What does it mean to be southern? What does it mean to feel and think deeply through multiple geographies of the South? What is invoked by the “southern” of “Southern Post-Colonial,” and what new spatial and political possibilities are rendered legible via an engagement with race, culture, and diaspora?
During the 1960s and 1970s, Third World Liberation activists invoked southern geographies to mark histories of colonization as well as emergent struggles for independence. The Global South—understood vis-à-vis the Global North—became a useful analytic for marking spatial inequalities and shared experiences of dispossession. Global North countries exploited the Global South for cheap labor and natural resources; the Global South, in turn, pushed back, articulating a politics of resistance rooted in leftist revolution. Hồ Chí Minh defeated the French colonists and U.S. imperialists and pushed Vietnam toward independence. Fidel Castro led the Cuban Revolution against military dictatorship and U.S. intervention. College students in California banded together to form a Third World Liberation Front, striking for ethnic studies curriculum that attended to their experiences of migration from the Global South.
To be southern, in short, was to be a revolutionary.
To be a southern post-colonial, in turn, is to trace one’s story back to this period of political struggle.
But not exclusively.
The South also invokes a political stickiness—a politics that coheres not around liberation, but racial injustice, that invokes histories of not only freedom, but also slavery. Consider, for example, the U.S. South, understood as the former Confederacy. Consider the U.S. Civil War, understood not as a struggle for Black liberation but as a fight to protect Southern states’ rights. Lost Cause rhetoric invokes a different kind of southern politics, a different kind of southern affect and ways of understanding the world. A product of the late nineteenth century, Lost Cause rhetoric has not gone away.
So what does the “South” signify?
To work through these tensions—these frictions, or one might say political contradictions—that are invoked by multiple iterations of the South, it’s helpful to turn to another southern location, another theory of southern politics. Italian political philosopher Antonio Gramsci was shaped by a different southern geography: the north-south dynamics of interwar Italy. He posed what he called “the southern question”—one that still resonates today.
Consider Italy during the interwar years: that period of seeming peace on the European continent in between the First and Second World Wars. This was a period of transition for Italy, as multiple factions competed for control over the country’s direction: bourgeois versus communist, capitalist versus socialist, Catholic versus agnostic. The north was dominated by urban centers, the south by agrarian economies. This was the period that witnessed the rise of Benito Mussolini, former socialist turned fascist, who advocated a dangerous form of nationalism rooted in totalitarianism, imperialism, and a nostalgic desire to return Italy to the grandeur of the Roman Empire.
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. The interwar years were a period of contingency—of potentiality and promise, before the consolidation of Mussolini’s power. In 1926, Gramsci began writing an essay entitled “Some Aspects of the Southern Question,” though he was imprisoned before it could be completed. In the essay, Gramsci highlights the importance of the southern peasantry for any meaningful revolutionary change in Italy. The southern peasantry did not conform to legible scripts of radical politics: un-organized, in a labor sense of the term, they were thought to be easily co-opted by either the southern landowners or the northern bourgeois state. Their historical grievances differed from those of the northern proletariat, and thus were rendered illegible under certain Marxist frameworks. But Gramsci was careful not to conflate the southern peasantry with the more vocal conservative politics of the southern ruling class. Instead, he argued that Italy’s southern peasantry could form unexpected and therefore powerful class alliances with the northern proletariat—that indeed, such alliances across regional, cultural, and political differences were pivotal for social change. In sum, counterintuitive solidarities were possible, if one took seriously emergent forms of “southern politics” and imagined new geopolitical formations.
So who are today’s “southern peasantry”? What does it mean to pose the “southern question” in the contemporary moment? What unexpected alliances and counterintuitive solidarities are possible, by attending to southern histories, politics, and affect?
The South is not an inherently revolutionary nor an inherently regressive force or faction. It is up to the “organic intellectual”—another Gramscian term—to listen, work through, and articulate the multiple politics and promises of the South.
