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Southern Cultures 11.3 (2005) 1-2

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Who Is a Southerner?

It's Your Turn to Tell Us

Much discussion and writing about the American South are explicitly or implicitly rooted in two broad, highly interdependent issues: southern distinctiveness and southern identity. In our Spring 2005 issue, we published two essays on these topics, "Southerners All?" (by Larry Griffin, Ranae Evenson, and Ashley Thompson) and "Playing Rebels" (by James Farmer). One of our readers, Mrs. Pauline Willis of Sulphur, Louisiana, wrote to take issue with some of the authors' claims and to offer her understanding of these questions. We're printing Mrs. Willis's letter below both because she convincingly expresses the complexity of modern southern life and identity and because she starkly poses one of the most important cultural and moral questions southern studies must confront, namely, "who is a southerner?"

We welcome the thoughts of our readers about this question and a host of related issues. How does someone become a southerner in today's multicultural South, for example, and who, if anyone, has the right to say who is a southerner? What does it mean to be a southerner, and what do those of us who claim the identity do with our southernness? Is there any continuing significance to being a southerner in a region now decidedly "mainstreamed" into American society; that is, in a South no longer very distinctive?

So, readers, let us know what you think. We'll print or post on our website those responses that advance the discussion, make us think about a very old question in new ways, or lead us to ponder novel perspectives and evidence on these matters. Thank you, Mrs. Willis, for starting this conversation: we're counting on others to sustain and enrich it.

Who is a southerner? Depends on what you mean by southerner.

I live forty miles from the Gulf of Mexico and twenty miles from the Texas line in Southwest Louisiana.

According to your article, southerners are Anglo-Celtic protestants.

My family has been in Louisiana for at least eight generations, having arrived as French soldiers. Although I'm fifty-eight years old, French was still spoken in the small town I grew up in. I myself often referred to other people as Americans. The American culture has always shown the WASP, especially New England people, as all-American. Also people of the Midwest; Ohio comes to mind.

You seem to be saying that the Beverly Hillbillies and Dukes of Hazzard types are the real southerners.

I enjoy corn bread and mustard greens as well as shrimp gumbo.

The idea that blacks can't be southern is absurd. So much of southern culture is African in its root. Just hospitality for one. Soul food is southern food.

You seem to say in "Playing Rebels: Reenactment as Nostalgia and Defense of the Confederacy in the Battle of Aiken" that only people with no other self-identification except an ancestor in the Civil War are real southerners.

Why don't these people see the beauty of the South now? Its music and literature and other fine arts. Its great sports figures. The fact that races are getting along. People up north always seem to give people of color civil rights but not friendship. There have always been cross-race friendships in the [End Page 1] South, even long before the Civil Rights Movement. Southern culture will not disappear; it will evolve to something better.

Best wishes,
Pauline M. Willis
Sulphur, Louisiana

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Figure 1
The Spring 2005 issue prompted reader Pauline Willis to pose one of the most important questions southern studies must confront: who is a southerner?

Ed. note: Email or send your correspondence to: Letters to the Editors, Southern Cultures, CB#9127, UNC-CH, Chapel Hill, NC 27599-9127. We'll assume letters received at this address or by email are intended for publication, subject to editing. If we use your letter, we'll send you a free extra copy of the issue in which it appears...


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