroic’ behavior that asserted their masculinity and created valuable avenues of autonomy”(44, 43). Craig Thompson Friend argues that the reactions of women and men to the deaths of their children reflected the era’s gender expectations and high infant mortality rates, but also the complicated emotional relationships between slaves and owners in their perceptions of “Our Family, White and Black” (62). Anya Jabour maintains that same-sex relationships served as an alternative for southern women to marriage and motherhood which women often viewed as confining and even physically dangerous. Although same-sex relationships offered equality and companionship free of the risks of physical intimacy with males, such unions were temporary in the South as few women eluded southern society’s expectation that they would either marry men or become “maiden aunts” assisting relatives with childcare (103). Part one shows that southern family values required patriarchal dominance over women and slaves, but was also challenged with limited success by individuals who sought to redefine family for themselves.
Part two details economic functions of the household and how economics influenced the power of family members. Lynn Kennedy looks at sewing as a vital, time-consuming economic activity in southern households that freed up capital for other uses. Sewing held significant emotional investment for women who felt they were caring for their families “white and black,” but also reflected racial, gender, and class hierarchies (111). Nikki Burin describes the ways Anne and Richard Archer’s “family firm,” or plantation, both enabled Anne to have significant power over the plantation, but drove an emotional wedge between husband and wife. Richard’s absence left Anne with more power, but also significantly more responsibility and stress than male agents managing the other Archer plantations (134). Kirsten Wood notes that “public houses” straddled the line between public accommodations and private homes creating a conflict between contemporary guests’ expectations of this service industry and owner’s “mastery” over their households in public, especially where slaveholders were concerned (158). These three chapters illustrate the ways slavery and gender shaped the economics of southern families and challenged the distinctions between public and private spheres.
Part three of Family Values reflects recent historiographical movements to define the relationship of the family to larger political questions of sovereignty, voting patterns, and legal standing. Andrew Frank uses the trial of George Stinson, a trader who had intermarried into a Creek family, to show how Creek chiefs including William McIntosh used native definitions of kinship and clan membership to assert Creek sovereignty over trading rights. Christopher Olsen explains that southern voting, especially at the local level, continued to reflect the power of family networks and neighborhood loyalties rather than party politics through the antebellum era. Through the story of the Remley family of Charleston, South Carolina, Kevin Maillard argues that reputation more than documented lineage continued to determine racial status and legal rights in South Carolina even during and after the Civil War. His case study illuminates the permeability of racial boundaries and legal status as late as 1865. Each of these authors contends that family networks were central to securing the political or legal standing of their members in their communities.
Family Values’intersection with highly charged political and historiographical debates makes it both relevant and controversial. The essays in this volume are well researched and well argued. Emphasis on slavery’s impact on southern family values and source availability skews the analysis of these essays slightly toward the stories of elites and slaves and away from the non-slaveholding majority. Although touched on in several of the essays, more material illustrating how the “Southern family values” which privileged patriarchal white supremacy shaped the values of non-slaveholding families would have rounded out the volume nicely. Despite the connection between “family values” and religion in recent and contemporary political debates, only one essay deals directly with the impact of religious debates on definitions of family and gender roles. The introduction most explicitly confronts current political issues. The essays themselves engage the most up to date historiographical debates in the sub-fields of family and gender history, as well as in the fields of southern race relations, American political history, American Indian history, and southern economic history. The collection has the potential to stimulate productive debates in many other sub-fields, including southern religious history, as historians rethink the relationship of the family, in its many forms, to other institutions.