This article is cross-posted from Pop South.
Recently, The History Channel (THC) televised an hour-long special entitled You Don’t Know Dixie. Most historians haven’t come to expect much history from THC—a channel that is better known for airing shows like Ice Road Truckers and Swamp People. Since I am interested in popular representations of the American South, I tuned in and what I observed didn’t change my mind about how the South and southerners continue to be represented as stereotypes. On the one hand, message boards and even a Facebook page for the show suggest that it has a solid fan base—at least among southern whites. For most of them, You Don’t Know Dixie doesn’t trade in negative stereotypes about the region and that’s reason enough to like the show. This is understandable given how the popular media often showcases the region as a backwater.
And yet, there were stereotypes and much that was problematic about the program. You Don’t Know Dixie is heavy on trivia and relies on “well-known southerners” like Ty Pennington, Trace Adkins, and Jeff Foxworthy to tell us “hidden truths” about the region, with a couple of academics thrown in to make it legitimate. Well, them and Barney Barnwell, a fiddler and hillbilly moonshiner whose speech required subtitles.
Employing the term “Dixie,” rather than “South,” and borrowing from the Confederate battle flag to illustrate the “X” in the show’s title is an indication of its focus. The overarching message is that southerners (read: white) persevere in the face of outside challenges. Southern women don’t make the cut, and African Americans cook well or sing the blues. While not a reality show per se, it has the same quality, and the message of the program is reduced to a Hank Williams Jr. song—a country boy can survive.
It’s no surprise that historians hated it, which they made clear in a discussion on H-South (an electronic discussion group for scholars of southern history). And yet, the show will pass for “good” information about the region and THC may even purchase more episodes from North South Productions, the company that developed the program. So what’s a southern historian to do except complain? We could begin by doing a better job of engaging the general public with our scholarship. And I would argue that we should engage in a serious discussion about popular culture rather than ignoring it as too low brow to warrant our attention.
Karen L. Cox is associate professor of history at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. She is the author of Dreaming of Dixie: How the South Was Created in American Popular Culture as well as Dixie’s Daughters: The United Daughters of the Confederacy and the Preservation of Confederate Culture, which won the 2004 Julia Cherry Spruill Prize for the best book in southern women’s history. You can become a fan of Dreaming of Dixie on Facebook and follow Cox on Twitter @SassyProf. Visit the author’s blog, Pop South: Reflections on the South in Popular Culture.