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Southern Cultures 11.1 (2005) 6-25

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Southerners All?

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For much of its history, the South has been seen as "a white man's country," and to be southern meant being white. Sheet music cover (1915), courtesy of the Southern Folklife Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
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For most of its history, the South, in the unforgettable words of southern-born Yale historian U. B. Phillips, was "a white man's country," and so "southerners"—the possessors, creators, and rightful heirs of the region—naturally were thought to be white. Others, very large numbers of others of all colors and many faiths, of course, resided in Dixie and contributed to transforming what might otherwise have been simply the lower right quadrant of the United States into "the South": African Americans since the early 1600s, Native Americans before that, Chinese and Hispanics by the nineteenth century. They, though, were in the region; they were not of it. To be of it—to be "southern" in a "white man's" South—one had to be white. Or so it was understood by whites in and out of the region, and so it was thought by scholars and commentators who mapped the South's past, judged its character, and prophesied its future. Historians and social scientists, journalists and the average person on the street "knew" this, knew it intuitively, and we know they knew it because of the ease with which they often spoke and wrote of the region's denizens: "southerners," on the one hand, and "blacks" (or, in the parlance of the day, "Negroes"), on the other, the latter apparently a different group altogether. Simply put, in the minds of many Americans, including some of its most influential gatekeepers in and out of the region, the idea or image of "a southerner" had a color and that color was white.1

This form of linguistic appropriation and exclusion, though sometimes used "merely" as a convention, was never only a convention. George Orwell shrewdly argued sixty years ago that language, at its core, is about politics because it embodies and conveys power—the power to shape understandings of what was, of what is, and of what can and should be. Southern whites, as historian George Tindall noted years ago, probably knew at some level of awareness that if they linguistically acknowledged southern blacks as southerners, they, whites, would have lost the battle for what, in keeping with the pervasive semantic corruption of the day, was euphemistically called "the southern way of life."2 This, and more, has come to pass.

The sweeping social transformation since the Civil Rights revolution of the 1960s has destabilized southern identity and possibly eroded its pervasiveness and salience. Its meanings are now fluid and ambiguous, and its bearers are now likely to be quite diverse. As is widely known, for several generations the South has undergone deep, pervasive changes in its racial laws and practices, economic institutions and conditions, political processes—especially the empowerment of African Americans and the white exodus to the Republican party—and demography, particularly religious and ethnic diversification and the massive return migration of exiled black southerners. The region continues to differ from the nation in patterned ways, such as its greater incidence of poverty, evangelical Protestantism, and political conservatism, and it still at times serves as the repository [End Page 7] of racial shame for a nation unwilling to confront its own racism. Yet the South has nevertheless been substantially incorporated into and has also remade the American mainstream in the last forty to fifty years. Structural and demographic change has rendered traditional stereotypes and collective definitions of the region and its inhabitants shopworn if not entirely defunct. Current expressions of "southernness" are often in direct conflict: consider, for example, the continued display of the Confederate battle flag side-by-side with the memorialization of the Civil Rights movement and its icons. What it means to be a southerner and how...


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