Chapter Three:

What We Talk About When We Talk About the South

Edward L. Ayers

Given all that has been written and said about the South, we might expect that Americans would be able to think clearly about the region. Yet television, movies, novels, roadside markers, old history books, and jokes tell the same basic stories about the South over and over, even when people know they are not true to their own experience or to the complexity of human life. Southerners know that when they meet people from other places those non-Southerners know the stories, too--and believe some of them. One Virginian who went to Harvard in the early 1980s fantasized about putting a sign around his neck to foreclose some of the questions he repeatedly faced, or imagined he faced: "'Yes, I am from the South. No, I do not know your uncle in Mobile. No, I was not born there. Both of my parents, in fact, are literate. No, I do not like Molly Hatchet. No, I do not watch 'Hee Haw.' No, I do not own slaves. No, I do not want any. Thank you very much. Have a nice day.'" He concluded that the sign strategy would not work, though, "because everyone would think someone else had written it for me, probably so I wouldn't have to memorize it."[1]

Geographers have noted that Americans, with remarkable uniformity and consistency, picture their country's regions in ways that blur their diverse human characteristics into stereotypes. One of the chief features of that imagined map is the "Southern Trough" that cuts across Mississippi and Alabama, embracing parts of Arkansas, Louisiana, and Georgia at its edges. This trough appears to most Americans as the least desirable place in the United States in which to live. Other Southern states cannot take too much grim comfort from such disparagement of their Deep South neighbors, for the sides of the trough rise only gradually until they reach the usual boundaries of what Americans take to be the North, the Midwest, and the West. The whole South appears to be a vast saucer of unpleasant associations.[2]

Polls tell us, however, that white Southerners are the Americans most satisfied with their home states. In their eyes, the Southern Trough is a sheltered valley, shielded from the most corrosive effects of Yankee greed and rudeness. These white Southerners believe they live in the best part of the United States. People from elsewhere in the country look down on Southerners, they believe, only because these other Americans do not really know the South and its residents.[3]

Things are especially complicated for black Southerners. "It seems very often that blacks in the North feel themselves superior to blacks in the South," Eddy Harris--a non-Southern black man--reported recently, "because they think blacks in the South were simple-minded enough to stay and suffer the worst of the horrors and indignities. Southern blacks too often are called 'Bamas' and country niggers, and are seen as backward and uneducated." But Southern blacks are just as confident as their white neighbors that non-Southerners just don't get it. As an African-Southerner told Harris, "blacks in the South look down on blacks in the North. 'They're up there killing each other, doing the white man's work,' he said. 'They escaped to the Promised Land and got handed a bunch of lies. Now they don't know what to do'. " The South, by contrast, appears at least knowable, predictable. Many Northern blacks see in the South the foundation for their own virtues and a return to those virtues as the best hope of beleaguered Northern communities.[4]

Perhaps reflecting such views, the tide of black migration has turned. For decades after slavery, black Southerners escaped the South at the first opportunity; now, many more blacks are moving to the South than are leaving. The top five destinations for migrating black Americans at the end of the twentieth century are all Southern cities. Eddy Harris, after traveling throughout the South, came to wonder if he had not been wrong about the region: "I tried to remember why I hadcome to the South in the first place, what I had expected to find. White people shooting at me. Black people bitching and moaning. A reason to hate this place. Or was I looking for a reason to love this place? I really didn't know anymore." Harris found himself asking the question many black Americans have apparently asked themselves: What "irrational love" of the South "have I inherited, do I harbor and long to admit? In what weird ways is the South not just an ancestral home, but my home as well? How much of this place is within me?" [5]

Some African Americans have found, to their surprise, that the South exerts the emotional pull of a homeland, more palpable and credible than an Africa whose landscape and language they do not know. The South has always had a different moral geography for blacks and whites; its history has always had a different trajectory. Black Southerners have not loved "The" South as it has been symbolized so frequently; no flags, monuments, or anthems have connected black Southerners with the official South. But black Americans have made parts of Southern states their own through sweat and sacrifice; they have loved certain farms, houses, and streets. The South for these Southerners--as it was for William Faulkner and Thomas Wolfe--is a place to love and a place to hate, a place impossible to figure out.[6]

As The South's defenders claim, it is not easily understood by outsiders; as its critics claim, it is apparently not understood much better by its resident defenders. The South has suffered from generalizations that trivialize it, whether those generalizations take the form of romantic and nostalgic dreams of the past, arrogant regional stereotypes, or scholarly arguments about central themes and unifying characteristics. Positive or negative, these images of the South keep us from seeing the people of the region with the fullness and empathy all people deserve.

Polls show us that Americans from all over the country picture the South as backward-looking. From the positive point of view, Southerners seem to respect the past, the land, and their elders. From the negative point of view, the South appear to be dominated by nostalgia and dullness. These images are different sides of the same coin, different aspects of the basic story we tell ourselves about The South: it is the American place where modern life has not fully arrived, for good and for ill.

People have not merely made up this story from whole cloth. There can be no doubt that the South has been poorer than the rest of the country, less technologically advanced, more wedded to racial exploitation and segregation. But when the South is portrayed as a "culture" or "society"--even a "civilization"--that stands as the binary opposite of the North, a relative situation tends to become an absolute characteristic; Southern differences with the North are transformed into traits that mark the very soul of the Southern people. Even the most original historian of the relationship between the South and the nation argued that students of the region "should not be concerned indiscriminately with everything that occurs within the South," but should focus only at those "points where the conditions of the Southern region differ from those of other regions." This assumption underlies much of Southern studies. Without obvious and clearly demarcated difference, it appears, there is no justification for Southern history.[7]

People realize that when they speak of "Southern culture" they are creating a fiction, a fiction of a geographically bounded and coherent set of attributes to be set off against a mythical non-South. Accordingly, people try to introduce complexity by qualifying the idea of the South, pointing out that the mountains are different from the lowlands, that whites are different from blacks, men from women, rich from poor. Often, those who speak with the greatest conviction about the reality of a Southern culture are those who most emphasize its internal diversity. Yet the very language of "Southern culture" suggests that there are hidden ligaments and tissues holding it all together in some way.

