Journalist Tracy Thompson's family has lived in the South for "at least six generations," and she was born and raised in Atlanta. But one of the core questions she grapples with in her new book, The New Mind of the South, is just what a Southerner is.
"I am a Southerner," Thompson writes, describing that group as "Americans with an extra layer of identity." Exploring that identity — its past, rapidly changing present and future — is the subject of her engaging, thoughtful book.
She's not the first, and certainly won't be the last, writer to address the question. Her book's title refers to W.J. Cash's 1941 book The Mind of the South, a cultural history of the region that explored its defining issues: race, religion and romanticism about its own past. As William Faulkner put it a decade later in his most succinct and definitive comment on the South: "The past is never dead. It's not even past."
Thompson delves into that past, initially on a personal level. A cousin unearths records that reveal that one of her ancestors, a Georgia farmer who had lived near where she would grow up, was a Union supporter during the Civil War — a political position that led to harassment and death threats from his neighbors so relentless that he left the state. No one in her family had ever spoken of those events. "This discovery was both fascinating and unsettling," she writes, "like learning that some old family keepsake painting you'd had for decades had, in fact, been hanging upside down."
That bit of personal hidden history, and others such as the possibility that the "Cherokee grandma lurking in the family tree" might have been black, open up the broader topic of "shadow history" in the South. Southerners, she writes, are both deeply passionate and highly selective about their history — never more so than when it comes to the Lost Cause, as true believers call the Civil War.
Thompson details the often successful efforts of such groups as the United Daughters of the Confederacy to sell the notion that the war was fought not over slavery but states' rights — that "the nation sacrificed some 650,000 of its fathers, sons, and brothers over a difference of interpretation in constitutional law."
Historians have long since debunked it, but the notion has had staying power. In 1911, Thompson writes, "University of Florida history professor Enoch Banks wrote an essay for the New York Independent suggesting that slavery was the cause of secession; Banks was forced by the ensuing outcry to resign." As recently as the 1960s, many textbooks described slavery as a benign partnership between benevolent owners and cheerful slaves — and at a Children of the Confederacy convention Thompson attends in 2008, that's still the story. In a 2011 poll, 48 percent of Americans — non-Southerners as well as Southerners, blacks as well as whites — thought states' rights were the main cause of the war.
Divided by race, the South was long a region united by religion, specifically evangelical Christianity. A century ago, with 96.6 percent of Southerners of both races identifying themselves as churchgoing Protestants, it was "something unique in American history: a biracial culture bound together by one religion."
No more. As her title suggests, Thompson is most interested in the South today, and it is no longer a black-and-white, Bible-carrying picture. For two centuries after English, Scots-Irish, French and German settlers and African slaves displaced the native peoples of the region, only a vanishingly small percentage of residents of the South were immigrants.
But change has come: "Between 1990 and 2000, North Carolina had the fastest-growing immigrant population of any state in the country. Georgia came in second, Arkansas fourth, and Tennessee a close sixth." That wave continues, and the vast majority of those immigrants are from Mexico and Central America, although a significant portion come from Asia.
Does that Hispanic wave mean, as Thompson writes, the "End Of Southern Culture As We Know It"? Perhaps not; as she points out, many of those Mexicans are "country folks — conservative in politics and sexual mores, churchgoing, tightly connected in a network of extended family" — much like traditional Southerners.
They are not the only agents of change. During much of the 20th century, the Great Migration of more than 5 million Southern blacks to northern and western states was the largest internal migration in American history. But in the last three decades, black people have begun to move back to the South in large numbers; now 57 percent of the nation's black population lives in the South.
Nowhere is that more evident than in Thompson's hometown. The book's last chapter brings together many of its ideas by focusing on Atlanta. Thanks to industrial farming and exported manufacturing jobs, the South has rapidly shifted from a rural culture to an urban-suburban one, and Atlanta, which sprawls and speeds across 10 counties, exemplifies that.
A business mecca that once dubbed itself, rather too optimistically, "the city too busy to hate," Atlanta has long had thriving black middle and upper classes, but their numbers and influence have blossomed. In 1990, the Metro Atlanta area was 67 percent non-Hispanic white; today, thanks largely to black and Hispanic migration and population growth, that number is 38 percent. If our future is a majority-minority nation, Atlanta is already there.
Thompson does not shy from the ugly parts of the South's history or oversimplify the challenges of its present. But she finds reasons for hope in her travels, from a bright bunch of Hispanic high school students in Asheboro, N.C., to the woman she meets at a United Daughters of the Confederacy convention, her "bosom . . . draped with gold pins attesting to the number of her ancestors who had fought for the Lost Cause," who tells Thompson that her granddaughter is married to a black man. " 'He provides for her very well,' she said with obvious satisfaction — an old-fashioned compliment, I thought, but a compliment just the same."
Colette Bancroft can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8435.