Review

Searching for the New Mind of the South

By | June 4, 2013

(AP/Matt Rourke)

(AP/Matt Rourke)

The New Mind of the South
By Tracy Thompson
Simon & Schuster, 2013

W

hen the journalist W.J. Cash set out to describe the American South, back in the late 1930s, he selected as his object of study a kind of Southern essence—”a fairly definite mental pattern, associated with a fairly definite social pattern”—that, he felt, was characteristic of white Southerners. Analyzing this mental pattern, Cash depicted the Southern man as a relic of the American frontier: agrarian in his outlook, fiercely tribal in his attachment to tradition and faith, and still shaped in every way by the war that had ravaged his region seven decades earlier. Cash put these observations into a book, The Mind of the South, and it quickly became a classic, noted for its perceptive and elegant prose.

Cash may have been insightful, but in his focus on white men, and in his claim to have identified a sort of Southern essence, he performed a kind of disservice to the region. Seventy years after Cash wrote his book, it’s still common to conceive of the South in monolithic, essentialist terms—as a white, rural bloc, fervently Protestant in it religion, and avowedly conservative in its politics. Country music does all that it can to reinforce this image; so do television shows like “Here Comes Honey Boo-Boo.” The bright red swatch of the South on Election Day doesn’t help, either. Despite its considerable diversity, the region has a tendency to present its majorities as hegemonies.

It is the self-appointed task of Tracy Thompson in The New Mind of the South to challenge these tired Southern images. Like Cash, Thompson is a white Southerner born during the era of Jim Crow. And, like Cash, Thompson is a journalist by trade, writing first for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution in her native Georgia, and later for the Washington Post. Unlike Cash, though, Thompson claims she wants to avoid untextured “generalizations about collective character.” Instead, as she crisscrosses the South (which she defines as the eleven states that made up the Confederacy, with south Florida, west Texas, and part of northern Virginia excluded), Thompson aims to develop a more accurate portrait of “a culture whose self-image is so fundamentally at odds with its true nature.” And, at its best, Thompson’s book does just that, depicting a region that is far more ethnically, politically, and religiously diverse than many of its inhabitants may realize (or want) it to be.

Thompson begins her book with an unlikely comparison. “Being a Southerner,” she writes, “is a lot like being a Jew.” Both groups, Thompson points out, tend to think of themselves at a slight remove from the national culture at large. Both are known for their outsize contributions to American arts and letters, and both “substantially overlap with a specific type of religion (evangelical Protestantism, in the case of Southerners).” The analogy, though clever in its details, is most fruitful as a means to focus the book, right from the beginning, on issues of identity and cultural self-definition. Thompson may have borrowed her title from Cash, but she’s not going to borrow his single-Southern-psyche approach.

Thompson’s attempt to chronicle Southern identities in the twenty-first century quickly becomes an overview of the major changes that have taken place in the South since the end of Jim Crow. A typical Thompson chapter introduces one of these changes, moves briefly into its history, and then asks some version of the question, “What does this all mean for Southern identity in the future?” Among the shifts she chronicles and questions are the region’s rapid urbanization, the recent influx of Latino immigrants, and the political flavor of much of today’s Southern Protestantism.

In a chapter called “Jesusland,” Thompson conducts of survey of Christianity in the South. She visits a white evangelical church in Mississippi, attends the megachurch of African American televangelist Creflo Dollar, and offers a brief history of Southern evangelicalism. Thompson is far from the first to note that white evangelical Protestantism in the United States underwent a profound shift starting in the 1960s and 70s, becoming more politically engaged in the era of Jerry Falwell and his Moral Majority. But she does an admirable job of showing how this transition not only changed the South’s role in national politics, but may have deepened divisions within the region as well. She draws on the work of Samuel Hill, an emeritus professor of religion at the University of Florida, who wrote in 1998 that politicized fundamentalism had replaced “the tribalism of Southern life” with “a new tribalism that represents a coalition of the right-thinking, the correct-minded, the doctrinally and ethically pure.” Thompson contrasts her own Baptist upbringing, which she remembers as friendly and apolitical, with her experiences visiting some of today’s Southern churches. “I had come hoping for nostalgia,” Thompson writes of her visit to the Mississippi church. The sermon, though, with its strident distinction between “cultural Christians and true Christians,” gives her a glimpse of hostility that seems alien to her: “what I got was a message of exclusion, and from fellow members of my tribe.” 