I am a southern post-colonial. Born out of the revolution, but according to the revolutionaries, on the wrong side.
My mother and grandmother were refugees from South Vietnam. I was born in southern California. My personal and academic trajectory is informed by their southern migrations—how the South impresses upon on lives.
Many people forget that the Vietnam War was a civil war. That Hồ Chí Minh derided not only U.S. imperialists but also the southern nationalists, who envisioned an independent democratic Vietnam. South Vietnam may have entered into a strategic alliance with the United States, but they were not mere puppets of U.S. imperialism and were instead freedom fighters in their own right. My grand-uncle—my grandmother’s older brother—served as a colonel for the southern Army of the Republic of Vietnam and was publicly executed for refusing to surrender in August 1975. Branded a traitor by the victorious communist revolutionaries, his southern struggle was repressed. Like the southern peasants in Gramsci’s essay, his southern vision was too easily dismissed, illegible as it was to the revolutionary rubrics of Third World Liberation and Global South solidarity that were circulating at the time.
I write this not to venerate anticommunism—which can indeed manifest as reactionary politics—nor to critique communism—which offers a productive critique of global capitalism. Instead, I write this to think through the complexities and contradictions of southern politics, to take seriously the legacies of southern struggle and defeat.
This is our southern question. One we are still trying to answer and understand.
On January 6, 2021, pro-Trump insurrectionists stormed the U.S. Capitol, decrying election fraud and voicing collective grievance. Angry faces, swarming bodies—it’s a story that’s already been told many times. But how can we tell this story in and through the southern question, in and through the South?
What struck me about the January 6 insurrection were the flags. Pro-Trump flags, Gadsden “Don’t Tread on Me” flags, Confederate flags—and among them, the three red stripes flowing across a bright yellow banner. I remember my heart stopping. The flag of South Vietnam, rebranded the “Heritage and Freedom Flag” in the diaspora—what was it doing there? What were South Vietnamese refugees doing there? Why this resurgence of South Vietnamese nationalism, in this moment of U.S. national crisis?
The January 6 insurrection was about race: about a particular white nationalist accusation that people of color—Black descendants of slavery as well as more recent migrants from the Global South—had stolen what had been destined for this country’s white settlers. Never mind that such destiny, manifest to them as it was, had trampled upon the lived experiences and relationalities of Indigenous nations, of original caretakers, of those displaced by the violent project of settler colonialism—what Manu Karuka would call “countersovereignty,” to note the pre-existing independence of Native American nations. This was a question of national birthright.
But the January 6 insurrection was also about the South. About a particular southern grievance—both divorced from and entangled with the Global South—that was articulated by Confederates in the wake of U.S. Civil War defeat and that colored the affective resistance to perceived defeat in the contemporary moment. This was a new Lost Cause to be defended. This was a new counter-history to be preserved. Stop the Steal. Contest the Vote. To admit electoral defeat was to admit white nationalist defeat: the defeat of a particular, narrow vision of America.
So when and where was the South, and southern memory, in this moment of realignment? And how and why did South Vietnam then (re)emerge, in this moment of national unrest? Whose Lost Cause was this? On which side did the South Vietnamese diaspora stand?
I am writing a book about the South—about revisiting the southern question à la Gramsci. Part of the motivation is personal: a way to work through the stickiness of South Vietnamese diasporic politics, of a southern nationalism that dangerously echoes the Confederate nationalism of a white supremacist U.S. South—but that doesn’t have to. Gramsci’s southern peasantry didn’t have to align with the oppressors. Southern political trajectories are not predetermined. I write to and for my community. Our course can be recharted.
Part of the motivation for the book is academic: As a scholar of Asian American Studies, I want to intervene in southern studies, to chart new southern geographies that go beyond the assumed leftist politics of the Global South, understood in the wake of Third World Liberation, and that leave space for southern contradiction, southern friction, southern mess. My work is invested in thinking through new spatial imaginaries, understood in and through the movement and politics of the South Vietnamese diaspora.
