In Laying Claim: African American Cultural Memory and Southern Identity, Patricia G. Davis identifies the Civil War as the central narrative around which official depictions of southern culture have been defined. Because that narrative has largely excluded African American points of view, southern identity is typically represented as monolithically white. Davis traces how the growing participation of black public voices in the realms of Civil War memory—battlefields, museums, reenactments, online communities—has dispelled the mirage of “southernness” as a stolid bulwark of white culture and has begun to create a more fluid sense of southernness that welcomes contributions by all of the region’s peoples.

Laying Claim offers insightful and penetrating examinations of African American participation in Civil War reenactments; the role of black history museums in enriching representations of the Civil War era with more varied interpretations; and the Internet as a forum within which participants exchange and create historical narratives that offer alternatives to unquestioned and dominant public memories. From this evolving cultural landscape, Davis demonstrates how simplistic caricatures of African American experiences are giving way to more authentic, expansive, and inclusive interpretations of southernness.

As a case study of change, Davis cites the evolution of depictions of life at Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello. Where visitors to the site once encountered narratives that repeated the stylized myth of Monticello as a genteel idyll, modern accounts of Jefferson’s day offer a holistic, inclusive, and increasingly honest view of Monticello as all of its residents experienced it. Davis discusses the ways that Monticello now takes care to interweave the stories of the enslaved people who lived and labored there throughout its tourist narrative.

Davis also addresses contemporary violence arising from debates over the causes, outcomes, and symbols of the Civil War, even one hundred and fifty years after its end, adding urgency to her argument that the control and creation of public memories of that war are issues of concern not only to scholars but all Americans. Her hopeful examination of African American participation in public memory illuminates paths by which this enduring ideological impasse may find resolutions.

Patricia G. Davis is an assistant professor of communication at Georgia State University.

Laying Claim makes several important contributions to the study of African American history and rhetoric, most notably its exploration of the ways in which African Americans in the south are reclaiming and redefining their role in southern history. This is an important work that offers a unique and compelling argument for the rethinking of southern identity.”
—Mark Lawrence McPhail, author of The Rhetoric of Racism Revisited: Reparations or Separation? 

“A provocative and timely work that contributes something new to our understanding of both Civil War memory and the evolution of African American identity.”
Craig A. Warren, author of The Rebel Yell: A Cultural History

Rhetoric, Culture, and Social Critique Series

6 X 9, 232 pp / 9 B&W figures
ISBN: 978-0-8173-1921-2 Cloth
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