Today we welcome a guest post from John Hayes, author of Hard, Hard Religion: Interracial Faith in the Poor South, on the history of class and race in the American South.
In Hard, Hard Religion, his captivating study of faith and class, John Hayes examines the ways folk religion in the early twentieth century allowed the South’s poor–both white and black–to listen, borrow, and learn from each other about what it meant to live as Christians in a world of severe struggle. Beneath the well-documented religious forms of the New South, people caught in the region’s poverty crafted a distinct folk Christianity that spoke from the margins of capitalist development, giving voice to modern phenomena like alienation and disenchantment. Through haunting songs of death, mystical tales of conversion, grassroots sacramental displays, and an ethic of neighborliness, impoverished folk Christians looked for the sacred in their midst and affirmed the value of this life in this world.
Hard, Hard Religion is now available in print and e-book editions.
The classic 1962 film To Kill a Mockingbird conveyed a clear message about white supremacy in the South: it was distinctly class-based, sustained and zealously supported by a certain class of whites. The viewer meets this class in the characters of Bob and Mayella Ewell. They wear clothes suited for manual labor, talk in a drawl, get drunk on moonshine, and live a rough cabin in the countryside. They are poor whites, and they present a sharp contrast to the film’s hero Atticus Finch. Finch wears seersucker suits, talks with eloquence and precision, displays the manners of respectability, and lives in a spacious house on one of the town’s prime residential streets. He is middle class, and he stands up for equal justice in the face of the deep racism around him. Despite his heroic stand, though, Finch is unable to secure justice for the falsely-accused Tom Robinson; in the climactic courtroom scene, the Ewells’ deceptive testimony pushes all the emotional buttons of white supremacy and sways the jury into a guilty verdict for Robinson.
Other cultural productions of the time—Eudora Welty’s 1963 essay “Where is the Voice Coming From?”, for example—set forth this class-based account, but my hunch is that To Kill a Mockingbird, both the film and the Pulitzer-Prize winning 1960 novel on which it was based, endures as its most popular expression. It endures, I think, not primarily because it is well crafted (though both the novel and film certainly are), but rather because the message it delivers is consoling: racism is primarily attributable to “those people,” uncouth people on the social margins.Continue Reading John Hayes: “Those People”