The New Mind of the South


The South is the most interesting region of the United States for a number of reasons, race being one of the most important ones. I’ve been living in Virginia for the past 12 years, but can’t say I have much understanding of the Southern character or mindset. One reason is that I work nights and weekend, so my social circle is limited. But Tracy Thompson’s The New Mind of the South gives me a lot of insights.
Thompson is a Southerner herself, having grown up in the Atlanta area, but having left to pursue a career in journalism. So the Southern mindset is native to her, though she says she didn’t understand it very well for quite awhile.
One reason for that is the Big Lie. The Big Lie is about the Civil War (War Between the States to Southerners). That war remains the central event of our history, and the central trauma of the South. The Big Lie began to be concocted shortly after the war to rationalize what had happened, to justify Southern despair and anger, and their subsequent actions.
Perhaps the most telling example is that of Alexander Stephens, the vice-president of the Confederate States of America, who wrote sometime after the war that its cause was States Rights. In 1861 he had written it was because of slavery.
That’s the essence of the Big Lie: a war that killed some 650,000 Americans (at least) and devastated the South had been started over an abstract Constitutional principle. It was only after the war that universal public education was begun in this country, and Southerners took care to make sure that nothing was taught in their schools about the war that they disapproved of. So the war was fought because of the North’s jealousy of the South’s wealth, the North’s desire to push the South around, and the North’s desire to retain the tariffs on trade to and from Southern ports. Most slaves loved their masters, and were loved in return. Mistreatment of slaves was committed by overseers, not the masters. In fact, thousands of slaves volunteered to fight for the Confederates.
Thompson doesn’t document the truth or falsehood of this last piece of information, but she does note that one of her ancestors at the time fought on the Union side, as did a lot of north Georgians. The South was by no means monolithic in its opinions.
By the turn of the 19th century the Big Lie had been well-established in the South, and no one could grow up there without being influenced by it. Thompson was growing up in the Sixties and Seventies, and said it was alive and well there then, and quite likely for some time after.
Things have been changing in the South, though. The Civil Rights movement changed a number of things, of course, but on a lower profile, immigration has made quite a difference too. Some Southern states aren’t at all happy about the number of Hispanic immigrants pouring into their states, and Georgia and Alabama at least have enacted some draconian immigration laws. But Thompson visited the small city of Asheboro, North Carolina, a mostly rural area where a lot of Hispanics have settled. Not everyone likes them being there, of course, but they’ve impressed some natives, even very conservative people. One she quoted as saying that they have a tremendous work ethic, and create their own jobs, while sending money back to their native country (most of the settlers in the area are Mexican). Thompson observes that the Hispanic culture isn’t so different from Southern culture: both are quite conservative and family-oriented, and both are centered around pride. She quotes another Asheboro resident who visited the area in Mexico from which most of the immigrants had come, and found that it was very similar to the land around Asheboro, which in itself makes an interesting parallel.
Thompson also points out that the conservatism of the South is that of a region with repeated traumas. These traumas have produced an intense desire for stability, and without a trust in continued stability no one is likely to be very liberal. The Civil War was the worst, of course, but the Great Depression (though some Southerners joked that it was hardly noticed, since it came in the middle of hard times) prompted two very large migrations. The more famous one was that of blacks to the North, but there was another, of whites to the West, notably California. They took their customs there with them: evangelical Christianity and Southern community, formed close-knit communities with other Southerners, and eventually influenced the area around them, turning evangelical Christianity into big business.
That’s a convergence not everyone likes (including me), but the abstract idea of business being influenced by the morality of religion and religion becoming more efficient through business methods has proved quite practical. I don’t care much for the mainfestation, but it’s been a very successful enterprise.
The Civil Rights movement was the third great trauma for the South, and its effects are still resonating, particularly in politics. But at the same time, between immigrants, a mostly unpublicized remigration of black people to the South, and the at least partial demise of segregation, things are changing in the South.
For one thing, interracial marriage is much more accepted than before, despite the painful history of interracial sex. There have been books about black and white families related to each other, some of whom have become accepting, others of whom have not. One black woman received a qualified welcome from white relatives in Virginia (her white ancestor had moved from Virginia to Mississippi, where his descendents were born). Some accepted her and were willing to listen to at least some of what she had to say. But the women of the family seemed the least accepting. White slaveowners had considered sex with black women one of their perquisites, which caused a lot of pain to their white wives who were so casually disregarded.
It seems pretty obvious, though I hadn’t considered it before, that the horror of miscegnation that led to lynchings of any black man who even LOOKED at a white woman wrong had its source in the use of black women by white men for sexual satisfaction. It wasn’t acceptable, but was widely practiced, and remains one of the barriers to reconciliation between black and white.
But there are attempts at reconciliation going on. Confronting the sins of one’s ancestors and the suffering they caused isn’t easy, but there are a variety of places in the South (and perhaps elsewhere) that it’s being tried, based on the attempts at reconciliation in South Africa to heal the wounds of its own apartheit. Small as this movement may be in this country, it certainly is a hopeful development.
While Thompson doesn’t blink at the wrongheadedness of the South, past and present, she remains a Southerner, and loves the region and many of its customs too. It’s not as if the North or any other region was especially morally superior to the South at any point in history or today, and the South is unique in having had the greatest number of black people of any region. Whites influenced blacks in the south, but blacks also influenced whites. The most obvious example is music: jazz, blues, gospel, country and rock & roll all had their beginnings in the South and have tremendously influenced music from at least the end of the 19th century until now. No doubt there are other, perhaps more subtle examples.
And Thompson points out that, unlike the North, and other later-settled regions, the South was primarily agrarian, and consequently very family-centered. This is a positive aspect that has largely been lost in this era of factory farms, especially in other regions. It’s one of the positive things that still survives in the South, despite increasing urbanization, and is well worth imitating elsewhere.
Thompson says that people have always thought they had the South defined, only to find it morphing into something else. The miseries of slavery produced blues, jazz and gospel. Evangelical religion merged with big business. The South may still be insular in some places and some respects, but there are more black mayors of big cities there than in other regions. The horrors of life in the South have often been better publicized than its joys. It’s always been at least an INTERESTING region, and there’s no reason to think that won’t continue.


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