The New Mind of the South
1. It’s Complicated
Being a Southerner is a lot like being a Jew, and every bit as complicated. For starters, this means there is no such thing as “Southern culture”—only “cultures,” plural, which range from the equivalent of the militantly Zionist (the neo-Confederate crowd) to the Hassidic (regular attendees of the Ole Miss–Alabama game, perhaps) and all shades in between. Jews and Southerners are both self-anointed chosen people—Jews in a religious sense, Southerners in a cultural sense. Both identities substantially overlap with a specific type of religion (evangelical Protestantanism, in the case of Southerners), though within those parameters there’s lots of room for variation. Both identities are voluntary affiliations that can be either adopted or forsworn, even if the natal imprint is tough to erase completely. Jews and Southerners alike know what it is to be a kind of invisible minority in the culture at large, forced to smile politely as they hear themselves referred to in unflattering, one-dimensional stereotypes: I’ll see your Jewish American Princess or Shylock, and raise you one Alabama hick plus a Bible-totin’, evolution-denyin’ school board member from Dogpatch.
Jews have Ashkenazi and Sephardic ethnic subgroups; Southerners come in two basic ethnic varieties—African American and Caucasian. Jews have their Diaspora; likewise, millions of Southerners have been forced to hit the road bound for the lettuce fields of California or the steel mills of Chicago. The Jews have their Babylonian captivity; Southerners have—well, slavery. Both groups have ample experience with poverty and deprivation, yet from this poor soil both groups have produced a disproportionate number of authentic and utterly idiosyncratic geniuses. Jewish culture has always placed an extraordinary value on intellectual achievement and scholarly pursuits; Southerners . . .
Well, okay. No analogy is perfect.
I am a Southerner. The Thompson family roots go at least six generations deep in the soil of Georgia, Alabama, and Tennessee (though a few hardy adventurers have made it as far west as Oklahoma). A Southern identity is something I can’t imagine myself without, and yet I’ve spent much of my life trying to come up with a definition of exactly what that is. Southerners are Americans with an extra layer of identity—yet “no Southerner, so far as I know, has yet seen fit to write about the ‘two-ness’ of Southerners,” historian Carl Degler wrote a few years back, referring to W. E. B. Du Bois’s famous remark about the “double consciousness” of being both black and American.1
This seems incredible, given the lavish generosity Southerners have shown over the years in sharing their thoughts about their Southern-ness with the world—but it’s true. Why? For one thing, because for much of the twentieth century Southerners themselves laid down such strict rules about what was and was not authentically “Southern”—and anyone tempted to tamper
or find fault with those rules found that social ostracism was just the start of the punishments awaiting him. For another, it’s been hard to lay down the burden of Southern history long enough to get a word in edgewise. Until quite recently, black people whose families had roots in the South as deep as mine were viewed one-dimensionally as just “black,” not “Southern”—as if skin color made them magically immune to feeling affection for the place they called home; white Southerners were either racist Confederate flag-wavers, redneck comic relief, or apologetic liberals. If none of those roles appealed, you could try for Resident Southern Genius, but that was a very exclusive club to get into, or you could go into academia. Or you could just shove the whole thing into a mental drawer and get on with your life.
Most of us did just that, saving this subject for idle moments spent in the company of other Southerners when there was nothing better to talk about, a kind of intellectual Rubik’s Cube. Then two things happened that made it newly relevant to me.
The first was an interesting story unearthed by a cousin in the course researching a Thompson family history. Among the nuggets of information he came up with was a set of papers on file at the National Archives referring to our common ancestor as a Union sympathizer during the Civil War. Thomas Thompson was a tenant farmer working a piece of land near the Chattahoochee River in what are now the southwest suburbs of Atlanta—in other words, deep in slave country, not in a border state or any well-known Southern pocket of pro-Union sentiment. According to his sworn testimony before a government commission in 1872, he had refused to support the Confederacy despite repeated harassment, imprisonment, and death threats. Toward the end of the war, he had been forced to leave the state in fear
for his life, leaving his wife and children behind to make that year’s crop, meaning they were on hand to greet General Sherman in August of 1864 when his army arrived to relieve them of their harvest, along with virtually all their other worldly goods.
