U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Thinking about the Newest New South

I find myself considering numerous potential research questions for my dissertation. Right now, I still have a little bit of time to sketch out what I want to do, but for the moment it’s clear that I’ll be dealing with race and intellectuals in the 1970s and 1980s. However, I also find myself drawn back to the American South as a place that still needs a great deal of scrutiny in recent American history. In other words, I’m intrigued by the latest iteration of the “New South” that, I would argue, we’ve lived with since at least the landmark Acts of 1964 and 1965 that brought an end to Jim Crow segregation.

What were some of the intellectual hallmarks of this latest New South? There are a few that I believe apply and, frankly, most of them aren’t terribly different from other iterations of the New South. But, each of these elements also has something new about it that makes the post-civil rights era New South so unique in not just Southern history, but American history. Take race, for example. The questions regarding race in the American South changed dramatically from 1965 until, say, 1980. Blatant, virulent racism largely became a thing of the past in that era. Still, there were concerns about racial progress, seen in popular culture in the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s. I can’t help but think of the television series In the Heat of the Night which, while at times taking a ham-fisted approach to race relations in the Deep, rural South in the 1990s, still asked some questions about how Southerners themselves viewed the last forty years.

Race, however, has to be seen as more than black and white in a Southern context. The influx of immigrants from Mexico and Central America since the 1980s bears closer scrutiny in a historical context. The incorporation of this diverse group of people into the South, and how they helped to redefine what it means to be “Southern”, is something that I believe historians will have a field day with for decades to come.

I also believe it’s high time we begin to ask deeper, more probing questions about what it means to be white in the Newest South of the 1970s and beyond. Racial and ethnic identity after the civil rights era, and the end of racial segregation, is a topic that needs further study. Popular culture would, once again, provide a good lens here. Anything from Dukes of Hazzard to professional wrestling would be fair game. Interactions between Southern conceptions of popular culture and national popular culture trends would also be intriguing to look at. Just as an example, the rise of Hip Hop is often seen as a New York story, but it would be interesting to consider what happens when Hip Hop arrives South and begins to take off in the mid to late 1990s in the region with acts such as Outkast out of Atlanta, or the various acts under the No Limit label out of New Orleans.

Most importantly, however, I’d like to consider how intellectuals themselves interpreted the South in this post-civil rights era. Memory of the South plays a major role here, whether it’s memory of the Civil War or of the civil rights movement. The latter has especially become more important in prominence in recent years. Commemoration of civil rights, if done in a certain way, can allow communities to reflect on the past and move on. Or, such moments can be a moment of critical reflection on how far the civil rights movement went, and how far it still has to go. I think this helps to explain recent Southern political history too, especially when it comes to the rise of New South governors in the 1970s and 1980s, who all promised in some form or fashion to embrace a more diverse, tolerant South. My questions here have been inspired by the works of Richard King (Race, Culture, and the Intellectuals), Jason Sokol (There Goes My Everything), and David Chappell (A Stone of Hope and most recently Waking from the Dream), as just two examples of the kind of work I’d like to do.

What does it mean to be Southern after the civil rights movement “ends”? This is a question that I, a native Southerner, find myself asking day after day. Perhaps here at the blog and in my dissertation I can, at the very least, grasp for an answer.

10 Thoughts on this Post

  1. This is excellent. A few broad thoughts:

    1) the question of re-migration of African Americans back to the South, its connection to capital flight, and the rise of new bourgeoisie/leadership class in Atlanta, Houston, New Orleans

    2) the need to contextualize African American, Latina/o, and Native American interaction as part of the long history of the South (a history that would also include intimacy and friendship with some fractions of the poor white cotton proletariat)

    3) Southern soul as prelude to New South Hip Hop–look at the cover of the first Parliament record!

    4) the centrality of the South as a site of horror in Blaxploitation and slasher films of the 1970s; parallel rise of African American-authored southern grotesques by authors like Toni Morrison

    5) The transformation of Southern Studies from a self-consciously white supremacist project (overseen by the Agrarians) to something else

    6) Food. Food is so interesting. So much to talk about vis-a-vis food!

    • Excellent points here as always!

      1. This is key. The return of so many African Americans to the South is a big part of this story. And, for those that don’t return, they still have numerous familial ties to the region.