Elsewhere, the changes that Thompson discusses have the potential, depending on your perspective, either to bring much-needed diversity to the South, or to introduce divisions into a once close-knit culture. That’s especially true of the recent influx of Latin American immigrants to the region. Even excluding Texas and Florida, the South has seen its Latino population grow more quickly than other regions of the country. Some towns in North Carolina are approaching a Latino majority; meanwhile, cities like Atlanta are developing the kind of multiethnic vibe that’s more often associated with New York or San Francisco.

A writer like W.J. Cash might witness this change and see an incursion on traditional Southern culture. Thompson, though, sees the potential for new expansions of Southern identity. Considering Latino Catholics, for example, she envisions a kind of religious, family-values conservatism that goes beyond the boundaries of the Southern Baptist Convention. And she makes it clear that to talk about religion in the South without a mention of Catholicism and Latin American Pentecostalism, or to talk about politics in the South without considering legislation like the DREAM Act, is no longer a viable proposition. At one point, Thompson visits a class in North Carolina designed to teach political activism to Latino high schoolers. Noting that, a week later, Senate Republicans would block passage of the DREAM Act, Thompson watches the students and wonders, “Who knew what purpose their new knowledge might be put to in the years to come, what passions it might ignite? If I were a Republican, especially a Southern Republican, I would be thinking about that.”

Thompson argues that the new South is a patchwork, no longer divided down the clear racial lines of the past, but instead comprising a whole new tangle of religious, ethnic, and urban-rural affiliations. What, then, is the future of Southern identity? The simplest answer is that it will become a relic, at odds with any changes that take place in the region. This idea of an embattled, retrogressive Southern culture actually dovetails quite nicely with the fundamentalist concept of “be ye separate” from the culture at large. But it excludes African Americans—who are actually more likely than their white counterparts to identify as Southerners, according to a 2005 study that Thompson cites. And it doesn’t include whole chunks of the South’s white population who, like Thompson, have a sense of regional pride but don’t wish to be “subscribing to racist delusions, or drinking anyone’s Kool-Aid.”

At times, The New Mind of the South gets bogged down in the same past that it is trying to overcome, giving in to sweeping, essential-character-of-the-South generalizations that hark back to Cash. In her attempt to show that Southern identity is dynamic and diverse, Thompson often retreats into abstraction. She’ll talk about the distinctive friendliness of Southerners, or their special love of community, implying that these qualities are uniquely present below the Mason-Dixon line. At one point, Thompson introduces a story about a Korean church in Tennessee by describing “a very Southern kind of emotional fervor,” as if the South has some essential quality of light or landscape that transforms ordinary citizens—even recent immigrants—into zealots. In these moments of breezy generalization, The New Mind of the South serves as a reminder of how difficult it can be to talk about the region without resorting to clichés.

Part of the problem, perhaps, is that Thompson is writing as both a journalist and a proud Southerner. At times, her urge to self-identify seems to overcome her commitment to impartiality. Still, it’s that desire for self-identification that ensures some sort of future for Southern identity, which today is mostly a voluntary association. It doesn’t really matter whether people actually are friendlier in the South, or more passionate about religion; what will matter, to those concerned with regional identity, is whether people in the South continue to think that these things are true. The question is who will choose to adopt some part of the South’s image and heritage, whether those people will be Southerners of all kinds, or only those immersed in a reactionary idealization of that culture.

Thompson’s opening analogy becomes useful here. Jews, too, once had their cultural uniqueness sheltered by a particular set of social rules, both internal (rabbinic laws) and external (the regulations that determined what Jews could and could not do in Christian society). Today, Jews find themselves unhinged from these traditional constraints, and free to respond to their unique past in a whole range of ways—by ignoring it, by liberalizing it, or by using it to form a kind of hardened, separatist Orthodoxy that will broker no compromise. The South of the twenty-first century, too, is a region with a whole range of new legal, social, and political possibilities. Voters in my hometown of Chattanooga, Tennessee, for example, recently elected an openly gay city councilman and a Jewish mayor. The old ways aren’t quite so binding anymore.

As many Jews will know, the Orthodox tend to get more attention than their reforming counterparts. They make a claim to a kind of authenticity that others are unwilling to challenge. The same can be said of the strident voices in the South’s right-wing contingent. It’s the gift of Thompson to remind us that Southernness can occupy a much bigger tent. She imagines a future of Hindu temples in Alabama, North Carolina high schools that excel at football and fútbol, and grits that come in instant, stoneground, and local-organic-vegan-certified varieties. This is a South that, despite its oppressive history, has somehow morphed into an iteration of the great pluralistic American experiment: a region that offers a shared identity to people of all sorts of backgrounds. I can think of no better way to welcome this kind of future than with a greeting that’s posted in my own Southern-Jewish childhood home: “Shalom, y’all.”

Michael Schulson is a writer living in Durham, North Carolina.

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