Enough about the Disappearing South: What about the Disappearing Southerner?

Article excerpt

Profound transformations in the South since the 1960s have led many observers to sound the region's death knell. Distinctive and exceptional no longer, they say, the region has been disappearing, vanishing, shrinking, and converging with mainstream America for decades, a victim of relentless incorporation into mass society. In a brief but stark Time magazine essay published in 1990, Hodding Carter III, a former Mississippi newspaper editor transplanted to Washington, D.C., went even further, voicing the judgment that the South was dead: "The South as South, a living, ever regenerating mythic land of distinctive personality, is no more. At most it is an artifact lovingly preserved in the museums of culture and the shops of tourist commerce precisely because it is so hard to find in the vital centers of the regions daily life ... the South is dead.... What is lurching into existence in the South is purely and contemporaneously mainstream American, for better and for worse." (1)

Historian James Cobb reminds us, however, that epitaphs for the region are nothing new: Dixie's demise has been announced since at least the late nineteenth century. Still, those of us who came of age before the civil rights revolution, and those of us who study and teach the South, cannot help being astonished at how different the region is (and, for some, viscerally feels) since, say, 1960. This is not to say that the region is indistinguishable from America--if for no other reason, because its tragic, painful past continues uniquely to evoke commentary, reflection, and condemnation--or that it has solved all of its racial problems. But the South of the 1950s and 1960s--the Jim Crow, culturally insular, economically impoverished, politically retrograde South--is dead. (2) Epitaphs for that South are indeed in order.

But what, if anything, does all this imply about southern identity, about being a southerner? If the very thing that gives southern identity gravity and salience--a South distinct and genuinely set apart from the rest of the country--is itself disappearing, or, even, no more, are southerners as a group with a distinct, self-declared identity also disappearing, themselves a dying breed?

The answer to this question is not at all obvious. On the one hand, social identity expressed in terms of membership in a distinct group--identity of the sort signified by statements such as "Yes, I am a southerner"--no doubt best flourishes when the distinctive culture with which one identifies is, in Hodding Carter III's words, a "living" reality. On the other hand, identification with the South could, for some, mean little more than the happenstance of residence ("I live in the South, so of course I am a southerner") and thus be little affected by the presumed dissolution of a southern exceptionalism as much moral as cognitive. Of much greater cultural significance is that even in the absence of marked regional distinctiveness, some southerners may continue to identify with the region due to their self-proclaimed membership in what political scientist Benedict Anderson called, in a discussion of nationalism, an "imagined community," by which he means a "fraternity" of "comradeship" in which members "will never know most of their fellow-members, meet them, or even hear of them, yet in the minds of each fives the image of their communion." Southerners of this sort practice what we might call "symbolic southernness." (3) Largely ancestral, honorific, and selectively enacted rather than rooted in the routines of daily life or the attributions of nonsoutherners, "symbolic southernness" need not rest on an actually existing distinctive South. Indeed, symbolic southerners are able to proclaim their heritage and differentiate themselves from the mass of Americans by grounding their sense of who they are in a mythic place existing mainly in cultural memory--the South as an imagined community--rather than in a "real" space. Southern exceptionalism may be waning, then, but what about southern identity? …