Southern Cultures 12.3 (2006) 6-28
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The American South and the Self
Larry J. Griffin
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Each region of the United States has a particular identity hewn from history and culture. Yet none is as distinctive as the American South and none has been imbued with such historical weight in the nation's making or afforded such metaphorical significance in its collective memory and mythological self-understandings. Southern icon Robert E. Lee, frontispiece photograph from Henry Alexander White's Robert E. Lee and the Southern Confederacy, 1807–1870, published by G. P. Putnam's Sons in 1897.
Each region of the United States has a particular identity hewn from history and culture. Yet none is as distinctive as the American South, and none has been imbued with such historical weight in the nation's making or afforded such metaphorical significance in its collective memory and mythological self-understandings. For centuries New England was understood as the genesis and crystallization of "American civilization" and the endlessly unfolding, ever renewing West as the embodiment of America's promise. The South, however, was America's opposite, its negative image, its evil twin—"an alien member of the national family," in literary critic Fred Hobson's apt phrase. "The South"—more accurately, the white South—thus was in word and deed "exceptional" among places in America: exceptional in its fierce commitment to slavery, in its failed experiment with secession and nationhood, in its military defeat and occupation by a conquering power, in its poverty, cultural backwardness, and religiosity, and in its pervasive, prolonged resistance to racial justice.
This exceptionalism, as much in identity as in practice, historically has been so profound as to provoke repeated changes in the nation's laws governing citizenship rights. As Sanford Levinson, a professor of constitutional law at the University of Texas, argues, "The issues presented by the South, as a distinctive region [of the United States], have, since the founding of our nation, presented the most exquisite difficulties in terms of establishing a truly coherent national identity." In establishing this unified national identity, the region has served as, in historian Carl Degler's terms, America's indispensable "antithesis," the country's "other," a cathartic, dialectical counterpoint always shadowing America's self-idealizations; consequently, the South has been the motive and the "stage" for redemptive collective action in what southern writer J. Bill Berry cites as "the nation's major moral drama."1
Definitions of a region and its culture as "exceptional"—that is, as significantly distinct from, seemingly at times even antithetical to, other regions and cultures—inevitably also identify in particular ways its folk. Just as the history of the South is contradictory and contested, so, too, is the identity of southerners. Two very different but interdependent processes are crucial here: one of collective definition of the region and the other of the social psychology of regional identification. On the question of collective definition, what it means to be a southerner is a complex and historically shifting consequence of imposition of laws, images, stereotypes, and the like by powerful forces in the public arena (such as military victors, political majorities, the federal government, and the media), negotiation of meaning among southerners and between southerners and others, and cultural appropriation, whereby a debased label associated with "southernness," such as "redneck" or "hillbilly," is transmuted from a mark of stigma to one of pride by those who are so labeled. On the question of the social psychology of regionalism, [End Page 7] why individuals identify themselves as "southerners"—whatever the collective meaning of the identity—on the other hand, is a function of choices they make—choices, however, constrained by biography, perception of the region and its inhabitants, and social interactions, with some southerners arguably having greater latitude in their self-definitions than others.2
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| Figure 2 |
"The South"—the white South—was in word and deed "exceptional" among places in America: exceptional in its fierce commitment to slavery, in its failed experiment with secession and nationhood, in its...