Anthropologists, from whom historians over the years have borrowed the notions of culture as systems, things, templates, and possessions, have recently warned us to quit thinking in these metaphors. As soon as we speak of "cultures," they point out, we begin to "essentialize," as the jargon has it, to locate in some other people an essence of what they really are; to "exoticize," to focus on and exaggerate the difference between one's self and the object of contemplation; to "totalize," to make "specific features of a society's thought or practice not only its essence but also its totality." We draw boundaries between things we call cultures and then fill in those boundaries with something to make the boundaries meaningful.[8]

Americans believe, hope, the South is different and so tend to look for differences to confirm that belief, that "knowledge." White Southerners are, until proven otherwise, traditional, backward, obsessed with the past, friendly, potentially violent, racist, and polite. Black Southerners are, until evidence is presented to the contrary, more friendly and downhome than their Northern counterparts, more conservative and religious. When Southerners do not behave in these ways, they are deemed less Southern, less fitted to the place where they live, exceptions. Some see such people as more cosmopolitan, others as Yankee wanna-bes, ashamed of what should be their real identity.

The South plays a key role in the nation's self-image: the role of evil tendencies overcome, of mistakes atoned for, of progress yet to be made. Before it can play that role effectively, the South has to be set apart as a distinct place that carries certain fundamental characteristics. As a result, Southern difference is continually being recreated and reinforced. Americans, black and white, somehow need to know that the South is different and so tend to look for differences to confirm that belief. This is not something that is only done to the South by malevolent, insensitive non-Southerners. The North and the South have conspired to create each other's identity as well as their own. The South eagerly defines itself against the North, advertising itself as more earthy, more devoted to family values, more spiritual-and then is furious to have things turned around, to hear itself called hick, phony, and superstitious. The South feeds the sense of difference and then resents the consequences of difference.

Southerners with something to sell traffic in difference, eagerly market any distinctiveness they can claim--especially so now that the Southern black freedom movement and the spread of racial conflict in the North and West have made the South seem less uniquely repugnant. Culture is a great natural resource: it is as renewable as trees, as deep as mines. Each state has found its unique vein: Virginia quarries its Jeffersonian period, while Georgia sells burning Atlanta, Mississippi and Alabama fight over who is the deeper South, Tennessee offers country music while Kentucky tenders bluegrass and Louisiana hawks Cajun. North Carolina even has a vaguely Orwellian-sounding branch of government called the Department of Cultural Resources. There is, accordingly, an unmistakable tendency for so-called "cultural" traits to coincide with state boundaries. Notice the architecture of the welcome stations along the interstates, with white columns at the portals of South Carolina and Mississippi, eighteenth-century plantation houses when you enter Virginia and log cabin themes when you roll into Tennessee a few hundred yards away. Think of the names of state university athletic mascots: Cavaliers, Rebels, Volunteers-all rich with (white) historical connotation, all accentuating the differences at the state lines.[9]

The South needs these internal differences. With tourism as one of its major industries, the South, like other places, needs as much diversity as it can be made to contain, as many subregional cookbooks as it can produce, as many license plates and gimme hats, as many institutes, journals, encyclopedias, and historians. A considerable portion of what we see as Southern culture is manufactured to order. People want to manage, enhance, manufacture memory, to be a part of something larger than themselves. Throughout the modern era, traditions have been invented on the spot-the kilt, for example, or Betsy Ross-giving a satisfying pedigree to something that is in fact much newer or more ad hoc. The idea of the Old South was in some ways a sales job in the first place, given that at the time of the Civil War many of the plantation districts of Mississippi, Texas, and Arkansas were no older than many of today's subdivisions. Now, in turn, new places often try to distill an essence of the imagined old ones, with shopping centers wearing the regalia of plantations, with housing developments dressed as old villages.[10]

I once visited my grandparents in their small town in the mountains of western North Carolina. On that Saturday, the town-square was filled with a mountain craft fair. People lined up to try the apple butter simmering in the iron kettle, to watch the dolls dance on the board, to watch the quilters, to listen to the fiddle music. I had no time to dawdle, since my grandparents were waiting for me, so I stopped in for a fast burger at the new Hardee's on the bypass. Being Southern, I automatically made conversation with the young woman behind the counter as she filled my order. "Nice craft fair," I imaginatively offered. "Yeah, I guess," she said in her mountain accent as she poured the sweetened iced tea into the cup emblazoned with the corporate logo, "have you ever seen so many Yankees in your life?" And sure enough, I noticed when I dropped in later, the cars parked all around the square were likely to be from Pennsylvania, Florida, or New York. In fact, upon examination, it appeared that many of the authentic artisans were also Yankees, or at least yuppies. The crafts may have been of authentic Appalachian style, celebrating the mountain heritage (the name of the county's high school), but the people in the overalls and gingham were not. Exactly where authenticity resided in this episode was not clear to me then, nor is it now. A good case could be made for both--and neither--side.

