About South kicks off its farewell season with a trip to England where we talk to Dr. Gavan Lennon, a professor at Canterbury Christ Church University, about southern studies in the UK. Gavan highlights the sense of solidarity those from Ireland and the UK might feel with the vibrant and productive history of African American resistance and cultural production in the U.S. South. Our guest also describes some of the problems with how white southerners use the term “Scotch-Irish” as well as the similarities between ultra-conservativism in the U.S. and Brexit in the United Kingdom.
Gavan describes how he first encountered American culture from its music and literature and then realized in his graduate degrees that he was interested in studying the U.S. South. He describes how many people in the UK think of the U.S. South as a repository for the cultural elements that the nation does not want to embrace: monocultural conservatism, white racism, intellectual backwardness. In contrast to the sneering side, he also sees a strong sense of solidarity: an understanding that the U.S. South does have a history of violence and repression, but it also has a vibrant, productive history of resistance and cultural production. One of Gavan’s favorite public art pieces in the world is a mural in Belfast depicting Frederick Douglass and other African American leaders that conveys a sense of solidarity with anti-colonialist movements in Ireland.
Describing two boys dueling at Warkworth Castle, Gina notes similarities between how the Scottish people are depicted in England and how Indigenous people are depicted in the U.S.: both simultaneously demonized and romanticized on plaques and in historical landmarks. They discuss how white people in the U.S. South will sometimes identify as “Scotch-Irish” with a sense that the identity is somehow a defense against pure Anglo-Saxonism and / or a sense that they are descended from this righteously rebellious group of Scottish / Irish people. That fantasy often allows white people to claim a sense of both oppression and nobility.
Discussing some of the problems with Scotch-Irish identity, Gavan describes how the term allows people to pick and mix the kinds of whiteness they want to identify with: rebellious, strong, naturally of the earth. They then discard the parts of those identities they don’t like (e.g. Catholicism). This allows people to preserve what they like about these terms without contending with the historical and cultural messiness, which flattens the region’s history and specificity.
Gina and Gavan briefly discuss the many valences of class in England, and how class is often used as a shorthand for pleasantness and desirability. They talk about Jersey Shore, and it’s UK analog, Geordie Shore, and how these shows tend to present its subjects as working class people who are overly concerned with their looks, and heavy drinkers. Viewers, in turn, can watch the show and are reassured that they are more organized and sophisticated. Gina notes how these shows interpolate class and region in interesting ways. Gavan and Gina then turn to a brief discussion of Common People: An Anthology of Working-Class Writers, and Gavan explains that although “commoner” use to mean that one was not descended from nobility or clergy, the contemporary meaning is a little looser and will often just mean “uncouth, unrefined, or unpleasant.”
The anthology includes both white and non-white UK writers, and a writer from the series who is the daughter of immigrants detailed an instance of verbal harassment on the way to a discussion about the book, describing how someone told her to “go back where [she] came from.” This leads to a conversation about similarities between Brexit politics in the UK and deep conservatism in the U.S. and how these two political ideologies seem to be borne from a similar tension that is often expressed in violent ways against people who are perceived as different. Gavan notes that in England many working class people have justifiable anger about being treated poorly, but instead of pointing their anger toward the Tory government, conservatism, and all of the structures we know are built to harm poor and working class people, they find somewhere else to direct their anger, and it is often politically redirected toward non-white and immigrant populations.
Thank you to Gavan Lennon for sitting down for this conversation. You can learn more about Gavan’s work here. And listen to him talk about his new book here: