A Review of Tracy Thompson, The New Mind of the South. New York and London: The Free Press, 2013.
[NOTE: I became a historian of the South not by birth, but because a southern grad school to which I’d applied made me “an offer I couldn’t refuse.” On the way to becoming a “Southern historian,” I had to tackle prickly topics like slavery, “the War” and Reconstruction, the “Age of Jim Crow,” the Civil Rights Movement, and, especially, the “mind of the South” (or, the question of “Southern Identity”).
For example, John Hope Franklin wrote about The Militant South; David Bertelson portrayed The Lazy South; Clement Eaton held forth on The Mind of the Old South; W.E.B. DuBois analyzed The Souls of Black Folk. Moreover, C. Vann Woodward managed, over a long career, to carve out a place as the historian of the modern South, in Tom Watson: Agrarian Rebel; The Strange Career of Jim Crow; Origins of the New South, 1877-1913; The Burden of Southern History; and, eventually, an autobiographical work, Thinking Back.
And yet, the more I read about the “mind” or the “identity” of the South, the more I came to see that, while historians loved to hold forth on the significance of the region in American history, the still reigning king of that topic, even in the 1970s, was journalist Wilbur J. Cash, whose 1941 monograph, The Mind of the South, whether one agreed with it or not, had to be taken very seriously, indeed.
Once I finished my doctorate, I fetched up at a “independent school” across town, and, while teaching some of Atlanta’s “best and brightest,” in the city of Margaret Mitchell and Gone With the Wind, I could hardly avoid Southern History in general or the “War Between the States,” in particular, even had I wished to. So I continued to read books on the Southern “mind” and Southern “identity” for the rest of my career and on into retirement as well. Interesting later works included, for example, Peter Applebome, Dixie Rising (1996); James C. Cobb, Away Down South: A History of Southern Identity (2005); and Gail Collins, As Texas Goes. . .How the Lone Star State Hijacked the American Agenda (2012).]
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This brings me, in a roundabout way, to the volume under review, The New Mind of the South, by Tracy Thompson.Tracy Thompson grew up on a farm in Clayton County, Georgia, south of Atlanta; attended Atlanta’s Emory University and Yale Law School; was a reporter for the Atlanta Constitution in the early 1980s; and eventually moved to the Washington, D.C. area, where she still lives. More importantly, Thompson discovered that one of her Georgia relatives had opposed the Confederacy during the Civil War, which nudged her towards the question of what exactly makes one a “Southerner.” For Thompson, this question was not abstract: her family’s past was rapidly disappearing, thanks to death, economic “progress,” and the real estate development mania that forms the lifeblood of Atlanta’s economy. (3-7) So, she set out to explore the South (which she defines basically as the eleven states of the former Confederacy), its people, and their values.
In analyzing the “new mind of the South,” Thompson imagines a box labeled “southern identity,” which includes, as historical constants, evangelical religion and slavery (race), both of which she traces from the antebellum era to their legacies in the early twenty-first century. More recent additions to the southern identity “box” include the apparent paradox that modern southerners are both “conservative” and famous for their “adaptability,” and that they lack “historical awareness.” (11-12) Lacking “historical awareness” certainly is not peculiar to the modern South, but Thompson maintains that, in the South, “the ideals of democracy met the reality of race,” which explains why “only Southerners today can claim membership in a genuinely biracial society.” (242)
W.J. Cash’s great book was essentially about the mind of the “white South,” but Thompson is from an era that celebrates “diversity.” She believes there is no such thing as a “southern culture”; rather, there are numerous “southern cultures.” For example, children of Hispanic immigrants, even if born or raised in the South, do not consider themselves “Southerners.” (18) Moreover, Thompson notes the return to the South, beginning in the 1970s, of descendants of African Americans who had fled the region during the “Great Migration” a generation earlier. This trend certainly has contributed, along with the rise of the “Sunbelt South,” to the “diversity” of major southern cities like Atlanta, which, to Thompson, is evidence that, despite manifold wrenching changes over the decades, Southerners still hanker for a sense of community.
Her journey takes Thompson from the Mississippi Delta to Atlanta, from the 2008 Children of the Confederacy convention, where the “Lost Cause” version of Southern history is taught as gospel, to mega-churches, which emphasize the “prosperity gospel.” Thompson’s writing style, wit, and insight make it a pleasure for the reader to accompany her.
Thompson’s work often is self-referential, but how could it not be, given her southern birth, Atlanta upbringing, and the questions that led her to undertake the project? It also is anecdotal, occasionally leaving the reader puzzled, for instance, whether Atlanta is “typical” of southern cities, but, to her credit, Thompson doesn’t simply transcribe interviews or offer a sort of “intellectual travelogue.” She obviously has read standard secondary works, scoured the journalistic literature, and availed herself of appropriate statistical evidence.
