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  • Harry L. Watson

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As corporations around the globe today compete to capture China's vast market, Nan Enstad reminds us that southern tobacco targeted that country's consumers and tapped its workforce as early as 1905, in "To Know Tobacco: Southern Identity in China in the Jim Crow Era." Shanghai, a century after the city served as the initial assignment for new southerners who came to work in China for British American Tobacco, courtesy of FC Georgio, Wikimedia Commons, under the GNU Free Documentation License.

The American South has depended on foreign contacts for centuries, ever since Jamestown started down Tobacco Road. From the earliest colonial days, foreign exports propped up the southern economy, as rice, indigo, deerskins, and finally cotton followed tobacco hogsheads into the holds of trans-Atlantic vessels. The Peculiar Institution itself was a product of the global economy, for what else provided the demand for all those exports, or supplied the labor to grow them? The Confederacy learned a hard lesson in the importance of global connections when federal blockaders proved that cotton could not be king without customers. The [End Page 1] lesson sank in again after Reconstruction, when sagging world demand for cotton caused more southern poverty than carpetbaggers ever had. Exports were so important that free trade and low tariffs found a permanent place on the South's agenda in Washington—at least until southern factories started losing their trade wars with China.

Despite the centrality of its international connections, the South has also had a traditional reputation for isolation, and it's not hard to see why. The colonial South was a polyglot place, with inhabitants from all over western Europe, western Africa, and the American Indian nations, but things began to change about 1800. As the plantation system strengthened its grip and spread inland, economic opportunities for free immigrants began to dry up. After 1808 the close of the Atlantic slave trade cut off contact in that direction. By 1850 the South trailed the United States in its proportion of foreign-born residents, and it would keep that status until the 1980s. For most of the twentieth century, immigration stayed so low—and racial discrimination stayed so strong—that the boast of "pure Anglo-Saxon labor" became a proud talking point for industry-hunting boosters throughout the region.

Isolation bred homogeneity. For all their differences, black and white southerners developed a remarkable similarity in speech, food, and religion. Pockets of distinctiveness in the mountains, the Sea Islands, and the Cajun bayous did not disturb the South's powerful reputation for cultural unity. "If it can be said that there are many Souths, the fact remains that there is also one South," W. J. Cash famously declared in his 1940 classic, The Mind of the South, and generations of readers nodded in agreement.

Back in the day, even out-of-state people were exotic in most parts of the South. In 1950 Mississippi led the nation in its proportion of residents from that state (88.5 percent), and eight of the top ten states in that category were southern. For most of the twentieth century, thousands of people moved away from the South every year, while very few moved to the South or even from state to state inside it. Most southerners were descended from people who had "always" lived there. Of all parts of the United States, the South had the most immobile population and the weakest links to a world beyond its boundaries.

Today that state of affairs is suddenly as gone with the wind as the world of Scarlett and Ashley. The proportion of foreign-born southerners is now five times higher than it was at the end of World War II. In the 1970s and 1980s, a flood of European and Japanese investment brought scores of foreign companies to the Sun Belt; the collapse of global trade barriers shook the southern economy in the 1990s and afterwards, and a burst of immigration has brought us millions of newcomers from other parts of the United States and around the world. While the South has never been disconnected from...


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