All these years, this story had been sitting in the files of the National Archives; for all these years, no one in my extended family had ever heard of it—or if anyone had, had never spoken of it. My paternal grandmother, who had been born in Alabama just after the end of Reconstruction and thus had grown up with people who would have been eyewitnesses to these events, had never so much as hinted about any of this. Why would that be? Because nobody in my family wanted to believe it. The consensus was that Thomas Thompson had been trying to pull a fast one, posing as a Union loyalist in an attempt to get reimbursed for his lost property. Intrigued by the realization that most of my relatives would rather be related to a con artist than a Civil War–era Union supporter, I went down to the National Archives and did some more research. With very little effort, I turned up roughly two dozen similar cases just from the small county where these events had taken place. The documents were faded and hard to read, but the contents were vivid—stories of neighbor turned against neighbor, of entire networks of men hiding in the woods and farm wives who secretly fed them, of people who refused to fight for the Confederacy despite social ostracism, beatings, death threats, even being disowned by their relatives. And for what? The basic answer came in my ancestor’s own words, carefully noted in a faded handwritten transcript preserved on microfiche: “I always was, am now and expect to be while I live, a Union man.”
My family, anti-Confederates? I’d always wondered why,
unlike every other Southern family I knew, ours had no Civil War stories. It didn’t surprise me that history had not noticed us, but how could we have not noticed history? Now it seemed clear that we had—and the family silence about it actually made sense, too: in the haze of nostalgia that burnished the decades following the war, claiming a connection with relatives who had opposed the sacred Lost Cause would have been claiming kinship with a traitor. Your kids would have been shunned; you might have gotten death threats.
This discovery was both fascinating and unsettling—like learning that some old family keepsake painting you’d had for decades had, in fact, been hanging upside down. These events had happened within a ten-mile radius of where I’d grown up. The people in these stories had stood on their porches in July 1864 and watched as a vast Union army appeared on the horizon—first a trickle of men and wagons, then more, until the landscape was a sea of men and tents and campfires and livestock stretching from one horizon to the other. “The field was plumb full of soldiers picking peas,” one said. “The woods was perfectly blue with soldiers,” said another.2
I knew the road they had lived on; I’d passed the sites of those old homesteads hundreds of times. What I hadn’t known was what had happened there. My keepsake painting wasn’t just hanging upside down; it had been painted over. Now a different and more complicated painting was beginning to emerge.
And here’s the interesting thing: when your past changes, your identity changes. People have an instinctive need to reconcile their image of themselves with their image of where they came from, and if necessary they will invent a past to make that happen. But for me, past and present had never quite lined
up. I had known for a long time that the history I’d picked up from the adults around me was a confusing jumble of truth and hearsay and propaganda: Sherman’s men came right down this railroad . . . The war was about states’ rights . . . The Yankees took everything we had and then some . . . They buried him out under the muscadine vines . . . Slavery wasn’t all that awful. I’d figured it didn’t really matter; I’d leave the arguments about why the Civil War happened and what it all meant to the historians and the wingnuts who were still mad about it. Now it occurred to me that maybe the reason my identity had never completely made sense was that the history attached to it had never made sense, either.
The second thing that happened was the realization that my past was disappearing. I’d left Georgia for Washington, D.C., in 1989, an ambitious, single, career-minded newspaper reporter eager to start a new job at the Washington Post. Now I was middle-aged, married, and living in the Maryland suburbs, a mom who juggled the occasional freelance writing gig with household chores and schlepping kids to play dates and swim meets. Georgia was six hundred miles and two decades away. Yet at some deep level, it was still home. My earliest memories were of the grove of towering red oaks that stood across the cornfield from my bedroom window, right outside my grandparents’ farm near Red Oak. My father was buried in Georgia; my sister still lived there; my mother spent her entire life within a twenty-mile radius of East Point. She died of heart failure in December 2005—and by some malign coincidence, about the same time bulldozers came and destroyed those amazing, century-old red oaks. The cornfield had long ago succumbed to pine trees and briars; after the bulldozers came through, it was cleared and
paved. The place where I had grown up was now the site of a nondescript warehouse. But the past was still there. Under that asphalt lay the vestiges of my grandfather’s muscadine vines and crab apple trees, the tar paper shack where his tenants had lived, the henhouse where my grandmother had tended her chickens. And not far away, an ancestor I’d never heard of had planted his own crops and feuded bitterly with his neighbors over the practical import of a constitutional question that, in one form or another, vexes our political discourse to this day.