It seems only commonsensical that an older culture that has somehow managed to persist into the present is on the verge of fading away. The bucket of Southern distinctiveness, it appears, was full up to the brim in 1865 but has been leaking faster and faster ever since. The experience of those who live now in the South, with its confusion, complications, and compromises, seems not as fully Southern as the society that came before, one that appears more unified and coherent. The lovingly recreated models of log cabins, plantation homes, forts, and villages that dot the South try to recapture the authentic history, one untainted by time, change, or contact with the outside world. Today's experiences of Wal-Mart, country radio, and NASCAR, by contrast, seem somehow less organically related to the region, the products of infection by mass communication and business.

Ironically, though, Southerners have always held similar fears. For as long as people have believed there was a South they have also believed it was disappearing. Virginians and Carolinians thought the South was dying as early as the 1830s, with too much easy money in the Cotton Kingdom pulling people to raw places such as Alabama and Mississippi that knew nothing of true Southern gentility. Then people felt certain that the South would be erased by the end of slavery or Reconstruction. People held every expectation that the South would not survive the effects of automobiles or radios, of World War II and the postwar bulldozer revolution. There was reason to believe that the events of Brown v. Board of Education, Montgomery, Greensboro, Selma, and Birmingham might kill off the South. If that did not do the trick, surely the inexorable spread ofst rip malls, fast food places, cable and satellite dishes marked the end of the South.[11]

From its very beginning, people have believed that the South was not only disappearing but also declining, defined against an earlier South that was somehow more authentic, real, more unified and distinct. Jefferson's South declined into the delusion of Calhoun's South, which declined into the incompetency of Jefferson Davis's South, which declined into the corruption of the carpetbaggers' South, which declined into the poverty and in-breeding of Faulkner's South, which declined into the race-baiting of George Wallace's South, which declined into the scandals of Jim Bakker and Jimmy Swaggart. The South has always seemed to live on the edge of extinction, the good as well as the bad perpetually disappearing. A writer recently pleaded with his fellow Southerners to realize that "all our strengths-of family and history and tradition, of geography and climate, of music and food, of spoken and written language-are endangered treasures."[12]

But the South, perpetually fading, seems also perpetually with us. Sociologists have measured the shape and depth of Southern distinctiveness, finding that the perception of it does not disappear as we might expect, that education and contact with the non-South actually heighten Southern self-consciousness. People apparently need to be able to think in spatial terms, to identify various facets of "national character" with various places within the nation, to find people who embody some set of traits that others find especially attractive or--more often--repellent or problematic. Americans, of course, are not alone in this need: throughout the world, people tend to divide national character along various lines--often a North/South axis. In one society after another, Northerners see themselves as economically vigorous, industrious, hardworking, reliable, serious, and thrifty, while Southerners see themselves as socially refined, patient, obliging, amiable, and generous.[13]

Stories about The South tend to be stories about what it means to be modern. The South often appears as the locus of the non-modern (as in so much country music or Mayberry or The Waltons), or of the modern world gone bad (as in Deliverance or Cape Fear or Walker Percy novels). People have long projected onto the South their longing for a place free from the pressures of making a profit, free from loneliness and isolation; for just as long, others have projected onto the South their disgust (and maybe their own anxiety) with those unable or unwilling to keep up with the headlong rush into the future. The South is made to bear a lot of metaphorical baggage.[14]

The South has become an object of fun, a sanctioned way to laugh at poverty and backwardness in a way that has been banished for every other group. Pathetically enough, Southerners seem to have a habit of projecting ridicule onto the Southern state next to them, especially if it happens to be a bit poorer. So, for example, why can't they take a group photo of the people in ___________ (insert your favorite object of ridicule here)? Because every time the photographer yells "cheese," all the people line up single file for a government handout. Or, what is the state flower of __________ (your least favorite Southern state here)? The satellite dish. Inbreeding seems to be an especially popular topic for these jokes, signifying the South's isolation and perversion born of being out of the mainstream of American life.

It is an interesting question to ask why these jokes are culturally sanctioned, why it is deemed permissible to make jokes about white Southerners that we can make about no one else. Partly, I think, it is because white Southerners are not "really" ethnic; they are not marked by physical features, name, or religion, the markers we recognize as authentic, as so powerful as to be above humor. Partly, it is because white Southerners seem to have brought on their own troubles, with their slavery, racism, and attachment to the past. Partly, too,it is because Southerners, ambivalent about their place in the nation, tell the jokes to inoculate themselves against the same jokes told against them. Like a member of a "true" ethnic group, a white Southerner is expected to be conscious of his or her regional identity--not fanatical but not indifferent. To be fanatical is to be sadly wedded to a lost cause; to ignore it is to be pretentious, to pretend to be something you are not. It is a fine line.[15]

Accent is the closest attribute white Southerners have to a physical marker to separate them from other white Americans; the same is true among blacks. These accents, which may seem a trivial, vestigal, difference are in fact rich in meaning and consequence. Precisely because language seems, unlike physical attributes, to be at least partly under the control of its speaker, it is often taken as the key measure of national belonging. Accent accentuates difference where there is supposed to be commonality; it testifies to an inability or unwillingness to go along, to fit in. In the American case, accent is a marker of class and economic integration as well as regional identity. A Southern accent is often understood, inside the South as well as beyond its borders, as a symbol of poor education, low ambition, and reactionary politics. Southern accents, in fact, offer a useful way to understand the evolution of the South. Despite the imagined organic connections between culture and environment, for example, in which it is assumed that Southerners, due to their hot and debilitating climate, speak more slowly than people from other places, they do not. In fact, they speak about the same number words in a given time as other Americans; those in the hottest parts of the South do not talk more slowly than their upcountry counterparts. The widespread notions that people in isolated pockets of the region such as mountains or islands speak some vestige of "pure" Elizabethan English are, as one linquist puts it, "pretty much complete exaggerations." Southern accents were first commented on only in the mid-nineteenth century; a Southern accent may have not developed until whites and blacks assimilated with one another over a broad enough area to forge a common way of speaking. [16]

