Here is a book that attempts to pick apart the fundamental contradictions of the American South, with mixed success.
Tracy Thompson’s The New Mind of the South seeks to find truth in that slice of America that puzzles everyone outside it. I must admit to a particular fascination with the South, myself, both because of its continued importance to American politics and the economy, and also thanks to my personal connections to it. I was born in South Carolina, the birthplace of the Confederacy, surrounded by my paternal grandmother’s extended family.
Indeed, this family has deep roots in South Carolina, stretching back to the Flowers family that built the first church in Marion County. While I left the South when I was very young, at times I encountered my relatives from the area and found them perplexing and alien. The way they talked and behaved made little sense to me, and I found their casual racism shocking. What’s behind all this, anyway? Why is the South so different?
Thompson’s goal is to help demystify the South to other Americans. She admits up front that this is a complicated endeavor. There’s a certain “two-ness” about the South: the desire to at once be considered fully American, but also to retain their indelible Southern-ness. It’s “take us as we are, or don’t take us at all.” While she doesn’t exactly call it an inferiority complex, it’s fair to say that Southern culture is one in which there is a long memory of perceived disrespect, of being America’s red-headed stepchild. This complex has persisted despite the rise of the South as an economic powerhouse.
A recurring theme throughout the book is that Southerners do things their own way, always. They have a profound distrust of non-Christian authority. As a general rule, they trust people they know far over and above people they don’t know, and this extends into how they view the role of government. Faceless bureaucrats in Washington simply can’t know what’s best for you–they don’t even know you, do they? This is an attitude typical of rural, agrarian cultures, in which low population density offers small but strong and insular social networks. Unfortunately, it is an attitude ill-suited to the complexities of the twenty-first century.
One of the key ironies brought into focus is that our very idea of what a “Southerner” is fails to represent reality. The stereotypical image of a Southerner is a white man, possibly a Confederate sympathizer or revisionist, who lives on a farm or in some desolated backwater. Speaks in a drawl, little or no education, was born here and is bound to die here. That may have been the reality a century ago, but the past few generations have seen massive remigrations of black Americans from the north to the South, as well as influxes of migrants from Mexico and the rest of Latin America. White Southerners are being crowded out by demographic shifts, and this is changing what it means to be Southern.
An entire chapter is devoted to the topic of the Civil War, which is absolutely appropriate. Contrary to current popular opinion, there wasn’t much debate in the 1860s as to the true cause of the Civil War. While a number of issues were involved, slavery was the central dilemma: would it continue in the United States, and if so where, and in what form? It was a question that laws and politics failed to settle, and so it was answered definitively through bloodshed. Several Confederate constitutions were explicit in their reasons for secession, citing slavery directly. But after the war was lost, it became necessary to create a new narrative in which the South wasn’t intransigently defending a vile, inhumane institution, but instead nobly standing up for their doomed culture. Given that today, at least half of Americans believe the Civil War was a struggle over a generic concept of “states’ rights,” it would seem that the Confederate revisionists did themselves proud.
It’s worth noting that Thompson approaches her subject matter from the perspective of a lapsed Southerner–someone who has developed quite Yankee sensibilities about racism and tolerance, attempting to dig back into her roots. She shows a fair amount of sympathy, but doesn’t hesitate to lay down facts where others might prefer to bask in rose-colored nostalgia. Her mistake, perhaps, is in taking at face value the idea that the South has largely gotten over issues of race. She notes that in cities in the South today, mixed-race couples are an unremarkable sight, but would have been virtually unheard of half a century ago. This is certainly progress! But perhaps too much is made of this. Would it really be expected that those who had a problem with interracial marriage would don their Klan robes and lynch the offenders, in 2016? That overt racism has been largely quashed in favor of subtler forms including systemic oppression via the criminal justice system doesn’t get much comment here.
If there is an arc that builds throughout the book, it’s that what it means to be Southern is always in flux, and our current conception of Southern-ness is pathetically outdated. The state of the South right now is one in which rural life–once the backbone of the Southern experience–is rapidly disappearing in favor of urbanization. This is hardly a localized trend, as it’s happening all over the country and throughout much of the world. As agricultural production becomes larger-scale and ever more automated, there’s simply less need for large, spread out rural populations to run the national breadbasket. And once the depopulation of a rural area begins, such as by the closing of a large farm, mine, or factory, the process triggers a death spiral from which there is virtually no escape. Parents who can afford to pull their children out of the local schools will pick up and relocate elsewhere. A lack of educated residents steers away outside investment. Tax revenues fall. State and federal coffers aren’t inclined to open up to areas with falling populations, and soon all that’s left are those who are too stubborn to leave or can’t afford to, and they live among crumbling infrastructure and empty buildings that testify to more prosperous times.
This story has played out dozens if not hundreds of times in the South over recent decades, and it continues today. As rural white Southern culture disappears, a new Southern culture is emerging that’s urbanized and racially diverse. But some aspects associated with traditional Southern culture remain strong: a slow pace of life, distrust for distant authorities, and a full embrace of business over regulation. One of the final chapters relates the author’s return to Atlanta, the city of her birth. Radically changed since her childhood, it nevertheless remains a city focused on attracting and keeping business. Urban planning and organized social services are virtually unheard of–the business-focused city leadership would rather leave the former to the corporate investors and ignore the latter altogether. Thompson notes that, while the city’s administration has transitioned from mostly-white to mostly-black, the overall governing style of the city hasn’t changed much at all. Thompson’s Atlanta is a crass, commercialized monster, lacking the polished sheen of a Times Square or even the hipster chic of the Lower East Side.
Is Atlanta really soulless? I don’t know, but Thompson certainly paints it that way. There’s a wistful sense that, imperfect as the rural South was, at least it was authentic–and the urbanizing South is anything but.
As a cultural travelogue of the modern American South, The New Mind of the South presents a number of perspectives and worthwhile examinations of the region’s history and culture that are well worth the time. The exploration of the rural South’s disintegration was particularly eye-opening, not just in terms of immediate economic impacts, but how fragile rural networks are and how easily they can be devastated by a single economic blow. Most illuminating of all, perhaps, is the extent to which Americans at large have absorbed the Southern view of American history, and have taken after the Southern approach to politics–conservative, impassioned, and God-fearing. I feel like I understand the place a little better than I did before, and that’s plenty.
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