In this episode, we talk about the myth of southern hospitality with Tony Szczesiul, Professor of English at the University of Massachusetts Lowell and author of The Southern Hospitality Myth: Ethics, Politics, Race, and American Memory. Tony traces the long history of the myth and explores how it is embedded with the region’s other non-hospitable traits including enslavement and segregation. Tracing the history of southern hospitality throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries reveals its importance to contemporary debates about immigration, tourism, and the culture industry.
Southern hospitality is one of the most pervasive and persistent myths about the U.S. South, and it is used to convey a lot of values and ideals and send certain messages about the region. We think of hospitality as a positive value associated with welcoming, manners, kindness, and generosity. However, hospitality is also about exclusion: defining who belongs and who does not. Stories told about southern hospitality were appealing to white people and welcoming to white people. However, as Tony argues, enslaved people made southern hospitality possible: wealthy white planters could not extend the hospitality without a contingent of forced laborers. When the phrase “southern hospitality” emerges in the 1820s, it debuts in debates about slavery, where it is clearly linked to the slave economy and made possible through slave labor, becoming a shorthand for the justification of southern plantation life as the pinnacle of manners, tradition, and ritual. The myth becomes a compelling propaganda tool, and stories about southern hospitality become an important part of the defense of slavery.
While we think of hospitality as either taking place in a domestic space between individuals, Tony invites us to also think about how hospitality involves relationships across borders and countries. In his book, he explores how hospitality factors into how Americans responded to the Fugitive Slave Law and Negro Seaman Acts. The Fugitive Slave Law made it illegal to exercise hospitality to runaway slaves. Because many Christians saw hospitality as a biblical imperative, they viewed the law as an infringement on their right to practice their Christian beliefs and to control the threshold of their own homes. Some Americans who were on the fence about slavery became active abolitionists, and the law spurred a national debate about how we defined citizenship. Interestingly, both sides of the debate cited St. Paul’s Letter to Philemon to justify their position with slaveholders noting that St. Paul sent a runaway slave back to his owner and abolitionists noting that St. Paul sent the slave back as a brother in Christ. The same biblical imperative to be hospitable is referenced in contemporary immigration debates, and has inspired some southern evangelicals to make stronger demands about how the United States treats immigrants.
Although the myth has complicated origins in slavery, it evolves to assume a variety of meanings over time. References to southern hospitality proliferate throughout the twentieth century, undergirding southern cultural endeavors that we can still see on the pages of Southern Living today. Beginning in the 1920s, southern hospitality is deployed to develop southern tourism and foreign investment in the region. Tony urges us to remember that southern hospitality has always had an economic imperative. The myth was created by southern slaveholders to justify their lifestyle, and it has paid off for generations of white southerners. Tony relates a story about how Thomas Jefferson who had a reputation for hospitality, hid slave labor from guests using dumbwaiters. He sees this story as a metaphor for the myth itself: unseen labor went into the construction of the myth and unseen strangers were relied on for their labor but never welcomed. Ultimately, Tony argues that southern hospitality is not ethically possible until after the Civil Rights Movement.
While the history of southern hospitality involves white people welcoming other white people and excluding others on the basis of their race, Tony also discusses how alternative frameworks for hospitality were happening in non-white communities at the same time. For example, the Negro Motorist Green Book published between 1936 and 1966 provided African Americans with a way to navigate through segregated facilities as they travelled through the United States. Tony notes that according to the Green Book, many prominent southern towns known for their “hospitality” did not have a single hotel where African Americans could stop and stay for the night. However, the book did include “tourist homes” where families welcomed travelers who contacted them in advance.
We would like to thank Tony Szczesiul for talking with us this week. We would also like to thank all of our friends in Lowell, Massachusetts: Sue, Paula, and everyone who came out to the panel in April about why southern studies matters everywhere.