My first book, Archipelago of Resettlement: Vietnamese Refugee Settlers and Decolonization across Guam and Israel-Palestine [University of California Press, 2022], traces Vietnamese refugee migration to spaces of settler colonialism and U.S. empire in order to think through refugees’ relationships to Indigenous sovereignty movements in the spaces of their resettlement: what I call the “refugee settler condition.” Bringing together locales that are not often thought of in relation—Vietnam, Guam, Israel-Palestine, and the United States—I use the figure of the archipelago to connect seemingly disparate sites of U.S. imperialism as well as trans-Indigenous resistance.
While my first book puts Asian American Studies in conversation with Indigenous Studies, my second book project, tentatively entitled “Revisiting the Southern Question: South Korea, South Vietnam, and the U.S. South,” puts Asian American Studies in conversation with Black Studies to chart surprising connections routed through different geographies of the South. Again taking South Vietnam and South Vietnamese diaspora as a point of departure, this book thinks through multiple iterations and invocations of the South that fall out of conversations in Global South studies. Both South Vietnam and South Korea were spaces of U.S. intervention, which aligned with the United States in the Cold War order and were therefore seemingly outside of the Third World Liberation movement. I want to interrogate their southern politics: what the South means in an Asian Cold War context. Moreover, I ask: what happens when South Vietnamese and South Korean refugees and migrants come to the United States and encounter a different north-south political geography? What happens when they are interpellated—to quote political philosopher Louis Althusser—by the racial politics of a U.S. nation-state shaped by slavery, anti-Blackness, the Civil War, and Lost Cause rhetoric manifested as white supremacy? How do South Korean and South Vietnamese discourses and understandings of southern history and affect then change? What if South Korean and South Vietnamese subjects rejected the southern politics of the Confederacy and Lost Cause rhetoric, and instead embraced a different southern legacy routed through Black survival and resistance? Some of these questions can be answered through politics and sociology, but we also need to turn to art, literature, and cultural production to think through southern memory and southern silence—that which cannot always be articulated out loud.
Lastly, this book project is political: a way to work through the entanglements of southern nationalism and southern defeat. How can we acknowledge southern loss—understood multiple ways—without falling back into a politics of southern resentment? How can we build unexpected alliances across multiple southern legacies of forced displacement?
On January 14, 2021, Viet Thanh Nguyen wrote in the Washington Post: “In America, white nationalists and Vietnamese nationalists share a common condition: a radicalized nostalgia for a lost country and a lost cause.” He was responding to the horror of the January 6 insurrection. Indeed, Vietnamese Americans were the only Asian American group who voted as a majority for Trump over Biden in November 2020. Why was this the case?
Part of it was a southern “refugee nationalism,” to quote Phuong Tran Nguyen, that is articulated in and through anticommunism and the lived experience of communist terror. First-generation refugees embraced Trump’s anticommunist rhetoric, antagonism of China (long understood as an imperialist threat to Vietnam), and commitment to defending American freedom against all perceived threats, both foreign and domestic. In an article published in The Conversation on January 12, 2021, Long T. Bui wrote that for Vietnamese Americans who “view their fallen homeland as an extension of the American push for freedom and democracy worldwide,” the South Vietnamese flag is a symbol of “nationalism—a militarized patriotism that is simultaneously South Vietnamese and American.” Misinformation circulated online and across virtual communities.
Other Vietnamese Americans, however, rejected Trump’s reactionary rhetoric, warning against the dangers of aligning with a white nationalism that would be so quick to expel and deport those not deemed “good” refugees. In response to the January 6 insurrection, PIVOT, the Progressive Vietnamese American Organization, released a statement condemning the “desecration” of South Vietnam’s flag for “flying alongside flags that symbolize hate and intolerance.”
