Southern Pluralism

Posted on February 21, 2011 by


Over the years as Robert and I have exchanged emails, instant messages, tweets, and other conversations, we’ve often come across examples where the Shenandoah (his “south”) differs from the Mississippi Delta (my “south”).  Mostly these are quaint little differences, but still things an outsider would easily pick out as indicators of distinctly separate sub-cultures.  Nothing new to most readers, I would venture to guess.  Historian Michael O’Brien considered this saying, “no man’s South is the same as another’s.”

If you’ve read Robert’s blog frequently over the last three years, you’ve enjoyed posts about the local color of the Shenandoah Valley.  (What stands out most to me are the pies and cookies!)  Yet, I compare that to my own experience growing up in the upper Mississippi River Delta – the area where the states of Missouri, Arkansas, Tennessee, and Mississippi run together.  I could easily list points about topology, cuisine, agricultural patterns and practice, politics, literature, and music. Even our accents are different.

Odds are, Robert and I could sit and delineate more differences than similarities.  Heck, we probably couldn’t even get past the debate of apple pie vs. pecan pie as a desert while contemplating the subject!

Some will bring up W.J. Cash’s The Mind of the South and how there is supposed to be, in spite of the “diversity within its borders,” some area “not-quite a nation within a nation, but the next thing to it.”  But I feel that de-emphasizes the diversity, if not outright contradictions, noted above.  And further we should consider examples of so-called “southernisms” that are not only well-practiced, but “native” in northern states.

Others will point to the Confederate experience as that defining the south.  I think Robert deconstructed that well when he wrote last month that –

Southern does not alone equal “Confederate”, but is inclusive of… the story of the Confederate soldier… the Confederate-supporting civilian… the slave… the free black… the Southern Unionist… the Southerner in Union blue… and the leave-aloners… of varied races… of varied religious views… of various political views… diverse in views pertaining to what it meant to be a citizen of the United States both before and after secession was realized, and etc., etc., etc.

And still others will point out issues of race, or racism, defines the south.  While that is certainly a sensitive subject to some, such implies a measure of “the south” by a “Jim Crow” or “Rosa Parks” test.  However we are likely to find back-of-the-bus-like situations in some rather surprising places and times outside the geographic and chronological south.  At the same time considering those cases one must also address  elements of political and economic activity in the south that transcended race, appearing more aligned to economic class  (Southern Farmers Tenant Union anyone?).  I’d submit, one cannot understand the whole of race relations in the south just by watching In the Heat of the Night and Mississippi Burning.  Instead we find there are local experiences and local stories.  Not all of which conform neatly to the broader themes of American history, but do help form the composite.   Further to the point, if racism defines the south, is the whole of America, if not the world, in some part then “southern”?

So can we just throw a blanket over the whole “southern experience” and call it a collective culture distinct from the rest of America?

Perhaps in certain selected contexts that is possible.  A few points come to mind.  We might cite the south in national politics prior to say 1976, mentioning the “Solid South,” implying southerners voted strictly along party lines as a “southern thing.”  But even that example requires conditions and limits, and includes exceptions.

Yet we often see lines like “… it is a part of southern heritage” thrown out with the “all” assumed because of the lack of qualifying statements.  At which time, we readers should pause and consider if the component espoused by that author is indeed some obligatory part of “being southern.”  Or if the component thus promoted is in reality part of that particular author’s perception of what it means to be southern.

I contend that to be southern is to be part of a pluralistic sub-set of a larger American culture, which is itself a vastly pluralistic experience compared with other contemporary cultures.  As such, perhaps everyone is from the “south” but there is no “one” south.

Seeing things that way certainly makes it easier for Robert and I to enjoy that piece of pie.