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Southern Cultures 7.1 (2001) 76-93

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Surveying the South:
A Conversation with John Shelton Reed

Elizabeth Fox-Genovese and Eugene D. Genovese



Editor's note: On a Saturday afternoon in August 2000, John Reed sat down for a conversation with Betsey and Gene Genovese, noted historians of the South, at their home in Atlanta. The tape recorder was turned on--

JOHN SHELTON REED: Aren't you supposed to read me my rights?

ELIZABETH FOX-GENOVESE: I'd like to start with what you mean by the South. You've written a lot about the South. You do all this mesmerizing stuff with how many more people eat Moon Pies down here than in other parts of the country, or go to church, or what have you. But what's beyond that, beyond what those numbers add up to?

JSR: As I've often said, I'm less interested in the South than I am in southerners. I'm less interested in the region than I am in the group. And social psychologist that I am, I see the group as defined by identification with it. Basically, the question arises: Who are these people who describe themselves as southerners? And what does that mean? How has it changed? How is it changing? I don't see southern identification as some sort of Platonic ideal to which people are in some sort of approximation. I see it as defined on the ground by the folks who choose to affiliate. And this means that the group is open to attrition and infiltration. It doesn't mean the boundary doesn't exist, it just means people cross it. What that boundary contains can change and has changed. What it contains is an empirical question.

EFG: Then why do you think, as I do myself, that history seems to be so important to people's sense of what it means to be a southerner? History, place, continuity in place, family, all of those things.

JSR: I agree with you that history has been and still is important, and that one way many groups define themselves is by a shared history transmitted through ancestry. It's not the only way groups define themselves. Social classes are defined by what they have in common in the present, although they have histories, too. But it's a shared predicament in the present that gives rise to class consciousness. [End Page 76]

EUGENE D. GENOVESE: Let me press a bit further on the question of identification as southerners. That identification surely has an objective basis historically. You suggest it has been a changing basis, but then it seems to me necessary to trace the main lines of that basis. What over time has made the South a distinct region, understanding that it has not been static? It seems to me implicit in your work that there is something that could legitimately be called a tradition, which again would distinguish the South and southerners from other Americans.

JSR: Well, the South emerged, historians tell me, as a self-conscious region in the sectional conflicts of the early nineteenth century. These were over slavery. And I don't have much patience with folks who say the Civil War was not about slavery. It certainly wouldn't have happened without it. It's true most white southerners weren't slaveholders, but a good many of them would have liked to be. Folks up where I come from used to sing, "All I want in this creation's a pretty little girl and a big plantation." Just as plainly, southern identification is not about slavery any more. For a long time it was about Jim Crow. That's what Ulrich Phillips said in the 1920s: The "cardinal test of a southerner" was the commitment that the South be and remain a white man's country. That was a glaring and obvious distinction. The minute you crossed into the South you were under a different system of laws. Ninety-eight percent of white southerners...


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