The 2020 election became one of familial anguish and divide. As Vietnam’s civil war for national independence split apart families with different political visions of a post-colonial Vietnam, so too did the 2020 election divide diasporic families with different views of the political stakes of the electoral contest. First-generation refugees remembered the communist threats of their homeland. Younger and more progressive generations denounced white nationalism, aspiring instead toward multiracial coalition in the resettlement nation.
How then to mourn the collective loss of our refugee parents and grandparents, without reproducing the white supremacy of that other Lost Cause—the one of this country’s Confederacy? How to think about southern memory alongside but also outside the vernacular of the U.S. South?
Articulated in the wake of the Confederates’ southern Civil War defeat, the U.S. Lost Cause idealized the Confederacy as a heroic struggle for states’ rights against the more powerful Union, eliding the ethics of slavery and the fight for Black abolition. One aspect of the Lost Cause explicitly memorialized Confederate politics: the writing of Confederate histories, the building of monuments to celebrate Confederate soldiers, and the undying dream of a revived Confederacy to counteract Union urbanism, industrial capitalism, and supposed moral decline. But another aspect seemingly sidestepped the political to romanticize the cultural: the chivalry and Christian virtue of antebellum plantation life. In sum, the Lost Cause became about preserving a certain white Southern identity, against the social and political changes spurred by Black freedom and abolitionism.
This need to preserve a distinct southern culture and politics also resonates within the South Vietnamese diasporic community. Yes, the histories and contexts differ: the U.S. Civil War versus Vietnam’s Civil War, a struggle over slavery and property versus a struggle over different visions of a post-colonial Vietnam. But southern parallels also resonate across space and time. As South Vietnamese refugees settled in the United States, they translated their own southern experiences into the language and ideologies of their new home. According to Thuy Vo Dang, who wrote an article entitled “The Cultural Work of Anticommunism in the San Diego Vietnamese American Community,” anticommunism should be understood not only as political ideology but also as a “cultural discourse,” through which first-generation Vietnamese Americans “articulate their loss” of South Vietnam, “validate their existence in the United States,” “challenge the erasure of the South Vietnamese story,” and “teach the younger generation about South Vietnamese/American history.” Like the post–Civil War white southern elite of the nineteenth century, South Vietnamese refugees understand nostalgia for a fallen South Vietnam as a cultural identity as much as, if not more so than, a political ideology, whose potential erasure threatens their very subjectivity. For these displaced refugees, South Vietnam comes to symbolize a certain iteration of individualist freedom, ever threatened by repressive regimes like communism and socialism in both Vietnam and the United States.
And so we came to the January 6 insurrection, and the juxtaposition of Confederate and South Vietnamese flags. Both white nationalists and South Vietnamese nationalists found in the contested election a particular echo of the Lost Cause—of something threatened in need of protection, of something to defend from the unruly forces of change. In the wake of electoral defeat, both found a particular iteration of the South, a particular memory of southern loss.
We cannot dismiss southern loss. It is not productive to tell South Vietnamese refugees to just move on. But Gramsci’s “southern question” presents one model for thinking about South Vietnamese nationalism differently—of honoring the trauma and forced displacement of the refugee generation, while trying to sidestep (and indeed, critique) the white nationalism of that other, resonant Lost Cause, in our country of resettlement.
South Vietnamese refugee history and subjectivity need not be routed through the Confederacy. For the U.S. South is also about Black resistance: about calls for freedom from the shackles of slavery and white supremacy.
There are other southern legacies, southern resonances. Black politics in the wake of slavery offers another way to honor and remember the South.
In summer 2021, I visited a photography exhibit at the Getty Museum in Los Angeles entitled In Focus: Protest. Arranged around a square room, inviting viewers to walk clockwise to follow a linear chronology, the exhibit’s photographs featured key moments of social struggle and resistance in U.S. history, such as the resilience of Japanese Americans incarcerated in forced relocation camps like Manzanar during World War II, as captured by Toyo Miyatake, and the 2018 Women’s March in Los Angeles that attracted multiple generations of protestors, as captured by John Simmons. Prominently featured was the struggle of Black Americans for freedom and civil rights, in the wake of the afterlives of slavery and the Great Migration from the South. Leonard Freed’s gelatin silver print of the March on Washington on August 28, 1963, featured Black men and women, faces grim and determined, holding signs demanding economic opportunities and voting rights “NOW!” Bruce Davidson’s powerful image of Black male youth in the South—one carrying an American flag and another’s face painted white except for the letters spelling “VOTE,” made stark by his dark skin—bore witness to the March from Selma in 1965.