I started out, then, with the idea of writing about this mismatch of history and identity that so many Southerners up through my generation have had, this vague sense of cognitive dissonance that comes with growing up in a world where nothing you see around you quite fits with the picture of history made available to you. When we said, “I am a Southerner,” what did we mean? Specifically, what did it mean to be a product of a region so largely defined by race in a so-called post-racial era, when the nation had just elected its first African American president? And did it even matter? After all, writers and historians have been lamenting the death of Southern identity for fifty or sixty years now, though nobody can seem to get it to stay in its coffin. Polls consistently show a decline in the number of people who identify themselves as “Southern.” But is that the slow death of a regional identity, or just a disinclination to be stereotyped? For something that’s supposedly on its last legs—still—again—Southern identity seems remarkably spry: it keeps showing up at political rallies, in films, in literature, at NASCAR races and in music, to name just a few places. The media throws around the terms “Southerners” and “Southern” as if everybody knows what they mean; at the same time, those of
us who actually are Southerners have made an enduring industry out of the search for a definition. Yes, I decided, it matters.
But the inquiry was an audacious undertaking, to put it mildly. In any generalizations about collective character “the possibilities for embarrassment are numerous,” Southern historian C. Vann Woodward once wrote, and this is especially true of the South.3
Without fully realizing what I was doing, I’d set out on a path littered with the bones of those who had gone before me—many of them famous, many of whom had never reached their destination. And so, to begin with, I started with a simple idea: a box labeled “Southern identity.” The existence of this box dates from the earliest days of our nation, when the definition of “American” was still struggling for consensus, and in the beginning its contents were defined in opposition: the South was whatever the rest of the country was not. Some of those early distinctions were true and some were imaginary, but—as happens in families where one child is labeled “the smart one” while another is “the rebellious one”—they soon passed out of the realm of debate into the realm of perception and, to an unquantifiable extent, the realm of reality. Southerners were just different.
Okay, you ask; different how? What is in the box? That depends; the contents are always changing. The only constants are two great institutions that have defined the limits of the available contents: evangelical religion and slavery. The history of slavery in the South is like the tracks of an ancient river, clearly visible from a distance long after human habitation has made its outlines hard to discern up close. “The law may abolish slavery,” Alexis de Tocqueville wrote in 1832, “[but] God alone can obliterate the traces of its existence.”4
Two hundred years later, God
still hasn’t gotten around to it. It’s in the band of black poverty that curves up through the Deep South from New Orleans through South Carolina; it’s in the black and white families united today by genealogical discoveries of century-old acts of rape and forbidden love affairs; it’s in urban residential patterns that still bear the traces of decades of laws which sorted out neighborhoods according to the skin color of their residents.
“The South” was a concept born of the increasingly urgent need Southerners had to explain themselves, both to themselves and to everyone else, as the early-nineteenth-century Southern economy became entwined with and heavily dependent on the institution of slavery. In turn, “the South” as a concept birthed the Confederacy and an assertion of separate nationhood. The Civil War that resulted sent hundreds of thousands of farmers marching across disparate regions and transformed a collection of mountaineers, Virginians, Arkansans, and Georgians, among many others, into a group of people who adopted a common regional and political identity. Individually, they fought for a variety of reasons; collectively, they fought to preserve and expand an economic system based on slavery.
The Jim Crow system that arose after the Civil War was an effort to codify the social assumption of white superiority, which was the underpinning of the rationale for slavery. In turn, the civil rights movement was an effort by blacks to break free of the chains imposed on them by the Jim Crow era. The emergence of the Republican South in the 1960s was based on the need of Southern whites to assert the primacy of property rights and freedom from government intervention, which was a reaction to residential integration and school busing, which was born of the civil rights era, which came out of Jim Crow,
which emerged from Confederate nationalism, which originated in the South’s need to defend . . . slavery. Southerners eat sweet potato pie today because the sweet potato was imported into the South from Africa by slaves. The white columns of traditional Southern residential architecture are a reference to antebellum Southern architecture, which looked to classical Greece for inspiration because identifying with ancient cultures was an important part of the South’s explanation and defense of . . . slavery. The line between “history” and “current events” in the South is notoriously hard to draw.
