U.S. Intellectual History Blog

The Return of Regionalism: Southern Studies and the Future of Intellectual History

Recent weeks have seen the release of numerous new works on the South, Southern Studies, and how regionalism still matters. The rise in writings about the American South isn’t just limited to the academy, although that will be the crux of my piece today. For instance, James Fallows has been writing a fascinating series on Mississippi in recent weeks, seeking to write about the state, and the South in general, in a respectful manner. Fallows noted in his most recent post that “there’s an all-but-irresistible freak-show undertone to a lot of reports from Mississippi. These Southerners! Can you believe them?” The South, of course, features in the background of the recent piece on reparations by Ta-Nehisi Coates, but it’s worth noting that the essay itself also focuses heavily on Chicago. Mr. Coates’ goal, in that regard, was to talk about more recent problems facing African Americans after slavery, offering a national narrative for a national problem. (By the way, there’s a fascinating piece by Randall Kennedy in the most recent issue of Harper’s magazine, which I think is a nice corollary to the Coates reparations article. It’s behind a paywall, but I’d highly recommend getting a copy to read this essay.)

My post today was also inspired by a recent roundtable in the June issue of the Journal of American Studies, which is an examination of the current state of Southern Studies. In “What’s New in Southern Studies—And Why Should We Care?”, Brian Ward opens up the discussion by pointing to the importance of “New Southern Studies” and how the field has been shaped by historians and Southern Studies scholars such as Houston Baker (probably better known among our readers for his work on recent African American intellectual history, Betrayal) Dana Nelson, and Jon Smith. The work of Smith, in particular, is scrutinized by Ward, for Smith argues that the New Southern Studies can offer some key insights to the field of American Studies. Ward portrays Smith’s work as an attempt at a dialogue to add more nuance to American Studies: “By consistently marginalizing or demonizing the South, Smith argues, American studies has struggled to understand great swatches of contemporary US history, politics, and culture, particularly its religiosity and Red state conservatism, except in terms of pathology or betrayal.”[1]

For the rest of the forum, scholars debate and describe the New Southern Studies and where it can go in regards to a scholarly treatment of the South. A key idea is the treatment of the South as part of larger national and transnational networks of communications and ideas, something seen in works such as Matthew Guterl’s American Mediterranean, James Cobb’s Globalization and the American South, or Natalie Ring’s The Problem South. Quite a few of us are probably familiar with terms such as “Global South”, which have come to inform the rise of New Southern Studies for the last decade. The various forum writers also point to the use of various interdisciplinary tools, such as post-colonial studies, to add more to Southern Studies as a field.

The forum is an instructive read for Southern Studies scholars, practitioners of American Studies, and historians (in particular, the essay by Natalie Ring is a necessary read for Southern historians such as myself). I do think it’s interesting to consider this essay in light of works by scholars such as Zandria Robinson’s whose This Ain’t Chicago I’ve mentioned several times and is a work that sheds light on regional differences amongst African Americans after the Civil Rights era. It’s this era I’m particularly intrigued by, and the New Southern Studies focus on using various methodological tools can shed some light on the intellectual and cultural history of the South after 1965. Building on the work of cultural scholars Nelson George and Mark Anthony Neal, Robinson writes of a “post-soul” era in African American history, something first promulgated by George. Wrote Robinson on this era, the period “signifies the temporal and cultural shifts from past to present and back again that characterize post-1960s African American cultures.”[2] This aesthetic offers food for thought for anyone tackling African American history after the 1960s. It’s a problem I’ve written about before, and it’s something also dealt with by historian Pero Dagbovie. In the conclusion to his book African American History Reconsidered, Dagbovie wrote, “historians have not yet adequately unraveled the nuances of African American life during the post-Black Power era, 1975 until the dawning of the new millennium…black historians—perhaps avoiding the perils of presentism or the challenges of contemporary history—have tended to overlook black history in the post-Black Power era.”[3]

I bring up the still-brewing debates about recent African American history to highlight the need for historians to examine the New Southern Studies in detail. After all, the story of the American South is, in large part, the story of African Americans. But it cannot end there. Instead, the questions brought up by scholars of the New Southern Studies, as well as by academics who wrestle with questions of the African American experience in a post-Civil Rights, post-Black Power, or post-soul era (whichever term you prefer or whichever question you wish to ask and answer) must be brought forth to address the history of white Southerners in this era. Furthermore, intellectual history must grapple with these topics too. The insertion of regionalism into the “Age of Fracture”, in other words, is a methodological tool that could shed light on new answers to old questions, or better yet, offer new questions requiring new answers.

Since I’ve begun writing for this blog, I’ve found myself dealing with these questions time and again. In coming weeks we’ll be serving up some excellent roundtable discussions on a variety of topics. But, for me, the points I’ve raised here about Southern Studies, American Studies, Southern History, and African American history, will provide the bulk of my perspective on such discussions in coming weeks. In the meantime, I’ll be formulating new questions and struggling, somehow, to create out of this alchemy of studies, methodologies, and historiographies, something fresh and new for intellectual history.

[1] Brian Ward, “What’s New in Southern Studies, And Why Should We Care?”, Journal of American Studies, May 2014, p. 1-43, quote on p. 2.

[2] Zandria F. Robinson, This Ain’t Chicago: Race, Class and Regional Identity in the Post-Soul South. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2014, p. 4.

[3] Pero Dagbovie, African American History Reconsidered. Urbana, Ill: University of Illinois Press, 2010, p. 199.

2 Thoughts on this Post

  1. piece on reparations by Ta-Nehisi Coates, but it’s worth noting that the essay itself also focuses heavily on Chicago. Mr. Coates’ goal, in that regard, was to talk about more recent problems facing African Americans after slavery, offering a national narrative for a national problem.

    Duly noted. A stirring post on “fracture,” perspective, and regionalism.

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