Most striking to me, however, was a large color photograph by Vietnamese American photographer An-My Lê located near the end of the exhibit, which captured the contemporary moment of southern contest and unrest, of southern memory and memorialization, during the ongoing Movement for Black Lives. Born in Sài Gòn in 1960, Lê invokes multiple souths and southern displacements in her work: both that of her refugee family, as well as that of her adoptive country. Following the Tết Offensive of 1968, Lê, her mother, and two brothers temporarily moved to Paris. They returned to Vietnam in 1973, following the withdrawal of U.S. troops, but the family evacuated just two years later right before the Fall of Saigon, resettling in southern California. Since 1999, Lê has taught photography at Bard College. Her photographic projects include Viêt Nam (1994–98), Small Wars (1999–2002), and 29 Palms (2003–4), which document, respectively, the afterlives of the Vietnam War on the postwar Vietnamese landscape, Vietnam War reenactors in North Carolina and Virginia, and U.S. Marines in California training for war in the Middle East.
This particular photograph included in the In Focus: Protest exhibit—entitled “Fragment VI: General Robert E. Lee and P. G. T. Beauregard Monuments, Homeland Security Storage, New Orleans, Louisiana”—is part of Lê’s latest ongoing photographic series. Entitled Silent General, the series references one of Walt Whitman’s chapters (called fragments) about Ulysses S. Grant, from his book Specimen Days. Grant, who gained his fame on the battlefields of the U.S. Civil War, fighting for the Union against the slave-owning Confederacy, invokes another South, a different South, calling to mind the specter of the similarly defeated South Vietnam. In another article I am writing, forthcoming in American Quarterly in fall 2022, I write about southern memory and southern metaphor in relation to a different part of Lê’s Silent General series: the photographs that make up “Fragment I.”
In the Getty Museum exhibit, Lê’s photograph was paired with Kris Graves’s iconic image “George Floyd Projection, Richmond, Virginia,” which graced the cover of the January 2021 issue of National Geographic. Taken at night, the image features a monument of southern general Robert E. Lee mounted atop a horse on a massive pedestal—but repurposed and reclaimed, the pedestal covered in graffiti, George Floyd’s haunting face superimposed, and Lee’s statue simultaneously darkened and lightened with the projected white letters “BLM.” Graves captured this moment before the statue’s impending removal, in the midst of nationwide marches protesting the ongoing murder of Black subjects at the hands of racist police. Lê’s photograph in turn captures a quieter moment, but one no less of reclamation and rearticulation of the southern legacies of the U.S. Civil War. In Lê’s “Fragment VI,” the looming monuments of generals Robert E. Lee and P. G. T. Beauregard, removed from their pedestals in New Orleans thanks to grassroots organizing from Black- and community-led groups such as Take ’Em Down NOLA, are hidden away and contained in a makeshift wooden barn run by Homeland Security. Here, it is not the contemporary wave of refugees and asylum seekers from the Global South who are interned, but the toppled patriarchal figures of a bygone white supremacist southern nationalist project.
For me, Lê’s “Fragment VI” presents one way to articulate the South differently—to recognize the resonances between South Vietnam and the U.S. South, between South Vietnam and the Global South, between southern memory and nostalgia and the collective grief of a fallen nation—but to route this southern affect through southern Black protest and resilience, rather than the white supremacy of the Lost Cause.
This is our southern question, revisited.
This is our southern post-colonial question, posed continually, answered anew.