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Southern Cultures 12.1 (2006) 3-6

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Front Porch

Figure 1
Sarah Wilkerson-Freeman's "Fat Tuesday at Dixie's" reveals striking photographs, never published before, taken by Jack Robinson in the French Quarter in the 1950s. Photograph courtesy of the Jack Robinson Gallery in Memphis, Tennessee.
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Is the South one place or many? Agreement is hard to find on this old chestnut, and you can almost always start an argument about southern unity versus diversity. On the diversity side, Chapel Hill sociologist Rupert Vance pointed out rather ponderously back in 1932 that the South "holds within its bounds many physiographic areas and many human regions," and insisted that "the physical regions are thus correlated with forms of economy, of social organization—in short, of culture." As a result, Vance concluded, "the South is not one region but many," and went on to catalogue them all in his celebrated Human Geography of the South (University of North Carolina Press, 1932).

Journalist W. J. Cash took the opposite tack. Nine years after Vance's magnum [End Page 3] opus, Cash came out with his own classic, The Mind of the South (Knopf, 1941). Cash admitted the South's superficial diversity but insisted on its fundamental unity. "If it can be said there are many Souths," he famously declared (with Vance and his fellow social scientists undoubtedly in mind), "the fact remains that there is also one South." Cash saw "a fairly definite mental pattern, associated with a fairly definite social pattern—a complex of established relationships and habits of thought, sentiments, prejudices, standards and values, and associations of ideas, which, if it is not common strictly to every group of white people in the South, is still common in one appreciable measure or another, to all but relatively negligible areas."

Here at Southern Cultures, we have always leaned to the diversity side of the conversation. That's why we put our title in the plural. But plenty of our friends and readers are ready to take the other side. Alma M. Womack, for example, is a loyal reader from Jonesville, Louisiana, who has written to insist that "the Scots and Scots-Irish were the dominant culture in establishing the South, and as such, it is their culture that was once considered 'Southern.'" Ms. Womack allows that other cultural groups joined the Scots-Irish, but in her view, they didn't really define the South—they just lived here. Mrs. Womack's letter appears in this issue, and we'd like to get more letters on the subject. So let us challenge you, Gentle Readers: What is the South to you? Diverse or unified? If you think the South is diverse, what holds it together? And if it's united, then how come? If your letter is lively enough to print, we'll renew your next twelve month's subscription for free.

A suspicious observer might complain that we have tried to sway the verdict in advance by packing this issue with "diversity" stories. I'd swear it wasn't true, but who would believe me? The truth is, the articles in this issue are a crazy-quilt of local color, each one describing a very different South. We have the Sea Islands of Georgia, a Nashville racetrack, gay Mardi Gras, the childhood of Julian Bond, and a bohemian journalist from New Orleans. If you can find "one South" in all this, hats off to you. But unified or diversified, it's all the South, and it's all worth a look.

Mary Hussmann starts us off with a report of a trip to Sapelo Island, off the coast of Georgia. Sapelo was once in the world of rice plantations, but the old masters have been gone for more than a century. Today's island is one of the last redoubts of the Gullah/Geechee people, descendants of the slaves who grew the rice and created an extraordinary culture in which African elements show more clearly than anywhere else in America. Hussmann came to Sapelo...


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