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[End Page 1]
The famed southern observer W. J. Cash began The Mind of the South, his classic commentary on southern white uniformity, by admitting that there are also “many Souths.” I began to learn what he meant in the summer of my eighteenth birthday when I broke out of the scrubbed affluence of my Piedmont suburb and took a summer job selling dictionaries door-to-door in rural south Alabama. This venture introduced me to the Deep South and serious poverty, and many of my customers should probably have held on to their money. The job was also tough and involved riding all over three counties on a bicycle. I was determined to finish what I started, however, so I tried not to think about the moral or physical discomforts and pressed on. I soon faced a special challenge. Freedom Summer had come and gone, but in this corner of the South, itinerant strangers still faced the legacy of outside agitators.
One hot afternoon in the middle of July, when I had mastered the basic sales pitch and was daring to hope I could make enough to pay my share of college, I approached a tumble-down house in the pine woods. A white woman was home with her school-age son, and after some time on their threadbare couch, I realized that they were among those rare customers who already longed for a book in the house, even a dictionary.
But Mrs. Jones knew her situation better than I. Instead of whipping out the checkbook she certainly didn’t have, she asked me to come back later and speak to her husband. My heart sank because I knew how those conversations usually turned out, but I was so desperate for sales that I agreed to try.
I knocked again when six o’clock rolled around, and this time Mr. Jones appeared. He was heavyset and whiskery in a stained white t-shirt, and his eyes narrowed suspiciously as he glared at me through the rusty screen. Chances were he couldn’t or wouldn’t buy the book, but he wasn’t about to say so. Instead he demanded, “Whatchoo want, shugah boy-ee?”
Nobody said “sugar boy” where I came from, but I didn’t confuse it with a term of endearment. Still longing for a sale, I stammered out my errand and managed to add how nice it would be to have a dictionary around to help Johnny with his homework. By now Johnny and his mother were peeping anxiously from behind her husband’s bulk.
Indifferent to my predicament, Mr. Jones got straight to the point.
“Where’re you from, son?”
“North Carolina,” piped I, startled but thinking I had a good answer.
No such luck. “Is that in the North or the South?” Mr. Jones shot back, his mean squint tighter than ever. He slammed the door while I was still swearing loyalty to Dixie, unwilling to bandy more words with such an out-and-out liar.
Wilbur Cash also said that the difference between Charleston and Birmingham could only be measured astronomically. The articles in this issue of Southern Cultures are not as dispersed as galaxies, or as different as me and Mr. Jones that afternoon, [End Page 2] but they do break with our recent habit of themed issues to spread widely over many Souths. We have essays about Irish and blacks, Jewish summer camps, a liberal college professor, southern men’s whisky, and blood that falls from the sky. We have photos about home, a poem on bourbon, and thoughts about snow. They’re all “southern,” but as they say, we’re celebrating diversity.
Focusing on ethnic diversity, Bryan Giemza offers a discussion of black and Irish characters in southern literature. His point of departure is a book that the historian Noel Ignatiev wrote a few years ago with the provocative...