Friday, November 30, 2007

Oklahoma, y'all

Earlier this month I went to Richmond for the Annual Meeting of the Southern Historical Association, one of two professional conferences I attend every year*. The Southern is more frequently a venue for good-natured carousing than academic discourse, but I did manage to attend several panels and listen to a few conference papers. Of these, the most interesting concerned the efforts of Oklahoma, which was admitted to the Union 100 years ago this month, to identify itself as a Southern state during the first quarter-century of statehood. In his paper "Becoming West," David Chang observed that Oklahoma's Democratic political leaders initially took great pains to express solidarity with the South - by passing Jim Crow laws, organizing a large chapter of the Ku Klux Klan, and inviting race-baiting Senator "Pitchfork Ben" Tillman to the state to speak. Eastern Oklahoma's economy, based (until the 1930s) on cotton and tenant farming, was Southern in character, as were its Native American peoples, mainly displaced southeastern Indians of the "Five Civilized Tribes." The state did not begin to adopt a Western identity until the 1930s, when oil and cattle replaced cotton as its principal products, and when Oklahoma's civic leaders began to hold rodeos and built the Gilcrease Museum in Tulsa. While Chang didn't say as much in his paper, the shift may also have been due to a change in popular culture: while the early twentieth century was the golden age of Southern nostalgic literature, the 1920s and '30s saw the popularization of the Western film, which glamorized that region and made its identity a more attractive one for Oklahomans to adopt.

* Update, 17 June 2018: In general, I no longer attend the Southern annually, having replaced it with the Ethnohistory Society meeting in the fall.

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