The New Southern History

Article excerpt

Every reader has at hand several sets of contrasting mental images that suggest how different the present-day South is from that of 1945. The bold skylines of Atlanta, Dallas, and Houston completely hide the cityscape of fifty years ago - what few buildings of that era have not been torn down to make room for the office towers of today. Those shining skylines speak volumes about what pundits call the Sun Belt, a South far more prosperous than that of old, with per capita incomes and bank deposits nearing those of the national norm. Even more suggestive of the change that has occurred since 1945 is the recognition that many of the cities and towns of the modern South have black mayors, or police chiefs, or city councilmen. In fact, the South has far more black office-holders than any other region of the nation. Blacks are a political presence to be reckoned with, and most Southern white politicians seek to develop programs that will appeal to both white and black constituencies. Nothing so separates the South of 1992 from that of 1945 as does this revolution in race relations. One always needs to mention the truism that much more needs to be done before full racial equality is achieved in the region, but the biggest success story in recent American history is the racial progress accomplished in the South in little more than a generation.

These two major developments - economic and racial progress - have to a significant degree narrowed the surface differences between the South and the rest of the nation. A tourist today speeding along the interstate highways, bypassing the small towns and following the nationally uniform traffic signs, would find the South deceptively like the rest of the nation. One would purchase gasoline from national-brand stations, stay in motels indistinguishable from those elsewhere, eat in fast-food restaurants with identical menus nationwide. Not only has Dixie been Americanized, but in numerous ways the nation has been Southernized. Compared to a trip one might have taken in the late 1930s, the uniformity today of the nation North and South is striking. But these surface similarities are deceiving. In matters less susceptible to precise quantification - music, religion, food preferences, attitudes toward family and gender and place, a kind of regional ethos, a shared history - the South remains a different country. No longer is the region a byword for poverty and prejudice, and air conditioning has made the long hot summers far more inviting. More than ever before, the South of the 1990s is a state of mind as much as it is a geographical division of the United States, and though that distinction can sometimes seem minute, it makes for a felt difference that is palpable. All Southerners today experience a type of

two-ness, sensing themselves to be fully American yet indelibly Southern.

This essential two-ness of the Southerner's experience gives added poignance to the region's written history. Southerners themselves have especially seemed to value their region's history since the Civil War, for as C. Vann Woodward has written, history has happened to them in a way unlike that experienced by those living in the rest of the nation.(1) But national historians have long been fascinated with the history of the South too, in part because it has been different from the national story and by its very difference points up the unique characteristics of U. S. history vis a vis the rest of the world. That is to say, Americans have studied the history of the South both for its own sake and for what by comparison it suggests about the nation's history. This dual perspective offered by studying the South's history is one reason it has proven so endlessly fascinating to academic historians throughout the nation. The South's history, like its literature, has a national and even international dimension that has led it to transcend the provincialism of regional defensiveness. As much as the skyscrapers of the South's booming cities have replaced sharecropper shacks in the national image of the region, so too has the written history of the region undergone a vital transformation. …