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.