Then there’s evangelical religion, which started out as antislavery but over the course of the nineteenth century became entangled in the spider’s web of the South’s “peculiar institution.” Sectional splits among Methodists and Baptists in the 1840s were an omen of the war to come; biblical justifications for slavery helped to cement the image of a region and a people who were special, following a unique (and superior) understanding of God’s will. In fact, the South was special: evangelical faith would eventually become a source of common ground for the nation’s first truly biracial culture and the moral strength behind the movement to break the back of Jim Crow. “The Almighty has His own purposes,” Abraham Lincoln said in 1864,5
but you don’t have to be a believer to conclude that mere mortals could not possibly predict the way history has unfolded in our part of the world.
So how to describe the current contents of The Box? Item one: Southerners are conservative people. Everybody knows this is true, but not everybody—including many of my fellow Southerners—understands why it’s true, which is that the South is a region that has known more massive, wrenching social
change than any other part of the nation. If Southerners place a high value on tradition, it’s because tradition in the South is like beachfront property in an era of global warming: as much as you love the view, you live with the knowledge that some morning you will wake up and find it gone. People like the Amish, who actually have held on to many of their customs over the course of several generations, don’t seem to feel the need to go on and on about their reverence for the past; Southerners can’t shut up about it, which tells you something. As Southern poet John Crowe Ransom once wrote, “nostalgia is the complaint of human nature . . . when it is plucked up by the roots.”
This failure to understand the reasons for our conservatism, in turn, means that Southerners are rarely given the credit they are due for sheer adaptability—item two. When Eli Whitney invented the cotton gin in 1793, Southerners took his newfangled machinery and in just a few decades created the big-plantation model of agriculture, advanced cotton production several thousand years, and became a global economic power. This is a remarkable achievement by any historical standard. Granted, it was built on the backs of forced labor and caused environmental degradation on a staggering scale—but did it take smarts and industry? You bet. Yet to this day, a Southern accent is apt to brand the speaker as stupid and/or lazy. So deeply ingrained is this stereotype that Southerners have been known to apply it to other Southerners—something I realized I was doing one day while listening to a radio stock market analyst who spoke with a Tennessee twang. “What does he know?” I thought automatically, before I realized what I was doing.
And that leads me to item three: a lack of historical awareness. Popular conceptions of history are always riddled with
myths, distortions, and strategic omissions, but the South takes the prize for the way it has assiduously cultivated, refined, and tended these distortions. Take the most obvious example: the Civil War. In the years leading up to the war, Southern leaders were outspoken and quite specific about what was at stake: S-L-A-V-E-R-Y. (You can look it up.6
) Yet the ink was barely dry on the surrender papers at Appomattox before a new party line was born: actually, folks, slavery had very little to do with it; the issue was states’ rights. Having settled that little detail, white Southerners then went about constructing a legal edifice of segregation laws that reinstituted slavery in all but name, while at the same time convincing others and themselves that it was white Southerners who had suffered most cruelly during the war and Reconstruction. It’s interesting to ponder where the United States would be today if Great Britain had been one-tenth as talented at losing the Revolutionary War.
A corollary to the lack of historical awareness is a certain lack of self-awareness. Southern manners frequently come across as phony to outsiders for whom all those “hey y’alls” and “thank yews” sound canned and forced. For the most part, this is unfair. The “thank yew” that grates on the ear of the outsider is apt to be completely sincere; what the outsider is picking up on are the mixed signals emitted by a culture whose self-image is so fundamentally at odds with its true nature. Southerners are churchgoing folks with straitlaced morals—but it was a Jesus-loving mama’s boy from Mississippi who came up with the radical idea of singing black music to white people, with pelvic gyrations too lewd to be broadcast on TV. People don’t think of Southerners as technological envelope pushers, but it was a bunch of dumb Arkansas hicks who invented that sophisticated global retail
distribution system we call Walmart. The South is supposed to be a region where conservative politics reign, but once the “conservative” South got through with the Republican Party, it had become a party with some radical ideas about eliminating government. And just when people think they’ve got a bead on what “the South” is, it changes again. Who would have thought that in 2008 those solidly Republican states of Virginia and North Carolina would ever go for an African American Democrat with an Arabic middle name? Well, that’s different, the political pundits said; Virginia and North Carolina aren’t really “the South” anymore. Wrong. They’re as Southern as they ever were; they’re just doing what the South has always done, which is to morph into something else when everyone—including us—least expects it.
