Southern identity is one of those things most people think they can define without too much trouble. After all, there are so many southern stereotypes popularized by Hollywood that you are spoiled for choice. If you think poorly of the South, then you can go with the snaggle-toothed redneck in overalls and no shirt. If you hold romantic notions about the South, then there is the smooth and courtly southern gentleman, who makes the ladies blush. Of course, there is everything in between.
In reality, those types we get from popular culture are caricatures of old realities, more than anything based in present reality. In the major population centers in the modern South, you will be hard pressed to find the snaggle-toothed redneck or the courtly southern gentleman. Instead, it is mostly middle-class suburban people living better than most of the country. The quality of life in the modern South is much higher than most of the country, which is why so many are moving there.
Of course, the South has never been monolithic. Georgia has a different culture than South Carolina, because it has a different origin story. Parts of North Carolina are more like Virginia, while other parts are more like Appalachia. Again, this is due to the people who settled these areas. While Southern identity has largely been bordered by slavery and the Civil War, even within that framework there was a great deal of diversity in the South, going back to the beginning. Southern culture is diversity.
Then there is the fact the South has always been home to a large black population with its own identity and origin story. Despite what northern historians claim, blacks have always been a part of Southern identity. In the rest of the country, blacks are a tolerated add-on population. A black person raised in Boston would never call himself a Bostonian, while a black raised in the South is going to identify as Southern. It is a different sense of identity than a white person from the South, but not alien.
Compounding the natural diversity of the South in the current age is the large number of foreigners that have moved to the South in the past few decades. From the perspective of the natives, it is hard to say which is worse, the migrant laborers from over the horizon or the economic migrants from the rest of the country. The former seems to have more respect for the locals than the latter and they generally have the decency not to vote in local elections. Still, both are now a part of the South.
Unlike white identity, Southern identity, as a cultural and political movement, has another problem. There have been prior efforts to forge a politics in the South, all of which have failed for various regions. As a result, Southern identity carries with it a stigma that is hard to shake. Efforts to organize today, inevitably have to deal with the old guys from the past showing up wanting to revitalize their thing, rather than embrace something new and based in present reality. The South still has ghosts.
All that said, the South is going to be on the cutting edge of identity politics, even if it struggles to forge a new identity. Georgia is 55% white, with a large black population spoiling for a chance to hold the whip hand over whites. Florida is 56% white with a swelling population of Caribbeans. Texas is already minority white and the flood of migrants is making it more so. It is in the South that white identity, regional identity and identity politics will be the defining issues in the very near future.
How this breaks out is hard to know. There are people with ideas about it, like the folks at Identity Dixie, with whom I did an interview recently. They are in many ways the New South, in that they are college educated, middle-class guys. As I like to put it, the new Southern man has a pickup truck, but it cost sixty grand, has leather seats and the bed has only ever seen his kid’s toys and his golf clubs. If it has a bumper sticker on it on, it is for parking at his office building or maybe his golf club.
When thinking about Southern identity, a good place to start would be the world of William Faulkner. A century ago, the changing nature of the South was the displacement of the old gentry with the decedents of white plantation workers and dirt farmers. The old aristocracy was giving way to a cruder, more cunning and less culturally ambitious breed of Southerner. The Snopes family was the new South, not invested in any romantic notions of the past, beyond what could profit them.
What seems to be happening today is a reverse of that. The people in the new Southern identity movements are like the guys at Identity Dixie. They are smart and educated, working in the modern economy. They have a connection to that old sense of Southern identity like the Compson family in the Faulkner novels, but they are not haunted by it. It is in the South where a native archeofuturism is forming up, where the past informs the present, as they develop an identity for the future.
It is hard to know where this goes. It is in the South where the homogenization and financialization of America is most obvious. Vast developments of identical houses, with Potemkin “town centers” populated by strangers from all over the earth, is just as much a part of the New South as anything else. If someone had moved away from the Charlotte area thirty years ago and returned for the first time today, they would be in a foreign country. Even NASCAR is different from the recent past.
How a Southern identity grows out of that is hard to know, especially one that is not reactionary. If the new sense of Southern identity is going to avoid the fate of prior efforts, it will have to be positive, rather than negative. When a group identity is based on opposition to some other group, it is not something to carry a people forward. It is their long retreat into the oblivion of history. Whatever comes next for Southern identity will have to avoid that mistake and be forward looking and independent.
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