While vocabulary is converging in the South with the rest of the country, grammar and pronunciation do not seem to be. Young people, especially women, drawl as much as older ones. In fact, Southern speech is becoming more distinct in some ways: the younger a person is, regardless of education, the more likely he or she is to pronounce "hem" like "him" and "pen" like "pin." It appears, finally, that migrants from the North are more likely to adapt to Southern speech patterns than to set an example for their new neighbors to emulate. In all these ways, the image of a naturally adapted, artifactual, and disappearing South seems belied by careful study of current practices.

The almost habitual identification of Southern culture with certain traits tends quickly to stereotype, as certain subregions, subgeographies, classes, genders, or races become identified as carriers of certain characteristics. These traits, in turn, are given varying moral meanings, depending on the use to which they are put. Most of the debates over Southern culture over the generations have involved, for the most part, switching the moral value attached to a given trait. Thus plain folk, who were long seen as without ambition, are now seen as demonstrating a healthy aversion to the soulless capitalist market; former slaves who previous generations of Northern and Southern whites saw as lazy were actually exercising their independence against white employers; planters that many people in the nation thought were gracious and paternalistic were actually pretentious and patronizing. Many of the imagined traits, in other words, have remained the same--we merely change their meaning to suit our purposes.

We tend to tell the story of this distinct South from the relatively narrow point of view of our nation-state; we areprovincial in our understanding of provinciality. The traditional, poor, and leisurely South takes on a different aspect when we step offshore, when we take a perspective not defined by the bounds of the nation-state. From the viewpoint of the Caribbean or much of South America--or even parts of Europe--the American South appears, throughout its history, as rich and money-driven. From the perspective of nineteenth-century Brazil, for example, the other great slave society of the hemisphere, the nineteenth-century South was a land of cities and towns, railroads and steamboats, white democracy and equality. From the perspective of people of African descent elsewhere in the world, the South appeared not only as a place of lynching and segregation, but also as a place of relative black progress and possibility. Rather than The South, The Exception, the South becomes mostly American.[17]

But Americans seldom portray The South that way. Instead, it appears as the tropical corner of the nation, as the Latin America of North America. We rarely see movies or television shows set in the cold winters of Alabama or Texas, the ice storms of Georgia and Tennessee. Cotton bolls are always bursting white, heat rises in waves off the blacktop in a place where it seems always August. In fact, geography seems to many people a virtually inevitable reason for The South to take the shape it did, for the Civil War to tear the nation in two along a natural, almost perforated line. Despite generations of historians' work, many Americans still believe that the Civil War was the unavoidable result of an agrarian economy locked in battle with its natural adversary to the North, a sort of blameless struggle between the old and the new. The war seemed to await only the development of the North into an industrial economy sufficiently modern to resent and overpower its rural adversary. After passing through something like an adolescent crisis, the nation could get on with its destiny.

But did the North and South simply ripen into what they were destined to be all along? Few would have thought so in 1800, nearly two hundred years after the beginning of English and African arrival. It was only then, as the industrial revolution in Britain geared up, that the South became The Cotton South. The Southern landscape has proven itself remarkably adaptable ever since, the "natural" landscape for backwoods farmers, opulent planters, coal miners, discount-store magnates, soybean farmers, and toxic-waste dumpers. The South trails off into the North and the West in a disappointingly vague way--as it did in 1861 until bloody guerilla conflicts and presidential strong-arming decided where the region ended for the time being.[18]

In fact, there was never a time when Southern culture developed secure from the outside, when people knew just where the borders were, when people knew just what the South was and was not. Southerners of every sort, from the eighteenth century to the present, lived at the intersection of many lines of influence. Power and prestige often came not merely as the result of knowing the right people locally, of marrying into the right neighborhood family. It was the white man who knew what was going on in the state capital and in Washington who had the most power, the man who had access to capital and information from New York or London who really made money; the political power and credit, in turn, allowed a man to hold office, to build a mansion, to become, ironically, most stereotypically "Southern." Perhaps most tellingly, it was the men who went to West Point, who served the United States in its war with Mexico, who became identified as the prototypical white Southerners: Jefferson Davis and Robert E. Lee.[19]

From its very beginning, the white South saw itself as a particular strain of British culture, adapting parts of British identity that seemed to fit at the time. In the earliest days of the Chesapeake, military models provided the standard; as men and women began to establish farms to grow tobacco, the English yeomanry provided the script; as the farms grew into larger plantations worked by slaves, younger sons of the English gentry created an image of themselves as landed aristocrats. There was nothing dishonest or delusional about this; these white Southerners thought of themselves as colonial Englishmen. Just as other Englishmen abroad later wore pith helmets and operated mines, Southern Englishmen owned slaves and ran plantations. Southerners, in fact, did not so much emulate the North as borrow many of the same materials from England that the North borrowed. Sometimes, as with the cult of honor, the North borrowed something only to jettison it in a few decades, while the South held on for generations longer.

The black people of the South made their own adjustments, holding on to what they could of Africa, taking what they were forced to take or what they wanted to take of Britain. As generations passed, a distinctly African-American set of practices and styles developed and spread across the face of the South. Neither white nor black Southerners, of course, failed to see the differences between themselves and those of other skin color. African-Southerners reveled in their music, their crafts, their language, and their collective memories; European-Southerners reveled in their literacy, their technology, and their political power. Yet many commonalities between black and white emerged, with influences running both directions, sometimes in obvious ways, sometimes almost imperceptibly. White and black, despite their hatred and mutual suspicion, found that their taste in food, in language, and in religion came to bear strong affinities.

