By Peter Galuszka
What is “the South” all about?
It’s a great question about what could fairly be described the most unique, tortured and remote region of the United States. Being “Southern” requires not only a special state of mind, but a special spirit that is, by turns, as alluring as it is odious. It produces lots of consternation among rational thinkers since the Southern cocktail is such a powerful blend of contrasts.
One of the first penetrating examinations of this phenomenon came in 1940 from a Charlotte newspaperman named W.J. Cash. His “Mind of the South” stunned me as I read it in college since I was undergoing my own personal identity crisis about whether I was a Southerner or not (probably not since my parents are from up north). If you want a clear-headed and tough look about white elites playing the race and class card for profits, look no further.
Now comes another book “The New Mind of the South,” (Simon & Schuster) that gives us an update on some of the same ideas. Author Tracy Thompson, a former reporter for the Atlanta Constitution and The Washington Post gives us a nice, likeable read exploring how the Southern conundrum remains despite some profound changes including waves of immigrants and Yankees, suburbanization, the fall of employment in farming and manufacturing and the entire idea that the very adjective of “Southern” is being diluted.
First off, Thompson’s book is not as important as Cash’s work, which was written during Jim Crow, anti-union strife and a year after the gushy romanticism of Hollywood’s “Gone With the Wind.” This doesn’t mean Thompson’s work shouldn’t be read.
Thompson comes from a Georgia and Alabama family and grew up in Atlanta although she spent much of her recent adult life in the D.C. suburbs. That in no way detracts from her acute observations about the region delivered in the gracious charm that Southern women have, save for that sharp stiletto of wit that she can whip out when the mood suits. (When I was a young newspaper reporter in North Carolina and out on the town dating local belles, I was cut many times).
Thompson’s modern South wavers between change and history, all adding up to a memory that won’t go away and perhaps never should. The South never can escape slavery, its violence, its hypocrisy and the War. “The Civil War,” she writes, “is like a mountain range that guards against all roads into the South: you can’t go there without encountering it.”
The epicenter of preserving the memory, naturally, is in Virginia, where the memory organizations are based, such as the United Daughters of the Confederacy, nestled in Richmond. The UDC spent the latter half of the 19th Century and the early part of the 20th erecting marble monuments to Confederate soldiers in just about every town south of the Mason-Dixon line. The organization was the way the “South’s ruling white elite,” could “revere the memory of those heroes in grey.”
By extension, this orgy of honor resulted in plenty of nasty stuff, such as a 1913 purge of textbooks in Texas that were considered to be written from too much of a “New England” point of view when it came to the war. There was far worse, stuff, of course, namely lynchings and the Ku Klux Klan, and Thompson presses how such events that occurred near her Georgia childhood home were somehow never mentioned. (As a grade school pupil in West Virginia, I never heard about labor wars against coal barons, either)
Such mythology remains strong today through such groups as the Sons of Confederate veterans, the UDC and even in fourth grade books printed in Connecticut recently that taught children that thousands of slaves fought for the South. Virginia got rid of the books after the error was revealed.
Thompson has some colorful reporting on a UDC event she attended in 2008 in Fredericksburg. Called “Children of the Confederacy,” the program brought together moms and their kids dressed up like Scarlett O’Hara and Ashley Wilkes. She writes:
“On the other side sat a little blond boy of about two, sucking on a sippy cup and wearing a tiny pair of neatly creased Confederate gray flannel trousers, suspenders and a Rebel kepi hat. Before I could ask her where on earth a person went to find a Confederate Army private’s uniform in size 2T, the program started: an invocation, followed by a salute to the Christian flag, a hymn, the Pledge of Allegiance “The Star Spangled Banner,” Of, of course, “Dixie.”’
As part of her youth quest, Thompson also takes us to Asheboro, N.C., a small town in the faltering textile belt. At a strip mall, she meets with about two dozen high school students of Hispanic descent. She asks how many were born in North Carolina. About two third said they were. “How many of you consider yourselves Southerners?” she asked. The group looked confused.
Indeed, North Carolina has the fastest growing immigrant population in the country as foreign-born workers flock to its farm fields and poultry plants among other jobs. This is not a new thing. My parents lived for years in a small Eastern N.C. town where my dad had a medical practice. They had been there since the 1960s and although outsiders, they were very much a part of the community. Being North Carolina (unlike snooty Richmond), it wasn’t hard being accepted. Starting in the 1980s, so many Hispanic newcomers started coming that the Catholic Church added a Spanish Mass. When Dad died in 2004, his funeral service was said by a priest from Colombia.
North Carolina may be more welcoming but other Southern states are reeling from immigrants calling them “freeloaders, gangbangers and anchor babies,” Thompson writes. Virginia, notably Prince William County and Atty. Gen. Ken Cuccinelli, has dabbled with anti-Hispanic laws requiring citizen checks whenever they are stopped. This was the case in Alabama, which ended up badly embarrassed by the rousting of foreign-looking people. It turned out that the very first person pulled over after the Alabama law went into effect was “a German-born Mercedes-Benz executive,” Thompson writes. The German carmaker, which had been recruited vigorously by Alabama officials, builds Mercedes SUVs at the town of Vance.
The tension between older residents and newer ones isn’t the only question. Thompson takes us to dying towns in the Mississippi Delta that are still thriving in an agricultural sense thanks to massive, two-story-high tractors. People, however, are fleeing, despite attempts to play the tourism card and erect museums to blues musicians.
She gives us a good chapter on her hometown of Atlanta, which had started to boom after World War II when it beat out Birmingham for a huge new airport. Atlanta has its problems – an overweening inferiority complex, an over-eagerness to please, far too many cars and bad planning and chronic water shortages. But the city is an economic dynamo and does outclass other Southern cities such as Richmond, which could have been more like Atlanta under different, more enlightened leadership.
The author even gives us her thoughts on New Urbanism:
“. . .You could make a case that New Urbanism is not a radical idea at all, but a return to an older and more conservative past. If you think about it, the only significant design difference between a twenty-first century New Urbanist town and the 1930s-era Alabama town of “To Kill A Mockingbird” is the presence of a fiber-optic cable: both are founded on the ideas of neighborhoods where houses have front porches and sit close to the street, where ‘downtown’ is within walking distance and where there is enough commercial variety that only a few demands ever require a car.”
Despite the many changes, Thompson concludes that the “Southern” identity will never slip down the memory hole. She’s written a good book — not as good as the original and she doesn’t mention Cash nearly enough – but very worthwhile.