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Tell About the South:
Voices in Black & White

A film by Ross Spears
80 min.

Study Guide

Pre-Viewing Activities

Part I: The Southern Renascence to World War II

Part II: Prophets & Poets

Part III: Prophets & Poets

About the film

Tell About the South is a three-part documentary series about modern southern literature. Six years in the making, the film is a tale of unprecedented cultural and artistic expression amid social and economic turmoil--the first documentary to dramatize the story of southern literature. From World War I to the Civil Rights Movement to the Sun Belt, the writers of the South, both black and white, have explored the mysteries of their region's troubled soul, giving us stories of paradox and beauty.

Making the Film

Tell About the South is the first film ever made that examines the history of the literature of the Twentieth Century South.

Pre-Viewing Activities

Southern Literature & Literature History
Many scholars have speculated about how a region of such poverty and backwardness, where the public libraries were inferior and the public schools abysmal, could produce such great literature and music in the first half of the twentieth century. In the film, literary critic Cleanth Brooks says that "it's the defeated who remember wars" and who tell stories. While he is talking about southern whites defeated in the Civil War, one can see in the African-American music and literature discussed in the film that it is those who experience hardship of other sorts as well, who find creative ways to release their emotions. Allen Tate, one of the Fugitive poets, thought that the Southern Renascence occurred when it did because white southerners finally had enough distance on the Civil War to look at their society more critically. In "A Southern Mode of the Imagination," Tate argued that between the world wars, the nature of southern literature shifted "from melodramatic rhetoric to the dialectic of tragedy." He used W.B. Yeats's epigram to explain his theory, "Out of the quarrel with others we make rhetoric; out of the quarrel with ourselves, poetry." Intellectual historian Daniel Joseph Singal questions Tate's theory that the social conflict between the South's agrarian past and the industrial future had produced the outburst of creativity, given that industrialism had not fully arrived in the South by the 1920s. Singal suggests that modernist intellectual ideas and forms of expression were equally influential in fostering the Southern Renascence.

Periodically scholars have predicted the demise of the literary South as the twentieth century has progressed and the South has changed, but the South in the forties and fifties, the decades covered in Part II of Tell About the South, was rigidly segregated, dominated by small-town life, and economically behind the rest of the United States. As a result its writers continued to create a literature distinctive in its regional differences and the southern literary renascence continued.

Literature by writers born in the American South was first anthologized after the Civil War in order to assert and maintain regional distinctiveness, but early in this century Charles William Kent created a seventeen-volume Library of Southern Literature to show how the South had contributed "to the history of our national literature." For most of this century, southern literature has been studied as the preserve of white male writers. In the last thirty years, literary scholars have ceased to treat white women writers as if they were minor authors, and they have added the study of African-American writers to create a more complex and accurate portrait of the South's literary history.

Tell About the South continues this revision of southern literary history by comparing black and white writers in innovative and provocative ways.  Part I: The Southern Renascence to World War II juxtaposes Nashville's Fugitive poets with the Mississippi Delta's blues singers, compares the literary modernism of William Faulkner and Jean Toomer, and contrasts the lives and works of writers Zora Neale Hurston and Thomas Wolfe, who left the South. Such juxtaposition causes viewers to think about both the writers and about southern literature in new ways.

Discussion Questions

  • Draw a map of the South. What states have you included? Why?
  • List five adjectives that come to mind when you think about the South. What is your relationship to the South? How has this relationship affected your map and your list?
  • In talking about the South in Tell About the South: Part II Mary Lee Settle says, "There is so much wrong and so much that you love, and to try to put them together, somehow, it seems to me to be the main job of the southern writer." What does this statement suggest to you?
  • How will viewers be able to recognize the filmmaker's concerns, interests, biases?
  • How is the history of the American South distinctive? How might these distinctions be reflected in southern literature?
  • What is the difference between local color literature and regional literature?
  • Is regional literature less universal and more provincial than other literature? Or is the general more compellingly expressed through the particular?
  • How do recent anthologies of southern literature differ from earlier ones?

Pre-Viewing Activities for Part I

  • Have your students listen to a blues song by Robert Johnson or another blues singer, such as Son House, Charlie Patton, or Muddy Waters, and answer these questions: What is the subject matter of the lyrics? How would you describe the music?
  • Have your students read one or more of the works that are dramatized in Part I of the film: Ransom's "Bells for John Whiteside's Daughter," Toomer's "Fern" from Cane, the opening scene in Faulkner's Absalom, Absalom!, the courting scene between Janey and Teacake in Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God, Ben Gant's death scene in Wolfe's Look Homeward, Angel.
  • Have your students read "The Sahara of the Bozart" (1917) by H. L. Mencken. What were his views of the South? Why?
  • Read the introduction to I'll Take My Stand by Twelve Southerners. In what ways are their concerns similar to issues confronting the United States today? How do they differ?
  • Have your students go to a library and examine some of the period magazines that published the early southern authors' works: The Fugitive, published in Nashville; The Crisis and The Messenger, published in New York; Reviewer, published in Richmond; and The Southern Review published in Baton Rouge. Students might like to read the 1939 copy of Time, in which Faulkner appeared on the cover or special issues of the Saturday Review of Literature that were devoted to the South: "The Deep South," September 19, 1942, and "The Old South," January 23, 1943.
  • Have your students view Gone With the Wind. How is the South portrayed? Are any historical facts of the Civil War and Reconstruction omitted or romanticized?

Pre-Viewing Activities for Part II

  • Have your students read the "Preview to Understanding" or a chapter from W. J. Cash’s The Mind of the South. What were his goals in writing the book? What is "the mind of the South"? Does it still exist?
  • Have your students read Richard Wright’s "The Ethics of Living Jim Crow" and discuss the effects of racial discrimination on a person’s identity and sense of self-worth.
  • Have your students read an essay on the South or southern culture by H. L. Mencken, such as "Mississippi Flood," the article mentioned in the letters to the editor in the Memphis newspaper, The Commercial Appeal, that Richard Wright read. What were his views of the South and southern literature? Discuss why Richard Wright may have found Mencken’s work interesting.
  • Have your students read one or more of the works or portions of them that are dramatized in the film: Native Son, Intruder in the Dust, All the King’s Men, and Invisible Man (the Prologue).
  • Have your students go to a library and examine some of the magazines that published the southern authors' early works: New Masses, The Saturday Review, South Today, The Southern Review, Story Magazine.
  • Have your students examine anthologies of southern literature published in different decades of the twentieth century. How do recent anthologies of southern literature differ from earlier ones?
  • Have your students ask someone who lived during the period of racial segregation to tell them what it was like? Then discuss race relations today.

Pre-Viewing Activities for Part III

  • (Part 3 of this Stufy Guide will be available soon!)

Study Guide for Part I: The Southern Renascence to World War II

Study Guide prepared by Suzanne Jones, University of Richmond, 1998

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