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Southern Cultures 7.4 (2001) 1-4

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Front Porch


Legend has it that southerners are not an abstract or contemplative people, but a certain amount of navel gazing seems to go with the territory of studying our region. People are always asking what the South really is, what it means, where it is, whether it's disappearing, does it have a future, will it rise again, and back around to the meaning of it all in a sort of endless mantra. In our Fall 2000 issue, Vanderbilt sociologist Larry Griffin asked a few piercing questions about this familiar chant that cut through a few of its simpler verses. "When we talk about 'the South,'" Griffin queried, "which South, exactly, are we talking about?" He went on to list a number of different candidates for scrutiny: the prosperous South, the poverty-stricken South, the South of violent white racism, the South of the Civil Rights movement, the suburban South of Southern Living magazine, among many other alternatives. The question matters because "the South" is frequently compared [End Page 1] to an equally abstract "America," often to make the point that "America" is really free from whatever problem is being discussed, "but not the South." "The South" then becomes a kind of foil or mirror image that makes "America" look better than it really is--less poor, less racist, less ignorant, less unequal, less unjust, and so on. In Griffin's view, emphasizing the distinctive or exceptional character of the South can simply be a way of distracting attention from the problems of America at large.

Griffin's essay did just what it should do: it provoked a lively response that shows up in our current issue and gave several of us some new perspectives on that same old navel. The direct response came from Sheldon Hackney, history professor at the University of Pennsylvania and former chair of the National Endowment for the Humanities. The new perspectives take a variety of forms, but all of them circle around the age-old issues of southern meaning and identity, which are just as slippery and fascinating as ever.

Hackney points out that the South is neither radically different from the rest of the United States nor exactly like it, but "southern" and "American" at the same time. He goes on to insist that southern distinctiveness is not just an arbitrary construction dreamed up for polemical purposes, but a set of real differences that still show up in social statistics and that grow historically from the South's truly distinctive experience as a biracial society. Though the rest of America had and continues to have its share of racial tension, Hackney insists on the longstanding special intensity of that issue in southern life and culture, giving the region its contradictory sense of being both "in" and "other than" America as a whole. If Griffin warns that southern "difference" is sometimes a rhetorical stage trick, Hackney points to its enduring, though inconsistent, reality.

When we speak of ambiguity and contradictions, some folks are bound to remember the Melancholy Dane and his bundle of uncertainties. Robin O. Warren has uncovered a few of these that cropped up in a famous incident from American theatrical history when a group of combative Seminoles captured the props and costumes of a troupe of Shakespearean actors outside St. Augustine, Florida, in 1840, during the Seminoles' protracted struggle to resist removal to Oklahoma. White Americans could not imagine anything more ludicrous than the association of "savage" Indians with the paraphernalia of the Noble Bard. But Seminole chief Coacoochee didn't see it that way and donned Hamlet's costume as if he was born to the role. The Dane's plumed hat and customary suits of solemn black became a regular part of Coacoochee's wardrobe as he continued his war against the Fortinbrases of the United States Army who sought to seize his kingdom. The result was a fascinating riff on cultural ambiguity that makes Sheldon Hackney's "contradictory South" look simple.

The Seminoles eventually surrendered and most of them moved to Oklahoma after all. The most famous and most...


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