Southern-ness

Maybe it’s all semantics, but the question always seems to be there: what does it mean for someone or something to be “Southern”? I am dealing with this a good bit in writing the introduction to Children of the Changing South. Geographically and historically, it is easy to oversimplify: the states that fought in the Confederacy during the Civil War. But culturally, it isn’t so easy. Of course, as the writer of a scholarly introduction, I want to be correct . . . but I don’t know if it’s possible to be correct about this matter.

In Lillian Smith’s Killers of the Dream, which was published in 1949, she writes in the early chapters about how the South she grew up in is so very different from the South of right-now. She rattles off a list of names that the world of her youth had not yet come to know, including Ghandi and FDR. But when I think about the “old South,” the South of legend and lore, I think of the South of mid-century, the South as it was in the decades before my birth, the post-Great Depression South, the South of the Civil Rights movement. Lillian Smith is, of course, consummately Southern, in a progressive sense, but not in the man-on-the-street sense . . . because she wasn’t like most Southerners . . . but— wait, now I’m lost again. Can Lillian Smith be called Southern then? Because she wasn’t like most Southerners of her time, but to say that she isn’t Southern seems very foolish! Of course, she is.

I am wondering all of these things because another book I have been reading for the introduction, But Now I See by Fred Hobson, gives me pause. In its final chapters, he assesses that newer Southern writers don’t have as much to offer, because writers like Lillian Smith or Robert Penn Warren were risking so much more. I agree with Hobson on the point that earlier progressive writers risked more, but I disagree with any idea that says that post-Civil Rights Southern writers have nothing worthwhile to contribute to the conversation of Southern-ness. Certainly Southern-ness wasn’t killed and buried in the late 1960s.

That is what my book is about; this book I am editing is a grouping of memoirs about growing up and living in the South, after. In 2007, two editors from two different Southern university presses answered my initial queries for this manuscript, but their scholarly reviewers sent back unflattering reviews with the primary complaint that the subject matter was unimportant. Who cares about the years after the movement was over, they asked. Lots of people, I answered. And in subtle private communications, those two editors agreed with me, saying they were sorry about being unable to proceed with such reviews in hand.

When I put out the call for submissions for this book, an immediate burst of replies came, mainly from people who had already written a piece that was exactly what I was collecting. It seems that plenty of writers ranging in age from 50 to 30 were already re-examining their own Southern childhoods during the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s. Where I respect Fred Hobson tremendously, I disagree with any assessment that newer Southern narratives about race in the South aren’t worth our attention. That would have to mean that Southern-ness ended with the legalized hatred, and it would have to mean that the South has now been fully assimilated into American culture. It would also have to mean that the only things worth discussing about the South were the racial hatred and its opposition, that we are one-dimensional and that dimension is now gone. In the post-Civil Rights era, the matter of race is alive and well, and so very complicated in a politically correct society.

Do I risk my job, my friendships, and possibly even my life by insisting on open dialogues about race? No. But what a sad assumption that, once the risk is gone, we should move on and leave so much baggage unpacked. No, the South in the manuscript I am working on is, for the most part, not a discussion of the South of Lillian Smith’s childhood. It is an equally yet differently complex place. Hobson called the post-Civil Rights South “sanitized,” and I disagree with that idea. The modern South is the equivalent of when a kid is asked to clean his room and he just shoves everything under the bed. It’s still there, still messy, just more contained and presentable. But clean? No.

To borrow a phrase, I am asking in my book what we mean by “Look Back! March Forward!” which I have heard shouted over and over at Civil Rights commemoration events and parades. Look back, yes! Absolutely! In my explorations of Southern culture, I have spent a lot of time looking back. But what about the march forward part? It seems to me if there are “killers of the dream” — not Lillian Smith’s dream, Martin’ Luther King Jr.’s dream — out there, they are the historians and scholars who refuse to talk about anything past the movement, except maybe Black Power or feminism.

Children of the Changing South is a continuation of my insistence that we develop a better and more diverse (and more modern) understanding of Southern-ness, one that is rooted in the old way but is not the old way. I have spent the better part of the last ten years, working on projects to bring neglected Southern voices of all sorts into the light of modern culture. After a fifty-year career, awards and recognitions, no one had ever written a book about Clark Walker, so I wrote one. After realizing that no one had ever written a book about John Beecher, I wrote one, despite hearing jibes that his poetry was no good and that he wasn’t worthy of attention. Now, I am working on this book of memoirs, and once again I hear established voices telling me that I am wasting my time. Respectfully, I disagree and intend to continue doing my work.

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