Evangelicalism exemplifies the way nineteenth-century Southern culture developed. Evangelical religion became, over several decades, the great continuity and commonality in Southern culture. But it was not there at all at the beginning, when Englishmen from certain parts of the homeland supposedly brought the germ of Southern culture with them. Rather, heart religion was imported from England and took on a peculiarly Southern style because of the contribution of--and the problems presented by--African Americans. The importation of Baptists and Methodists came a full 150 years after Jamestown, but now it is religion that seems to set the South apart the most, that is the basis for much of its political conservatism, that earns it the title of "Bible Belt," that seems to grow stronger rather than fade.

The South's most distinctive political feature, its stark biracialism, also constantly reflected changes in the larger Atlantic world. The preferred mode of white dominion changed from that of a distant patriarch in the eighteenth century to a "softer" kind of paternalism in the Victorian era to a kind of managerial race relations in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In every instance, white Southerners followed the best ideals of European, especially English, dominion. They were not merely trying to please the metropole, but were doing what they did in other facets of their lives: trying to make the best deal they could with the central ideas and tenets of the civilization of which they considered themselves a part while maintaining their divergent economic interests and their pride.

It was for this reason that white Southerners felt so wounded and outraged when they were charged with inhumanity as slaveholders. They claimed, with some justice, that they were doing nothing that Northerners and Englishmen had not done for generations, nothing that the Bible and the Constitution did not at least tacitly sanction. The rules seemed to change virtually over night. The white South charged that it was the North that was changing, that was altering the rules. White Southerners, finding themselves on the defensive, quickly began to do something they had not done before: assemble, entirely from materials available in the larger Anglo-American culture, a picture of themselves as a distinctive people with a separate history, culture, and destiny.

During the high tide of antebellum culture and sectionalism, in the 1850s, white Southern nationalists eagerly pored over the newspapers, journals, and books of Britain and Europe, finding there raw material with which to create a vision of the South as a misunderstood place. Sir Walter Scott, Lord Byron, Goethe, Italian and German nationalists, Karl Marx--they all helped create an image of people in search of their true identities, in conflict with the materialistic modern world. White Southern slaveholders did not merely find themselves different, naturally and organically, and then rebel as a result, but rather created an idiom of exaggerated coherent uniqueness out of European ideals because they felt they had been rebelled against by their erstwhile countrymen. Slavery provided the impetus, but Britain, Europe, and the North supplied the language, the audience Southerners sought to appease and the people against whom they defined themselves. The commonality as well as the difference fed the Civil War.[20]

The founders of the Confederacy saw themselves as participating in a widespread European movement, the self-determination of a people to be contained within its "natural" boundaries, boundaries that coincided with economic interests, with shared beliefs, with a way of life. As the Confederacy was born, people throughout the South recognized the need for all the paraphernalia of a nation and made it up on the spot. They used such modern means as contests advertised in newspapers and facsimiles of the founding Confederate documents suitable for framing. Southerners had paid close attention throughout the 1840s and 1850s to the strategies of European nationalists and were ready, even if, as Drew Faust has put it, "the emphasis placed by European nationalist thinkers on political differentiation based on separate race, language, religion, and history was problematic for white, English-speaking southerners." Like other nationalists in other places then and since, forced to make the most of trivial, even nonexistent, cultural differences, white Southerners invested their nation with what they imagined to be a "racial" difference between the cold Anglo-Saxons of the North and their own heated Norman heritage. Confederates exhorted their countrymen to purge their language of Yankeeisms or Africanisms, to speak no "corrupt provincial dialect, but the noble undefiled English language." The Confederacy did not think of itself as something new, a dangerous experiment, but as the natural embodiment of something well-established.[21]

We are accustomed now to conceive of the Confederacy as doomed from the beginning, but nations have been built of less sturdy economic and cultural materials. In fact, we are now beginning to see that, as a recent study of nationalism has put it, "most nations have always been culturally and ethnically diverse, problematic, protean and artificial constructs that take shape very quickly and come apart just as fast." Even England, the first modern nation, found a common identity only in opposition to France. The defining war of the South came before the Southern nation was much more than an idea, before any deep or wide identity as Southerners--rather than as Virginians, Carolinians, or Texans, say--could develop.[22]

The Civil War was an extraordinarily unlikely event. While people long predicted some sort of conflict, few people, North or South, would have predicted anything like the war that occurred. Would the white South have fought for the right to expand slavery had it known that it would sacrifice a quarter of a million of its men in the process? Would the North have fought for the "mystic chords" of a unified nation had it had any idea of the cost in blood? Who could have known that the war would become a war to abolish slavery, immediately, without compensation to slaveholders?