      2. The poor whites that you mention, and I also brought up, are key here. I told someone a few days ago in a class that African American history often includes poor whites, either by implication or as a group that could be potential enemies or allies at any moment.

      3. Soul! Forgot about that. Certainly key.

      4. The South in literature and fiction is huge.

      5. Southern Studies will have a great deal to say, and I also want to add that it’s interesting to think about the relationship between African American Studies and Southern Studies. They should be, in some sense, natural allies, until you consider their contrasting histories of coming to be within the academy.

      6. Food of course! I already know a few folks here at USC who work extensively with ideas of Southern foodways.

  2. I would like to echo Kurt on his enthusiasm for this project and on his suggestions as well. The significance of the rural south in the US imaginary comes to my mind too. One might even think of another, broader south, the global south, and the potentials as well as limits of putting the latter in dialogue with the former.

  3. Connections between the Newest South and the Global South are huge here. For some time now, I’ve been considering the 1996 Olympics and their relationship to both ideas. It’s something I want to pursue, although I’m not sure if it’ll go in the dissertation or the (heh) second book.

  4. A thought experiment: I wonder if one could write a book about the “New South” (i.e. post-1965) and self-consciously ignore the Civil War. How would that change the narrative? I bring this up as a potential rhetorical strategy to draw in new readers—to shorten the South’s history in order to broaden it. Plus, how important is the Civil War to everyday Southerners and post-2000 Southern identity? Is the South really a region as steep in its history as some suggest? – TL

  5. Tim, I think “steeped in memory” is probably a closer estimation. This may be true for any region of the country. But when the particular flavor of memory is heavy on the Lost Cause mythology, that can pose some challenges when it comes to teaching U.S. history.

    This week and next — last two weeks of the semester, thank you Lord! — I’m teaching the Civil War/Reconstruction. That’s where I started the second half of the survey when I taught it in past semesters, and that’s where I’m ending the first half of the survey this time around. I think it will be easier in some ways to end with the Civil War, because my students have been in my class all semester and they are accustomed to how we discuss the (once?) fraught issues in American history. They are used to drawing distinctions between history and memory, between advocacy and understanding. Starting at the Civil War with a brand new class can feel like a trial by fire — though beginning with the history of colonization and the transatlantic slave trade is not exactly a walk in the park. But it’s a slow burn as opposed to a sudden conflagration.

    But, yes, short answer — the Civil War, and the rights and wrongs of it, and sensitivity about it, can still be a pretty big deal for lots of folks, and it’s an issue that has to be handled with both intellectual integrity and empathy for students from various backgrounds who are having to wrestle in different ways with the tension between history and memory and present experience. I can’t very well pass judgment on my own handling of the task. But I certainly try my best.

    • Great comments here, as always. I don’t know why I’m just responding to this now (I think we can all relate to end of the semester stress, heh) but what you said here is key. The intersection between memory and history, not to mention memory and emotion, is a key feature to understanding the South today. Of course, a wild card here is the introduction of both transplants from the rest of the nation into the South, and the growth of immigrants (esp. from Mexico and Latin America) who may feel they have little to do with the previous incarnations of the South.

  6. If you have been following the news lately about the College of Charleston and it’s incoming new President (Glenn McConnell) you will see that the historical memory of the Civil War/Lost Cause matters very much today.

    Check out the following recent journalistic pieces. The comments sections are more interesting than the articles themselves, particularly for what the comments say about how current Charlestonians (and southerners) think about the South as well as how northerners still view the region as a retrograde backward place.

    1. Warren Bolton, “The Two Faces of McConnell, Columbia State, April 10, 2014

    2. Alan Blinder, “Upsetting the Gentility That the South Lays Claim To” NY Times, April 22, 2014

    3. David Firestone, “Slavery Nostalgia is Real, and It’s Dangerous,” NY Times, April 24, 2014

    • Ah yes, the battles at CofC are very interesting in this regard–being in South Carolina right now I’m seeing this up close and personal. Then again, I grew up in Georgia and attending HS there during the debate over the Stars and Bars being part of the state flag. Memory and “history” in regard to the South are never far from my mind.

      The Brundage book is a great one. I’m glad you recommended it, because I hope others see that and check it out as well. Finally, studying how the rest of the nation views the South is still critically important–especially from an intellectual and political point of view.

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