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Reflections on the South frequently turn on questions of identity. Is the South really different? Different from what? How so and why? What is "southernness"? Is it disappearing or just changing? What is all this mysticism about "place"?
In the early days of Southern Cultures, we were firmly rebuked by an anthropologist named Robert, who told us we had no logical definition of "southern" or "culture," that our entire project was circular and (even worse) essentialist, that we couldn't point to anything solid that consistently set the South apart from other places or southerners from other people, that "southern identity" was all mythology, we were nailing grits to the wall, and so on and so on.
All quite true from a certain perspective, I agreed. But wasn't it obvious that many inhabitants of a definable quadrant of the United States claimed to have something in common? If they called it southernness, why couldn't we? Why wasn't it okay to acknowledge their claims and put together a journal to examine them?
"Because you're taking the perspective of the natives," he countered decisively, clearly confident that the perspective of anthropology natives would trump what the natives of anywhere else might say.
"But, Robert," I replied, "We are the natives." He looked at me, stunned, and had to give up. Natives are natives, after all, and after a certain point you can't argue with them. So that was the end of that conversation—and we've been tacking up grits for almost twenty years now.
The articles in this issue are no exception. The authors all share the perspective that there is something different about the South. They don't agree on what it is exactly, but they're sure it's there, and they want to talk about it. Taken together, they demonstrate how many approaches you can take to the protean subject of southern identity or identities, and still have something new to say.
A good place to begin this time is at the end, where Ashley Thompson and Melissa Sloan take on the especially fraught and complex question of race and regional identity. Are real "southerners" white? When I ask my students this question, they emphatically say "no," but we all know there's a tendency to talk and think as if they were. In fact, Thompson and Sloan have interviewed numerous black Americans who insist that they are as southern as anyone else. But the authors also find that black and white southerners relate very differently to their region. We all like the weather, the people, and the food, but black southerners explicitly identify with the region through their race and see the struggles and triumphs of black southerners as key to their claim on membership in the region. "We belong to this place because we built it with our sweat and redeemed it with our blood," they seem to say. "Nobody can take it away from us." But white folks are more skittish. Today they don't claim pride in whiteness per se, as earlier generations did, but they seem to do so indirectly by treating race as invisible and claiming pride in a South where race goes unmentioned, but whose whiteness [End Page 2] speaks for itself. Sound confusing? Nothing about identity is simple, as our critic the anthropologist well knew.
Wade Clark Roof gives us a more personal take on identity as he explores the vicissitudes of his name as it changed three times in the course of his life. Each one told a different version of his personal history by what it said, what it omitted, and what it got plain wrong. Thompson and Sloan argue that leaving race unmentioned allows white southerners some guilt-free pride, but Roof shows how naming the previously unspeakable...