The war could easily have turned out differently, with a different nation-state, with generations more of slavery, with an American apartheid. Yet we tend to talk of The South for generations beforehand as if it knew the toll it was going to extract from the nation; we equate The North with The Union for generations beforehand, as if New England had not threatened to leave the nation before Southerners considered such a move. In other words, Americans have grown far too comfortable with the Civil War, lulled into assuming its inevitability and its outcome, granting it a moral purpose it assumed only gradually and against the will of many who fought for the Union. We look back on the South's secession as a violation of the natural order, of the way things had to be, but one does not have to be a Dixiecrat to realize that the defeat of the Old South is often used to glorify the current nation state, to sanctify America's destiny, to suggest the divine favor we enjoy, to show that, through blood, we overcame the original sin of this country. It is too simple a story, both for the North and for the South.[23]

Many white Southerners have wanted to have it both ways: to be staunch Americans, proud of the nation state, and to be true Southerners, unashamed of their forefathers' rebellion. They have not found it that hard to do. The process began early. As much as white Southerners believed in their right to secede, the identities of Confederate and American proved to be surprisingly easy for most people to reconcile as soon as the war itself was over. A nationalism that had been constructed on the spot, imagined, could be easily dismantled. Even diehard Southerners could see their dual loyalties. An old Confederate who lived in Atlanta during Reconstruction taunted the Union soldiers on the street. "'You may have won the war,' he'd say, 'but we sure whipped your ass at Chickamauga.' The irate soldiers hauled him to their commander, who berated the old man and made him swear out a loyalty oath to the USA. The next day, the old man was back at his post on the street. When the Union soldiers walked by, he was ready. 'We may have won the war,' he yelled, 'but the Rebels sure whipped our ass at Chickamauga!'" This was an enforced convolution, of course, but white Southerners have willingly performed similar ideological gymnastics ever since Appomattox. [24]

The Confederate flag embodies the conflict. For some white Southerners, no other symbol seems as rich with meaning. When pressed to explain that meaning, some defenders speak in inarticulate and deeply felt terms of heritage, of great-great-grandfathers, of rights, of hypocritical Yankees, in language with no power to persuade anyone who does not already agree with them. When they speak of slavery, they speak of it only to deny that it had anything at all to do with the war, refusing to accept overwhelming evidence that runs counter to their beliefs. To the defenders of the battle flag, to be ashamed of the symbol is to be ashamed of who they are, of who their family has been. It seems a matter of all or nothing, of denying that history changes the meaning of things. To other defenders of the flag, the explicit connection to the past is not essential. They are not certain that they had ancestors who fought in the Civil War, yet they display the flag with even greater frequency and ardor than any Son of the Confederacy (indeed, to the Sons' dismay) for the flag to them is a rebel flag. They are often rebels with only a vague cause; the flag is such a multipurpose symbol precisely because it is so vague. It is a sign of resistance to the boss, to Southern yuppies, to the North, to blacks, to liberals, to any kind of political correctness. In their eyes, the rebel flag stands for the same thing that they imagine it stood for in 1861: Leave Me the Hell Alone.

The Confederate flag is a topic of such debate and divisiveness in the South today because it denies all that black and white Southerners shared, because it reduces the South to a one-time and one-sided political identity. The South and the Confederacy covered the same territory, shared a critical part of history, but they have never been synonymous--not even between 1861 and 1865. Confederate symbolism has spread to places that were staunchly Unionist in the Civil War itself; drive through the mountain counties of the South, even West Virginia, and notice how many Confederate flags you see, how many people imagine a connection with the Confederacy they have no genealogical or geographical right to claim, how many people seize on what is supposedly a discredited symbol of an aborted nationalism. The Confederacy lives on as a potent symbol, its potency coming from its ambiguity and instability of meaning, a meaning that was not unambiguous even in 1861.

That same ambiguity has permitted white Northerners to use the Civil War for another purpose, dubious and simplistic in its own way. Many of them have tended to see themselves ever since the War as the chosen, the redeemed, the real nation; black freedom seems a good not only for its own sake but as an emblem of a larger national destiny and freedom. This role has served to sanctify the North and the West and to make the South a sink of iniquity, a focus and explanation for what is lacking in the country in general. The Civil War seems to many white non-Southerners to absolve their ancestors from complicity in slavery for the 250 years before Appomattox. It is this willful forgetfulness that gives credence to charges of Northern hypocrisy from diehard defenders of the Confederacy, who insist that slavery was a national crime and not a purely sectional one.

Southern novelists such as William Faulkner have looked the convoluted Southern mythology in the face, trying to see what it might mean (and, ironically, giving it worldwide attention and credence). "Don't you see?," Faulkner's Ike McCaslin yells at a black man in "The Bear": "This whole land, the whole South, is cursed, and all of us who derive from it whom it ever suckled, white and black both, lie under the curse? . . . . What corner of Canaan is this?"[25]

A corner of Canaan: that may be as good a description of the South as we are going to get. At its very heart, the South has been, and is, a problematic province of Canaan, the land of milk and honey. White Southerners have shared in the national sense of the United States as a peculiarly bountiful, democratic, and idealistic nation, but have always understood that they are not quite as bountiful, democratic, or idealistic as their countrymen in other parts of the nation. It is that tension that underlies the centuries-old struggle to explain The South.

Space, along with time, forms the unavoidable contexts in which we live our lives. People will think spatially and historically. But we can be more self-conscious about the way we think in these dimensions. The categories in which we place things have everything to do with what we take those things to be. Better, it seems, to talk first of concrete things--poverty and power, specific people with specific interests--rather than of a gaseous Southern "culture" or a suspiciously malleable and sanitized "heritage." We need to see the many connections between local and state, local and national, local and international. We need to recognize that structures of economy, ideology, religion, fashion, and politics that cut across the South, connecting some individuals with allies and counterparts elsewhere. We need to see both how permeable the boundary between North and South has always been and how regional difference is constantly being reinvented across that boundary. We need to recognize how willingly most white people outside the South supported slavery and segregation, how the movement to end Jim Crow grew up among black Southerners before it was impressed as a problem on the rest of the nation.

