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  • Front Porch
  • Harry Watson

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John Oliver Hodges’s stark white buildings against severe gray backgrounds speak eloquently of pain, joy, toil, and hopes for redemption, the concerns that inspire so many southern efforts to experiment with traditions. Photo courtesy of the artist.

Culture is a creative process, but that’s not always how we think about it. We tend to see culture as given and fixed, traditional and ancestral. “That’s what Momma told me,” we say, as if Momma could never be updated. “That’s not our culture,” we continue, as if cultures never change and the people in them never disagree. “It’s always been like that,” we insist, and so on and so on.

But culture changes all the time. We face new problems. Old landmarks disappear. [End Page 1] The elders pass on, and suddenly it’s our turn to be the wise ones. If Momma never faced what we face, what would she say? To answer, we have to be creative. We think about what Momma did say and stretch it to fit new facts. We look for a principle that underlies the elders’ teachings and try to match it with new circumstances. Sometimes it works, and we find a satisfying solution to a new set of problems. Sometimes it doesn’t work at all, and we have to find new principles, new habits, new reflexes to deal with matters that Momma never faced. If they keep on working, those new habits become part of an ever-changing culture.

And that’s okay. Being scared by new choices makes us human. Choosing something anyway makes us more so. And along the way, we have to keep pulling on our creativity to find new responses that feel right according to our culture—what we believe—and also to our circumstances—what we face. And southern cultures are no exception.

W. J. Cash was a perceptive observer and critic of southern culture—he thought there was only one, and that it never changed. There was an underlying set of principles—Cash might have said reflexes—that underpinned everything southern, no matter how surface appearances might shift. He was thinking about honor and pride and courage and independence, along with white male equality and black and female subordination, and the need to defend those things with violence. Today, some of us are more likely to invoke words like racism and patriarchy to describe those qualities, but you can probably see the connection. Cash’s later critics aptly observed that violent white racists were not the only southerners, but anybody who knows the South would have to admit that men like that have had a powerful impact on everyone else. If they don’t define southern cultures entirely, they make a good place to start looking for them.

The great southerner C. Vann Woodward disagreed. He thought the South was always changing, and saw huge ruptures and discontinuities in its cultures. Reconstruction was not like slavery. The Redeemers destroyed Reconstruction. Populists tried hard to displace the Redeemers, and New South businessmen actually did so. Segregation had not always existed, so maybe it could disappear. And so on. Woodward’s vision seemed obviously friendlier to the South’s dogged cadre of reformers. If Dixie had changed so many times already, why couldn’t it change again? It was thus no accident that Martin Luther King Jr. called Woodward’s Strange Career of Jim Crow “the Bible of the Civil Rights Movement.”

Graduate students used to have lots of fun debating who was right, Cash or Woodward, but of course they both were. All the South’s cultural strands have [End Page 2]


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Many of us “know” that the blues were born from black pain and suffering in the Mississippi Delta, but spread across the world when bandleader W. C. Handy overheard a nameless guitarist in a Mississippi train station; tamed the music, so to speak; and spread blues hits everywhere, including his masterpiece, the iconic “St. Louis Blues.” But Gussow tells a different story. Illustration by Lamar Sorrento.

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continuity with whatever came before...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1534-1488
Print ISSN
1068-8218
Pages
pp. 1-5
Launched on MUSE
2019-01-07
Open Access
No
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