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Scholar discusses his book on rhetoric of the old South at Southern universities


The images depicted in Heritage and Hate: Old South Rhetoric at Southern Universities (University of Alabama Press) will make one recoil.

There are photographs of Ku Klux Klan imagery in yearbooks of Southern colleges and universities — from the early 20th century. There is a photograph from the University of Mississippi in 1949 — a large group of white students in blackface. But the author notes that “modern incidents of blackface are not outliers or racist innovations but parts of a continuum of Confederate rhetoric on these campuses.”

The author is Stephen M. Monroe, chair and assistant professor of writing and rhetoric at the University of Mississippi. He focuses on the University of Mississippi and the University of Missouri at Columbia, which in 2015 experienced a series of racial incidents when Black students demonstrated during a homecoming parade. The Black students were shouted down by white students who used a cheer for Mizzou to do so. One of the themes Monroe explores is that seemingly non-racial traditions and cheers can be used to advance racist goals and become racist. For example, he has a chapter on the Hotty Toddy, a cheer at the University of Mississippi, that had been used, among other things, to protest the integration of the university in 1962.

Monroe responded via email to questions about his book.

Q: Why focus on Southern universities?

A: I focus on predominantly white institutions across the U.S. South because they are so powerful, influential, and complicated. These are social, cultural, and intellectual hubs that often improve lives and enhance the region. But they are also sites of conflict and division. They are multiracial institutions struggling with words and symbols rooted in a racist past. They are conservative institutions full of progressive people. They are research institutions producing new, beneficial knowledge while also preserving quite a few old, damaging traditions. As a scholar of rhetoric, I am fascinated by arguments and contestations. Higher education (particularly in the U.S. South) is a fertile field.

Q: Was it painful to discover the racist images and history about the University of Mississippi, your home institution?

A: Yes, it is painful and discomforting to see and hear racism. But I am a white scholar who has always felt nurtured within predominantly white institutions. My discomfort is zilch compared to the real pain long endured by colleagues and students of color. For this book, I took part of my charge from Asao Inoue’s 2019 speech at the Conference on College Composition and Communication. White scholars need to dwell in our discomfort. We need to listen, search, try. Silence is safe, but it does no good.

Q: What is wrong with the Hotty Toddy?

A: I devote a chapter to detangling the Hotty Toddy, which is a very significant linguistic practice within my university community. It is basically a nonsensical school cheer that over the decades has become overstuffed with ideational and emotional meaning. The Hotty Toddy is often used in very positive and happy ways, at football games and wedding receptions. But it has also been used periodically by white students and stakeholders as a racist jeer. I found similar examples at Mizzou and the University of Alabama. These are moments when seemingly benign or neutral discourse invokes terrible historical associations and creates harm. I see some parallels in recent arguments over “The Eyes of Texas” fight song at the University of Texas at Austin. Cheers and fight songs can point to complex and contradictory meanings. Some racist affordances can hide in plain sight for very long periods of time.

Q: At Mizzou, where do you see “heritage and hate.”

A: Anyone who believes that Old South words and symbols no longer matter — that they are ancient and harmless history — should test their theory against the happenings at Mizzou from 2010 to 2016. The rhetorical conflicts and administrative missteps during that period had profound and material consequences for Missouri’s great flagship university. Within that story, I find lessons about leadership, language, and the tremendous risks of failing to listen to students.

Q: How can colleges best respond?

A: I do see reasons for hope, and I devote the final section of the book to highlighting some good things happening at the University of Mississippi and other Southern universities. These are projects of reconciliation, contextualization, engaged scholarship, and public history. Faculty, chairs, deans, provosts, and presidents can all play a role. Just as some language and symbols divide people along racial lines and deepen discord, other language and symbols perform salubrious work and further equality. We must be willing to break with harmful traditions. Oftentimes, our students are pushing us in better directions. We need to move with them, keeping in mind that words and symbols are not “just rhetoric,” as the cliché goes. They are very powerful rhetoric shaping culture, history, and thought. Every argument leaves a legacy, especially on our campuses.

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