Southern history is made up of the things that have happened and are happening on this artificially bounded piece of real estate, however contradictory they may have been and remain. Southern history bespeaks a place that is more complicated than the stories we tell about it. Throughout its history, the South has been a place where poverty and plenty have been thrown together in especially jarring ways, where democracy and oppression, white and black, slavery and freedom, have warred. The very story of the South is a story of unresolved identity, unsettled and restless, unsure and defensive. The South, contrary to so many words written in defense and in attack, was not a fixed, known, and unified place, but rather a place of constant movement, struggle, and negotiation.[26]

There is a tendency for Southerners to see time as the enemy, erasing the inscriptions on the land, destroying whatever certain identity the South has ever had. Louis Rubin, a leading commentator of Southern literature, returned to his birthplace of Charleston, South Carolina, only to find the signs of his childhood gone. "On each successive visit to what had once been my home, I found that what had constituted its substance and accidence both had dwindled." He felt that his childhood and his Southern identity were "becoming more and more a matter of absence, loss, and alienation. I was, that is, steadily becoming dispossessed." But Rubin, recognizing the self-centeredness, the selfishness, of such a view, chose to redefine his relation to the South and the changes both he and the region have undergone, seeking "identity in time, not outside it. Its diminution did not represent merely loss, but change, of which I was a part, and which, because it had happened to me in my time, was mine to cherish, . . . proof that I had been and still was alive."[27]

Those people, black and white, who care about their particular South should take heart from a vision in which regional identity is constantly being replenished, even as other forms, older forms, erode and mutate. Anything that has happened and is happening in this corner of the country rightfully belongs to The South's past, whether or not it seems to fit the template of an imagined Southern culture. There is no essence to be denied, no central theme to violate, no role in the national drama to be betrayed. The South is continually coming into being, continually being remade, continually struggling with its pasts.


  • 1.Benjamin N. Smith, "Southern Discomfort," Harvard Crimson, April 6, 1985, p. 2. "Molly Hatchett" was one of the many rock groups who rode a Southern Rock wave in the 1970s and 1980s, revelling in Southern accents, country and blues styles, and Confederate flags.

  • 2. Peter Gould and Rodney White, Mental Maps, second ed. (Boston: Allen and Unwin, 1986), 53-72.

  • .3.See the findings reported in the influential series of books by John Shelton Reed: The Enduring South: Subcultural Persistence in Mass Society (Lexington, Mass.: D. C. Heath, 1972); One South: An Ethnic Approach to Regional Culture (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1982); Southerners: The Social Psychology of Sectionalism (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1983).

  • .4.Eddy L. Harris, South of Haunted Dreams: A Ride Through Slavery's Old Back Yard (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1993), 232-3; Ray Allen, "Back Home: Southern Identity and African-American Gospel Quartet Performance," in Wayne Franklin and Michael Steiner, eds., Mapping American Culture (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1992), 112-35. This is not the first generation to wrestle with such issues; see Arna Bontemps, "Why I Returned," in Henry Louis Gates, Jr., ed., Voices in Black and White: Writings on Race in America from Harper's Magazine (New York: Franklin Square Press, 1993), 33-45, and Ralph Ellison, Going to the Territory (New York: Vintage Books, 1987). As Ellison wrote, "In relation to their Southern background, the cultural history of Negroes in the North reads like the legend of some tragic people out of mythology, a people which aspired to escape from its own unhappy homeland to the apparent peace of a distant mountain; but, in migrating, made some fatal error of judgment and fell into a great chasm of mazelike passages that promise ever to lead to the mountain but end ever against a wall." Going, 298-9; also see 89-103.

  • 5.New York Times, July 31, 1994, p. A1; Harris, South of Haunted Dreams, 152.

  • 6. "Tennessee," on the compact disc Three Years Five Months and Two Days in the Life of . . . by Arrested Development (EMI, 1992), deals eloquently with these issues; for a revealing interview with the lyricist for Arrested Development, see Bill Flanagan, "Black History: Speech Meets Curtis Mayfield," Musician (June 1993), 60-67.

  • 7.The pioneering work in this field is David Potter's seminal essay, "The Historian's Use of Nationalism and Vice Versa," in his The South and the Sectional Conflict (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1968), 34-83. For Potter's strictures on Southern difference, see pp. 181-2.

  • 8.For a useful statement of such ideas, fusing anthropology and geography, see Arjun Appadurai, "Putting Hierarchy in its Place," Cultural Anthropology 3 (1988), 36-49. I first encountered the incentive to rethink "natural" boundaries in Richard Handler's Nationalism and the Politics of Culture in Quebec (Madison: University of Wisconsin, 1988). Of more immediate relevance but also more problematic because of its reductionist focus on a world-system is Immanuel Wallerstein, "What Can One Mean by Southern Culture?" in Numan Bartley, ed., The Evolution of Southern Culture (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1988), 1-13. For other relevant and related ideas, also see Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities (London: Verso, 1983); Linda Colley, Britons: Forging the Nation, 1707-1837 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1992); Liah Greenfeld, Nationalism: Five Roads to Modernity (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1992); Jack Temple Kirby, Media-Made Dixie: The South in the American Imagination (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1978); Werner Sollors, Beyond Ethnicity: Consent and Descent in American Culture (New York: Oxford University Press, 1986); James C. Cobb, "Tomorrow Seems Like Yesterday: The South's Future in the Nation and the World," in Joe P. Dunn and Howard L. Preston, eds., The Future South: A Historical Perspective for the Twenty-first Century (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1991), 217-38.

