The Resilience of Southern Identity: Why the South Still Matters in the Minds of Its People

The Resilience of Southern Identity: Why the South Still Matters in the Minds of Its People

The Resilience of Southern Identity: Why the South Still Matters in the Minds of Its People

The Resilience of Southern Identity: Why the South Still Matters in the Minds of Its People


The American South has experienced remarkable change over the past half century. Black voter registration has increased, the region's politics have shifted from one-party Democratic to the near-domination of the Republican Party, and in-migration has increased its population manyfold. At the same time, many outward signs of regional distinctiveness have faded--chain restaurants have replaced mom-and-pop diners, and the interstate highway system connects the region to the rest of the country. Given all of these changes, many have argued that southern identity is fading. But here, Christopher A. Cooper and H. Gibbs Knotts show how these changes have allowed for new types of southern identity to emerge. For some, identification with the South has become more about a connection to the region's folkways or to place than about policy or ideology. For others, the contemporary South is all of those things at once--a place where many modern-day southerners navigate the region's confusing and omnipresent history.

Regardless of how individuals see the South, this study argues that the region's drastic political, racial, and cultural changes have not lessened the importance of southern identity but have played a key role in keeping regional identification relevant in the twenty-first century.


Paula Deen is a southerner. That much never has been, and probably never will be, in doubt. The restaurateur and celebrity chef made her fortune selling an image of a gentile, if overly salted, South. Ultimately, it was her view of the region that eventually undermined her. During a deposition, Deen admitted that she had used racial slurs in the past, and noted

James Clyburn is a southerner. Born in Sumter, South Carolina, to a fundamentalist minister and beautician, Clyburn organized civil rights marches and demonstrations throughout the Palmetto State, meeting his wife Emily while incarcerated for civil disobedience. Despite experiencing the worst of the Jim Crow South as a young African American man, Clyburn devoted his life to public service, working in state politics and eventually rising to the position of Majority Whip of the U.S. House of Representatives. In the epilogue to his memoir, Clyburn (2014, 335) writes to his children and grandchildren, saying, “As Americans and South Carolinians, I hope you are as proudly black and genuinely southern as your parents and grandparents were.”

Natasha Trethewey is a southerner. Born in Gulfport, Mississippi, to a white father and African American mother, her collection of poems Native Guard won the 2007 Pulitzer Prize, and in 2012, she was named U.S. Poet Laureate. Calling herself both quintessentially southern and American, Trethewey shows that the American experiences of “miscegenation, of border crossings, of integration of cultures” are also part of the southern experience. As she notes in a recent interview, “My role is to establish what has always been Southern, though at other points in history it has been excluded from ‘Southernness’” (Turner 2013).

Patterson Hood is a southerner. The lead singer of the rock band the Drive by Truckers once penned a song about “The Three Great Alabama Icons”: Crimson Tide football coach Bear Bryant, Lynyrd Skynyrd lead vocalist Ronnie Van Zant, and segregationist politician George C. Wallace . . .

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