restricted access Southern Distinctiveness, Yet Again, or, Why America Still Needs the South
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ESSAY Southern Distinctiveness,YetAgain, or, WhyAmerica Still Needs the South by Larry J. Griffin WhichAmerica, exactly, is usedtojudge anddamn the South? Is it theAmericaportrayedin the movie You've Got Mail? Tom Hanks (left) andMeg Ryan (right) in this tale ofmodem romance. Courtesy of WarnerBrothers andthe Museum ofModernArtFilm StillArchives. 47 ? 1976 die Democratic Party nominated a true blue son of the South—Jimmy Carter—to be its presidential candidate. During that campaign, and especially after Carter's election, things southern —from rednecks and born-again Protestantism to potlikker and red-eye gravy—were the journalistic rage. Southerners did things differentially, they—we—spoke differentiy, we ate different kinds offood, we believed and acted differentiy, and, during those early Carter years, the national media seemed entranced by the "southernness" of it all, believing themselves , I suppose, called first to understand the South and then to help the American people—or at least the non-southerners among us—understand it too. I was finishing graduate school in Baltimore at the time, and I remember my Yankee friends asking me an inordinate number of questions about the South, about being southern. Of course, I was neither the first nor the last southerner to have enjoyed that particular pleasure: southerners have been explaining, telling about, the South for generations.1 We saw some of the same curiosity—this attention to southernness—in the 1992 presidential election, but by then the novelty of a southerner sitting in the White House had worn off, and, anyway, Arkansan Bill Clinton gave the country other things to talk about. And if sometimes-southerner Al Gore wins the 2000 election, I doubt very much that the region will again be scrutinized and stared at as it was in the late 1970s. Still, Gore's "real but delicate" Tennessee roots, as the Los Angeles Times puts it, have motivated some media attention already, and I suspect more is to come. "The past is never dead. It's not even past," William Faulkner once said, and I think he's right.2 In the South, to be sure, the past is not past, but even in America, the past is not even past, ifthe topic is the South. The reasons for this are easy enough to understand. All know that until quite recendy—say, the 1970s—the relationship between the South and America was strained, to say the very least, and it had been so for two centuries or more: from the antebellum slavery debates through the Civil War and Reconstruction to the modern Civil Rights movement ofthe 1950s and 1960s, region and nation were at odds. Indeed, the South and America fought—politically, legally, culturally, and even militarily—and that conflicted, sorrowful past is not easily forgotten. As the tide ofa 1998 New York Timesarticle has it, "The South's History Rises, Again and Again." No culture, ofcourse, exists only in the present: all draw on, hark back to, a past significant precisely because ofits continued moral, identity, and emotional utility. In this the South is no different, but what is unusual is how explicidy, how routinely, and how pervasively the region's history, that very particular southern past, is evoked in the present: the South ofthen is recreated and oddly memorialized , concretized in a sense, in the South oí now.'' Images abound ofthe South's past continuing to rise again and again, and some of those most sharply etched—in particular, those that portray in one way or an48 southern cultures, Fall2000 : LarryJ. Griffin Bubbafatigue?Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, and Vice PresidentAl Gore. Photographs courtesy ofAnn Borden (Emory University Photography), The White House, and the Gore 2000 Campaign respectively. Southern Distinctiveness 49 other the conflict between nation and region, or the South's outcast nature—are found in today's newspaper. A special section of the very first issue of the New York Ttmes to appear in the new century, tided "Reflections on the Century Past and the Decades Ahead," included interviews with individuals for whom the twentieth century's "signal moments" remain "vivid memories" and with those who, according to the Times, "inherit this history." Not surprisingly, the people interviewed were from places with histories heavy with drama and...


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