    My own first book, Vengeance and Justice: Crime and Punishment in the Nineteenth-Century American South (New York: Oxford University Press, 1984), seems in retrospect to have been a strong offender in creating the South as "The Other," sharply bifurcating Northern from Southern culture. While I still believe in the way I described Southern honor, I would not now paint things in such dichotomous ways.

  • 9. The city fathers of the hard-luck mining town of Appalachia, Virginia, for example, are trying to capitalize on the fortuitous name of their town to create a useful fiction: "If we can create the myth of Appalachia being the past center of mountain life," the city manager explains, "then we can reap the benefits from the only thing we have to sell, the name Appalachia." Even as the real coal mines shut down and young people leave for elsewhere, the town plans to open an exhibition mine and offer certification attesting to visitors' identity as honorary Appalachians. Jeannie Ralston, "In the Heart of Appalachia," National Geographic (February 1993): 132.

  • 10. The influential text in this regard is Eric Hobsbawm and Terrence Ranger, eds., The Invention of Tradition (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1983).

  • 11. Doris Betts first presented such a list in "Many Souths and Broadening Scale: A Changing Southern Literature," in Dunn and Preston, eds., The Future South, 177-78.

  • 12.John Egerton, Shades of Gray: Dispatches from the Modern South (Baton Rouge: LSU Press, 1991), 255-60.

  • 13. James W. Fernandez, "Andalusia on Our Minds: Two Contrasting Places in Spain As Seen in a Vernacular Poetic Duel of the Late 19th Century," Cultural Anthropology 3 (1988): 21-35. Other interesting works in the "new geography" or "new regionalism" include: Appadurai, "Putting Hierarchy in its Place"; J. Nicholas Entrikin, The Betweenness of Place: Towards a Geography of Modernity (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1991); Akhil Gupta and James Ferguson, "Beyond 'Culture': Space, Identity, and the Politics of Difference," Cultural Anthropology 7 (February 1992): 6-23; Liisa Malkki, "National Geographic: The Rooting of Peoples and the Territorialization of National Identity Among Refugees and Scholars," Cultural Anthropology 7 (February 1992): 24-44. Especially useful is Allan Pred, Making Histories and Constructing Human Geographies: The Local Transformation of Practice, Power Relations, and Consciousness (Boulder: Westview Press, 1990). Thomas Jefferson summarized these characteristics in a famous letter to the Marquis de Chastellux, quoted in Gary Wills' Inventing America: Jefferson's Declaration of Independence (New York: Vintage Books, 1978), 283-84.

    A survey of over three hundred undergraduates at the University of Virginia-young people from thirty three different states, of diverse ethnicities, fewer than half of whom consider themselves Southerners-showed that the perception of Southern distinctiveness is alive and well. Of those who considered themselves Southerners, black and white, almost all declared themselves proud of that identity, with women and African Americans being the most likely to take pride in their regional background.

    What, in these young people's eyes, set the South apart? Asked to rank 28 different attributes on a scale of Southernness, several traits consistently appeared at the top of the list. Speech, not surprisingly, struck almost everyone as different in the South. But beyond that, people commented most on the South's courtesy, hospitality, sense of history, and natural beauty. Black students and white had similar notions of what set the South apart except on one issue: African-Americans ranked racism fourth while white students put racism in tenth place. These are very similar to the patterns found in the polls analyzed by John Shelton Reed. See n. 3 above. Just about everyone I've casually queried, regardless of any regionality they may claim, agrees with this characterization of Southerners, black and white, as "nice." It seems to be perhaps the most tangible evidence of a Southern upbringing. Why? I think it may have had something to do originally with white people and black people forced to live together despite reasons for hatred on one side and fear on the other. Now, it seems to be pursued for its own sake, a style that envelopes and to some extent obscures other differences and conflicts. It can be put to the use of virtually any purpose, modern or antimodern.

  • 14. William R.Taylor, Cavalier and Yankee: The Old South and American National Character (New York: George Braziller, 1960).

  • 15.Sollors, Beyond Ethnicity, 190.

  • 16.Michael Montgomery, "The Southern Accent--Alive and Well," Southern Cultures 1 (1993): 47-64.

  • 17 .Richard Graham, "Economics or Culture? The Development of the U. S. South and Brazil in the Days of Slavery," in Kees Gispen, ed., What Made the South Different? (Oxford, Mississippi: University of Mississippi Press, 1990).

  • 18. In contrast, see A. Cash Koeniger, "Climate and Southern Distinctiveness," Journal of Southern History 54 (1988): 21-44.

  • 19. For pioneering and exciting work in this vein, see Michael O'Brien, Rethinking the South: Essays in Intellectual History (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1988), 38-56. O'Brien's other work on Southern intellectual history develops these perspectives in extremely useful ways. See The Idea of the American South, 1920-1941 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1979) and All Clever Men, Who Make Their Way: Critical Discourse in the Old South (Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 1982).

  • 20. See Drew Gilpin Faust, The Creation of Confederate Nationalism: Ideology and Identity in the Civil War South (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1988).

  • 21.Faust, Confederate Nationalism, 10-11.

  • 22.Colley, Britons, 5-6; Greenfeld, Nationalism, 476-7.

  • 23. This point, among many others about the war, was made powerfully by Robert Penn Warren in his meditation, The Legacy of the Civil War (New York: Random House, 1961).

  • 24. Tracy Thompson, "The War between the States of Mind," Washington Post, January 10, 1993.

  • 25. William Faulkner, The Faulkner Reader (New York: Random House, 1954), 315. I would like to thank Brad Mittendorf for calling this quote to my attention.

  • 26. Pred, Making Histories.

  • 27. Louis D. Rubin, Jr., A Gallery of Southerners (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1982), 206, 222.