Today the fastest-growing Latino population in the country is in the South—and not in Texas and Florida, but in Mississippi, Arkansas, Alabama, Georgia, Tennessee, and the Carolinas.7
That exploding Hispanic population, combined with significant Asian immigration, black remigration, and natural population growth, has created a swath of majority-minority counties in the heart of the South’s old cotton country, from deep in Mississippi up into South Carolina. After the 2008 presidential race, when many people noticed that the parts of the South that stayed Republican were overwhelmingly white, the prevailing political wisdom chalked it up to the usual suspects—those redneck racists. They didn’t notice the fact that white Southerners under thirty voted for Obama at roughly the same rate (40 percent) as white Americans generally (43 percent).8
And in a region that once led the nation in castrating and hanging black men merely suspected of looking at a white woman, the rate of black-white marriage and/or cohabitation is
now comparable to that in the rest of the country. It wasn’t so long ago that “Southern” was simply assumed to mean “white.” Today, black people who live in the South are more likely than their white neighbors to identify themselves as Southerners.9
So: back to the existence of The Box. The reason libraries are full of books by Southerners endlessly explaining the South is that, in truth, we are special. Why? Because in the historical experiment we call American democracy, Southerners have been the beta testers. We’re the ones who were given the task of working out the practical application of some lofty ideals—concepts such as “all men are created equal,” for instance, or the idea that people with dark skin have the same right as anybody else to vote and to choose where to live—in an insular kind of environment where two very different groups of people were forced to live in close proximity. We failed. We failed miserably, in front of the whole world, and we had to deal with the consequences of our failure—and as a result, we learned some things. Southerners who have been paying attention have historical reference points that other Americans lack. It’s not a big leap from modern proposals to require voters to produce some government-issued photo identification10
to literacy tests of the Jim Crow era. The ins and outs of the immigration debate aren’t that different from the contortions white Southerners once went through when they needed a minority group around to cook and clean and run a tractor, but didn’t really want to think of them as citizens. The Occupy Wall Street Movement borrows its tactics from the civil rights movement, and its rhetoric bears more than a passing resemblance to the outrage of early-twentieth-century Southern populists.
And then, of course, there’s race. When Wilbur Cash, from whose classic work The Mind of the South I borrowed the idea of a title, wrote that in the Deep South, “Negro entered into white man as profoundly as white man entered into Negro—subtly influencing every gesture, every word, every emotion and idea, every attitude,” he was describing the forced mixing of three great streams of culture—one northern European, one African, one Native American—in an agricultural region insulated from the outside world, with results that were both toxic and miraculous. It’s hard to imagine how that could have happened anywhere else; it’s hard to imagine how it happened where it did. For that reason alone, the South matters to American history in a way matched by no other region of the country, and continues to do so.
So I set out to make sense of the South—and was immediately faced with a basic geographical question: where was it? “I am sitting in a diner in South Carolina,” a friend from New Jersey e-mailed me once, “drinking iced tea that is so sweet I could pour it over my fucking pancakes”—and that strikes me as one definition: the South exists wherever people are putting sugar in their iced tea and not in their cornbread. But on second thought, I decided to stick with the eleven states of the Old Confederacy—Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, and Virginia.11
In recognition of some demographics which have changed drastically in the past century, I narrowed my map further according to some lines set by my friend Joel Garreau in his 1981 book The Nine Nations of North America, which shaved off the suburban Washington, D.C., counties of northern Virginia,
everything in Florida south of Fort Myers, and everything in Texas west of a line drawn southeast from Dallas–Fort Worth down to Houston.
Then, having defined my territory, I set out to do some traveling. What lay before me was the enigmatic region I called home.