Thompson takes Southerners to task for their selective view of Southern history, including the idea that the Civil War (which “true southerners” usually refer to as the “War Between the States”) was all about “state rights” rather than slavery (and, in a note, she even tells doubters where they can find evidence supporting her interpretation). (41-43) This blinkered Southern take on the past certainly served the cause of the region’s “resurrection” after Reconstruction (AKA, “the Age of Jim Crow”), when Southern “Bourbons” were trying to attract Northern investors. At the same time, groups like the United Daughters of the Confederacy were struggling mightily to rewrite the region’s history and prevent “incorrect” versions of the Southern past from perverting the minds of virginal southern children. (43ff) And these same interpretations buttress the self-esteem of today’s “true southerners,” as the nation stumbles through the sesquicentennial of the Civil War.
Among the more discreditable episodes in the Southern past that Thompson regrets not having been exposed to while growing up south of Atlanta was the regional lynching bee that followed Reconstruction and continued into the years after World War II. Yet, it’s hard to place the blame for silence on this issue exclusively on Southern schools. (I didn’t learn about it in high school in Delaware, for example.)
Moreover, the idea that high school students would be exposed to gory details about lynching is pretty far-fetched, says someone who taught American (and Southern) history in an Atlanta prep school for almost four decades. Even Advanced Placement courses, where an outside observer might expect students to learn about lynching, probably didn’t include much beyond statistics, if that, because the emphasis in AP is on the “big picture” of the American past, not on highlights (or lowlights) of regional history. (Admittedly, my treatment of that topic in my Civil Rights course was a different story, but that class was a one-semester elective, with a small enrollment, and without a broad, sweeping end-of-course exam.)
A child of religious fundamentalism, Thompson contributes a stimulating chapter, “Jesusland,” on contemporary Southern religion. No one can deny the hold of evangelical Protestant Christianity in the white South, but Thompson makes the important point that, thanks to its history, “the South had become something unique in American history: a biracial [emphasis added] culture bound together by one religion.” During the Age of Jim Crow, in fact, black southerners created “a parallel evangelical universe that in its way exerted more influence on white culture than the other way around,” and, as the history of the modern Civil Rights Movement indicates, the black church “was the means by which a social system based on racial segregation unwittingly nourished the seeds of its own destruction.” (111-114)
After a trip to the Mississippi Delta, Thompson weighs the benefits of “heritage tourism” against the disappearance of “community,” which she sees “at the heart of agrarian values.” (162-163) And yet, if one considers the “black remigration, which began in the 1970s and shows no sign of letting up,” perhaps the future is not as bleak as she suggests, even in the rural South, since, according to Thompson, this phenomenon also suggests a quest for community. (174) Three-quarters of the nation’s increase in black population during the first decade of the twenty-first century was in the South, and “today, the South accounts for 57 percent of the nation’s black population.” (175)
Among Thompson’s best chapters is her treatment of Atlanta, a provocative, cynical, hilarious picture of the city and its history. She argues, for instance, that, despite its critics, Atlanta is actually a very southern city, perhaps even “an allegory for the twenty-first century South as a whole,” thanks to its “inferiority complex”; “its reflexive need to sugarcoat racial realities”; and “its resilience and adaptability in the face of calamity.” (178) And then there’s southern sociologist John Shelton Reed’s wonderfully acerbic comment that, “Every time I look at Atlanta, I see what a quarter of a million Confederate soldiers died to prevent.” (180)
In her concluding chapter, Thompson maintains that, if Wilbur J. Cash could somehow be brought to today’s South, he still would recognize it and understand its “mind.” Just below the surface lies a point that Thompson might have emphasized more. In Cash’s day, the South was regarded by non-southerners as the most bizarre corner of the nation, or, as Harper Lee might have put it, as the nation’s Boo Radley. The South was America’s “Number 1 Economic Problem” during the Great Depression, as FDR famously said, and, according to those “in the know” during the Civil Rights era, the locus of America’s struggle with race.
Today, on the other hand, in significant ways the nation as a whole shares the “new mind of the South”; the United States has become “southernized,” for better or for worse. Nowadays, it’s not only the South that is experiencing a resurgence of “nativism” in the face of the immigration issue, nor is it only Dixie that has begun to try to restrict the right to vote, erecting barriers between the polls and poor, African American, and immigrant voters, based on angrily declaimed, but unproven, charges of “corruption” in the electoral process. Attacks on labor unions and the right of workers to organize and bargain collectively is not a regional phenomenon today, but, while the South has historically been anti-union, the rest of the country seems to be catching up.
None of this is reassuring to a historian of the South. The question seems to be: Has the country reached some sort of pragmatic accommodation in dealing with its problems, or is the rest of the nation following Dixie down the rabbit hole, sippin’ sweet tea and eatin’ grits?
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For those interested in reading more of my reflections on history, here are links to my books on the subject: