Nobody seems to know exactly what to make of the South anymore. In contemporary terms it exists mainly in the lower case: Ted Turner and the Atlanta Braves, strip malls and John Rocker, or if you’re hip then maybe Savannah and Jazz Fest. I don’t think many Americans even think of Bill Clinton as a “southerner,” certainly not in the way we imagined LBJ as southern. When we do think of it, it is often frozen in time: Martin Luther King Jr. marching on Selma or Sheriff Bull Connor’s men spraying fire hoses on civil rights marchers. Those are the images rehashed on PBS, anyway. Strangely, we seem to treasure those black-and-white memories, and when we drag them out, we do it with a sort of pride. It’s as if they remind and reassure us that we are a people who will stare down hatred and injustice. They serve as symbols of what we’d like to think we’re not.
Yet these images are useful in this respect only to the extent that we believe that “the South” is somehow a place that exists culturally, socially, and physically apart from the rest of the country. This strikes me as a provincial and largely artificial conceit. The South, with its fine-tuned sense of civility, self-determination, and morality has always powerfully mirrored our national character. And it remains a startling, beautiful, complex, and in many ways revealing reflection of America and what we’ve become.
That was how I felt, anyway, after I finished reporting from Alabama for a book I recently completed on AIDS in black America. Yet a year and a half later, the South remains a difficult place for me to get my mind around, and I don’t think I’m alone in that experience. With the South promising to loom large in the coming election, I’ve been talking to journalists and southern observers throughout the country about how the region is covered, conversations that have drifted from politics to religion to reflections on racism. I heard much about the difficulty that journalists, even those who are southern, share in their efforts to capture the region. Some of this was triggered by the press coverage of Howard Dean’s assertion that the Democratic Party needs to win the vote of the guys who paste Confederate battle-flag decals on their trucks.
On this subject, the bulk of the stories and analyses that I saw ranged from the rote — Who did he offend more, blacks or poor southern whites? — to the pragmatic — How do the Democrats win back poor southern whites without alienating their black constituency? More interesting to me was what wasn’t said. Too few of the pieces that I read — even those by reporters who had rooted out a few guys who’d actually glued the southern cross onto their pickups — penetrated the surface of Dean’s comment and explored what it was about the words he chose that made southerners, blacks, white northern liberals, middle-class Iowans, and California Democrats alike sit up a little straighter in their seats, run their fingers nervously through their hair, and wonder aloud if this Dean fellow was a viable candidate for president. In a sense, the answer was self-evident. He had unnecessarily offended blacks by arguably endorsing a symbol redolent of slavery, and at the same time managed to stereotype southern whites, who, in the narrative of the New South, are S.U.V.-driving, suburbanized entrepreneurs. I suspect, though, that there is a richer story to be done, one that has to do with the searingly personal and socially mine-filled terrain that must be traversed in any serious discussion of race in America. By invoking the Confederate flag and the cast of numberless, faceless, rural white men who brandish it, Dean filtered the subject of race through a southern lens. In so doing, he gave the press an opportunity to dig beneath the surface of the symbol and substantively report on the reasons for our national discomfort with the imagery he chose.
The day after he was all but accused of pandering to racists by his Democratic opponents on CNN’s “Rock the Vote” debate, a sleep-deprived Dean apologized for the pain he had unintentionally caused. As I watched and read various pundits and journalists dissect the apology, it struck me that the press was subtly repeating what a number of people I spoke with see as a practiced dance that confines the national story of race and racism to a narrow slice of southern culture. This two-step hints at a problem about how we examine not just the region, but also the country at large.
The question of how the media cover the South is particularly relevant now. With the country evenly split politically, the South has gained outsized political significance and influence because, as Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia Center for Politics, says, “the South is the country’s most distinctive political region, probably always has been. The states stick together.” Politicians, savvy to the political power of the South, have taken pains to court the region. In 2000 Bush won all the southern states, in part because he was particularly effective in casting himself as a southerner. “He is the quintessential white southern conservative male,” says Sabato. “He does everything that the white southern conservative male does. He cuts brush, he drops his Gs, he wears the cowboy hat. Everything about him says white southern conservative male. It is his state of being.”
The Democrats, of course, have had trouble in the South since the Civil Rights Act. Ronald Reagan, Bush Sr., and George W. Bush all swept the former Confederacy. The Democrats recognized this problem from the get-go. Dean actually floated the Confederate flag comment earlier, in a speech to the Democratic National Committee back in February 2003, as part of the larger argument that the party needs to find a way to convince poor white southerners to vote what Dean considers their interests.
ntil Dean’s rivals blasted him after he repeated the remark shortly before “Rock the Vote,” and then refused to apologize on the broadcast when asked about it by a young, black audience member. Over the following weeks, a raft of stories were written that made predictable mention of issues — guns, God, abortion, and race — that are supposed to defeat virtually any Democratic nominee in the region.
This kind of broad characterization is a common criticism of stories about the South and is certain to crop up in this election year. Shortly after the Dean hullabaloo, I called Brandy Ayers, reigning patriarch of The Anniston Star, in Alabama, and asked him if he could talk to me about how the South is portrayed in the press. Well, he said, and I paraphrase, I just rolled up in mah pickup truck, upon which I have fastened a confederate flag to the back window, and am now preparing to spend mah afternoon chasin’ women, but I might be able to spare a few moments to discuss with you what the Yankee press doesn’t get about the South.
As if to prove the point that the national press paints the South with a broad brush, Chris Matthews hosted a special edition of Hardball on MSNBC a week and a half later titled “The Battle for the Bible Belt: How will candidates appeal to the South?” The broadcast began with a clip of Howard Dean arguing that we needed to stop framing elections around abortion, guns, God, and gays. Ralph Reed, the former head of the Christian Coalition and now a Bush campaign strategist, was the first to react to Dean’s comment with a point that the top three issues for southern voters in Georgia in 2002 were the economy, winning the war on terrorism, and health care. Matthews, however, prodded him with questions that reintroduced southern stereotypes. What does Dean mean when he says that God is a political issue? How about abortion rights, is Dean talking about partial-birth abortion? What about gays, and civil unions? Reed was more interested in talking about the population boom across the South, and the economic renaissance that the region has experienced. Matthews gave Reed room to explore this transformation, but he seemed determined to return to the values that set the South apart from the rest of the country. Wasn’t that renaissance under way when Gore lost every southern state? Gore, Reed argued, was against tax cuts and out of the mainstream on the environment. Matthews wanted to know if that hurt him with the coal miners.
Reed was followed by Steve Jarding and Dave “Mudcat” Saunders, Democratic strategists who had helped elect a Democratic governor, Mark Warner, in Virginia. Like Reed, Jarding and Saunders focused on the fact that southerners were as concerned with substantive policy issues as with divisive cultural debates. Matthews, though, kept pressing the cultural issues. Can a non-churchy candidate really play in the South? Matthews’s penultimate guests were the Democratic Georgia Senator Zell Miller, hawking his new book, A National Party No More, in which he argues that Democrats have lost the South by failing to understand southerners’ concerns about guns, taxes, and abortion; and former Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, still struggling to emerge from his own southern-tinged imbroglio with the national media a year earlier when he nearly waxed nostalgic about segregation at Strom Thurmond’s 100th birthday celebration. Matthews asked Lott if Dean’s comments about gays, guns, and God would hurt him in the South.
Matthews’s questions were fair, and one could even argue that they offered his guests an opportunity to refute southern stereotypes. But one could make an equally strong argument that by continually returning to the issues of religion, guns, abortion, and gays, Matthews had, over the course of an hour, reinforced a casual portrait that has become a caricature of the white southerner in media and popular culture. He is a Bible-clutching, evangelical Christian, worried about the perceived threat gays pose to the sanctity of marriage, and sympathetic to the prolife picketers who heckle young women as they duck out of the local abortion clinic. He listens to bluegrass music, watches NASCAR with his sons, and isn’t about to let any politician take away his rifle. “If you grow up and live most of your life in the South, you get tired of the caricaturization,” Richard Oppel, editor of the Austin American-Statesman, told me, echoing the first complaint of many southern journalists I interviewed. “Some days,” he continued, “I’m convinced that there is not an editor in New York or Washington who isn’t looking for the story of the large, big-breasted woman with blond hair who has married an eighty-nine-year-old codger from Houston and proceeded to take away all his money.”
But as I listened to Oppel and others dig beneath the surface of their longstanding displeasure with their perception of the northern press’s paternalism, I grew more interested in the shape of the caricature than the fact that it exists. As the presidential primaries unfolded, it struck me that the country, and, by natural extension, the press, often use the South as a convenient box to contain all sorts of problems, situations, and conditions that are actually national in scope — race, white poverty, the cultural rift forming between the religious and the secular, guns, abortion, gay marriage, the gradual extinction of rural life, states’ rights, the continuing debates over the size of government, the contours of American morality, and the identity of the major political parties. As a northern journalist who has recently spent time reporting in the rural South, I find myself deeply conflicted about this practice, increasingly attuned to both its potential and its risks.
It is hugely tempting to use the South as a slate for stories that as a nation we have difficulty penetrating. In the fall of 2000, I was a year into research for my book and I still desperately needed to make sense of why the AIDS epidemic in the United States was becoming predominantly black. I had an armory of solid reportorial reasons for basing a portion of the book in the South: more people were infected in the region than in any other part of the country; the South is disproportionately black; I wanted the narrative to be national in scope; and there had been relatively little national reporting on AIDS in Dixie. Beneath the skin of these facts, though, I harbored a far less quantifiable reason for exploring the region. Perhaps, I hoped, the South, with its overt racial history, would give me a foothold to explore what it was about this epidemic that had made it increasingly black.
For over a year, I interviewed doctors, AIDS patients, and social workers in Louisiana, Georgia, and North and South Carolina, searching for the right vehicle for my story. I found it over the phone, listening to David deShazo’s cigarette-damaged Alabama drawl. David was a white social worker who had been hired by a local AIDS agency to drive through the rural counties north of Mobile, find the infected, test those he thought were at risk, and warn the rest about AIDS. Over a series of conversations, he described rural ghettos, forgotten Civil War-era towns, crack cocaine in the woods, and AIDS tests under the pecan tree up the hill. The pitch of his voice, the words he invested his stories with, even the names of the places — Tuskegee, Wilcox County, the black belt — animated my imagination about race, and gave me a sense that I was onto a story that would help me illuminate contours of this epidemic that I had sensed in cities like Oakland and New York but had struggled to articulate.
A couple of weeks later, I convinced Rolling Stone to assign me a 6,000-word piece on AIDS in the South (it would later run instead in the Oxford American). Shortly before my flight to Mobile, my editor told me that they were first drawn to the story because Alabama could be the next Africa. This made me nervous; in retrospect, I wonder if I intuitively understood that I might be expected to reduce the South to the source of a horrific social injustice rather than a possible lens for illuminating a story about the entire country. I suspected that the South was rich with secrets, and I was hungry to know them.
The first few days in Alabama flashed by in a rush of images. I drove miles with David through the small towns and rural ghettos he’d described. Blue Bush and Cheney signs dotted the highway. I met people living in rusted backwoods trailers; we came across a young woman dying of AIDS huddled over a stove trying to keep warm; I jotted down David’s memories of leaving rural Alabama to attend college in Tuscaloosa in 1968 and how the convergence of Vietnam and the civil rights turmoil made it look to him like “society had cracked and the world was just gonna fall through.” These images were so suggestive of moments that could have been captured in a Walker Evans photograph, or a civil rights era exposé in Look, that I was overwhelmed with a gut feeling that the “Old South” hadn’t vanished so much as it had been forgotten. It took me six weeks and at least one draft before I figured out that something crucial was missing from that portrait. Like one of those civil rights-era stills, it felt static. I quickly discovered that the potent set of uniquely southern events and ideas that had drawn me to Alabama — the New South, the Old South, segregation, Jim Crow, religious fervor — inadequately described my sources’ present experience. My historical memory — largely constructed by a lifetime of media images about the South — had so keyed my impressions of the stark scenes that I had witnessed that it threatened to overwhelm my ability to see what was fresh about the story.
Revisiting my notes from my 2000 trip to Alabama, there is so much that I found confusing about the South. Ferrel Guillory, the director of the Program on Southern Politics, Media and Public Life at the University of North Carolina, recently told me that Mobile was for years “just sort of stagnant, and I’m being kind. It had severe racial problems and economic problems.” Today, it is considered a comeback story. Yet I couldn’t make sense of it: many storefronts in the city center looked like they were frozen in 1964. Meanwhile, some rural blacks hadn’t lingered in these small towns for generations, but had returned to the countryside after spending stretches in cities across the United States. Why had they returned? Similarly, while there was a timeless quality to the Alabama countryside, there was also an urbanity to some of the towns that I couldn’t quite fathom. And why had people with AIDS in these rural communities, where helping those in need is almost cultural law, felt compelled to keep their infections secret?
Steve Suitts believes that the South is in the early stages of an extraordinary transition. Now at Emory University and the Southern Education Foundation, he has been thinking about this since he worked with national correspondents to help acculturate them to the region during the ’70s and ’80s, when he was with the Southern Regional Council, which calls itself the South’s oldest surviving interracial organization. He reminded me that we’re only beginning to understand what the South is as a society. It’s been not quite forty years since the Voting Rights Act gave all southerners an opportunity to participate in the electoral process. The region is seeing a tremendous influx of both blacks and whites. Its Hispanic population is rapidly growing. And native southerners are moving within the region. That’s not to say that the South has lost its identity — the region is perhaps the most culturally distinct in the country. At the same time, though, it’s a place that even southerners, a group who on the whole are perhaps the most casually eloquent and regionally evangelistic Americans, find themselves at a loss for words to describe. “The fact of the matter,” Suitts said, “is that southerners don’t know what to make of the South anymore.”
Part of the difficulty the media have with the South, Suitts said, is that sound bites have a three-word limit and southerners tend to speak in long, slow sentences. “You really can’t quite cover the South well,” he said, “unless you understand it in historical terms. The media, especially the visual media, has absolutely no competence or patience with how you incorporate an historical perspective into a story.” It’s a fair criticism. But even Suitts would acknowledge that it’s not reasonable to ask journalists to have a full understanding of the complex history of the South. I think it is, however, possible to locate central themes in southern history that color most discussions of southern character.
To try to understand the southern identity in historical terms is to quickly realize that over time there have been many Souths: the sunny South, the savage South, the agrarian South, the Jim Crow South, the violent South, the cracker South, the frontier South, the antebellum South; H.L. Mencken’s Old South, populated by “men of delicate fancy, urbane instinct and aristocratic manners — in brief, superior men — in brief, gentry,” the suffering South, the moral South, and the list goes on. Even now, when interviewing astute observers of the region, it becomes rapidly clear that to talk about the South is to speak with southern mythologizers, southern debunkers, southern redeemers, and southern reinventors. Running clear through most of these narratives, however, is the theme that in some fundamental sense the South sits apart from the rest of the country.
James Cobb, a southern historian at the University of Georgia, told me that this phenomenon can be traced directly to the birth of the American press. Even before the Revolutionary War, the literary market was concentrated in the North and it defined the country in its image. America was supposed to be New England writ large, while the South, Cobb said, was portrayed as colonial, lacking the dynamism of the national character — the antithesis of America. By the early twentieth century, the notion that the region was culturally separate had become particularly pronounced.
Perhaps no journalist, Cobb told me, was more responsible for pathologizing the South during this period than H.L. Mencken, who coined the term Bible Belt, and famously derided the region as the “Sahara of the Bozart.” Through the 1920s, Cobb said, Mencken published a series of young southern writers in The American Mercury who helped popularize the image of the region as the sickest part of the country. One of his protégés was W. J. Cash, a thin-lipped, square-faced newspaperman from the South Carolina back country, who, along with C. Vann Woodward, would arguably become the two most influential writers on southern identity. Cash, an intensely introspective son of a mill manager, was obsessed with how the alchemy of class, race, and gender combined to forge the southern character. His talent for “probing under the layers of highly bruisable magnolia petals still blanketing the South,” Cash’s wife said, “was just Mencken’s cup of hemlock.”
Cash, though, was interested in painting a richer picture of the region than his mentor. In 1929 The Mercury’s publisher, Alfred Knopf, gave Cash a book contract to definitively excavate the character of the region. Finally published in 1941, The Mind of the South was a warning shot to those who would believe that the region and, in particular, the seemingly intractable race and class problems that defined it in the public eye, could be suddenly and dramatically transformed.
When I first considered this piece, one of the early questions that surfaced in my mind was whether the New South has broken with the Old South. So it was interesting to see Cash wrestling with the same question sixty-three years ago in the opening paragraphs of his book. “The best way to begin that story, I think, is by disabusing our minds of two correlated legends, those of the Old and the New Souths,” Cash wrote. Rather, he felt it was important to view the region as evolving along a more continuous line.
Cash, writing almost strictly from the perspective of white men, challenged the legend of an antebellum South ruled by a Virginia aristocracy that was destroyed by the Civil War. He argued instead that the Old South should be viewed as a frontier, a wooded, rich-soiled, sometimes lawless wilderness transformed by the invention of the cotton gin. Through hard work, luck, violence, and thievery, the plantation system matured over a relatively short period between 1820 and the beginning of the war. Cash identified a whole series of classically southern traits that he said grew out of this experience — a tendency toward nostalgia, hedonism, anti-intellectualism, and a proclivity for violence — but he was particularly interested in the intersection of class and race and its impact on what he termed the “the man at the center.”
The plantation, Cash argued, created a class system of wealthy landowners and poor whites. Plantations were, of course, worked by slaves, which had a twofold effect on the region. First, it eliminated the need for white laborers, which isolated the South. Second, it cut off most lines of social advancement for poor whites. Cash was particularly vexed by the fact that these whites seemed to lack any kind of class consciousness. In part, he believed, their anger was mitigated by the fact that there was enough land to support even the poorest white in his basic needs. This, he felt, helped foster the importance placed on rugged individualism and independence that still imbues many discussions of southern values. But mere subsistence and independence were not enough, Cash believed, to explain the loyalty that the common southern white felt for the plantation owner:
If the plantation had introduced distinctions of wealth and rank among the men of the old backcountry, and in doing so, had perhaps offended against the ego of the common white, it had also, you will remember, introduced that other vastly ego-warming and ego-expanding distinction between the white man and the black. Robbing him and degrading him in so many ways, it yet, by singular irony, had simultaneously elevated this common white to a position comparable to that of, say, the Doric knight of ancient Sparta . . . . Come what might, he would always be a white man.
From here, Cash dissected an elaborate social code through which the wealthy white bestowed status on his poor brethren by playing upon a sense of shared heritage, and making both grand and subtle gestures to include them in his social tableau. Cash held that this was the tool the ruling class wielded through the first half the twentieth century to maintain a social consensus, fulminate a regional disdain for unions, and prevent dissent.
Cash committed suicide in 1941 and so never witnessed the totality of what the historian C. Vann Woodward would term the “Bulldozer Revolution,” which was just starting to transform the South. Woodward, writing in the ’50s and ’60s, crafted a brighter vision for the South. While the southerner, Woodward wrote, was indeed burdened with history, there was evidence to suggest that both southern identity and the region’s fate were more fluid than the place Cash likened to a “tree with many age rings, with its limbs and trunk bent and twisted by all the winds of the years, but with its tap root in the Old South.” Instead, the character of the South, Woodward argued, was fashioned by a series of “un-American” experiences — defeat in war, extraordinary poverty, and its choice to live with a great evil — that distinguished it from the rest of the country. Woodward maintained, however, that these experiences did not determine its fate. The South in the 1950s, Woodward argued, was in fact seeing such marked progress that soon it could no longer be defined by its faults. At the same time, Woodward warned, the transformation taking place had stirred southern fears of becoming indistinguishable and “submerged under a national steamroller.”
Jim Crow, Woodward held, had once again placed the South on the wrong side of a “morally discredited Peculiar Institution.” A hundred years earlier, he cautioned, the South, in a defensive reaction to the North’s condemnation of slavery, had mistakenly placed its entire cause with that institution, forcing any southerner who rejected slavery to reject his entire heritage. The South, he said, must not repeat that mistake. Rather, it was possible for southerners to dismantle Jim Crow without sacrificing their regional identity.
Cash and Woodward were both prescient in their analyses of the South. The redemptive stories that began to break about the South in the ’70s followed Woodward’s optimistic cultural forecast for the region. The number of elected southern black officials began to swell. Governors like Jimmy Carter, William Winter, and Dale Bumpers encouraged biracial coalitions that cast an aura of reconciliation across the region. Even George Wallace eventually repented. It was a period that Farrel Guillory refers to as the birth of the “New New South.” But it didn’t portend the populist cultural transformation that Cobb says Woodward hoped for with the fall of Jim Crow.
In fact there is actually plenty to suggest that much of the South’s identity was still rooted in the Old South. Perhaps the story that best supports this idea is the political shift of the region from solidly Democratic to largely Republican. That process began to roll when Barry Goldwater won a series of southern states after voting against the Civil Rights Act, and gained traction after Nixon launched his Southern Strategy by aligning himself with Strom Thurmond and going after Wallace’s segregationist bloc of the Democratic party.
But it was Reagan, according to southern political scientist Merle Black, who tightened the Republican hold on the region. Reagan’s success in the South can be viewed as an affirmation of both Cash’s and Woodward’s view of the region. Reagan skillfully employed a version of the cultural code that Cash had identified forty years earlier to overwhelmingly win the white southern vote. His first major campaign stop after gaining the 1980 nomination was near Philadelphia, Mississippi, the community in which the civil rights workers Michael Schwerner, Andrew Goodman, and James Chaney were murdered. There he pledged to the almost all-white audience at the Neshoba County Fair — an obligatory stop on the Mississippi political circuit — that he believed in states’ rights. In another speech he denounced the welfare queen in designer jeans. At the same time, though, his message to southerners went beyond coded racial signals and incorporated a range of southern themes, some that had endured through two centuries, and others that spoke to Woodward’s transformed South. He solidified his connection to the evangelical right by speaking openly about his Christian faith, and at the same time offered tax cuts to appeal to the newly emergent middle-class, white, suburban southerner. In 1980 Reagan took every southern state except Georgia, and in 1984 he swept the region. The elder Bush did the same. And, of course, after Bill Clinton won some southern states in ’92 and ’96, George W. Bush swept the South in 2000, and is considered a good bet to do so again this year.
Perhaps, though, Reagan’s popularity in the South can be best seen as an illustration of how the dynamic tension produced by the South’s living, breathing 300-year culture rubbing up against a rapidly unfolding series of events — the Voting Rights Act, Civil Rights Act, the slow death of the agrarian South, the rise of cities driven by the global economy — makes the southern story vital and newsworthy. That dynamism points to a number of important journalistic stories: What is the nature of the alliance Republicans have forged between working-class rural whites and their middle-class suburban counterparts? Is gerrymandering in the South responsible for a political landscape that has produced a large pool of Democratic black officials and at the same time one where Republicans hold a significant edge in senatorial, congressional, and gubernatorial offices? Did desegregation injure poor southern whites? What happened to the white children who didn’t transfer to private academies but stayed in the public schools after they were desegregated? What fueled the remigration of blacks from the North to the South during the ’90s? What does it mean to be a black southerner caught in a national debate over southern identity where it is too often implied that to be southern is to be white? How has the influx of Hispanics intersected with a southern culture of race that has been defined as a conflict between black and white for 250 years?
This isn’t to say that these stories have never received sophisticated treatment in the press. Indeed, a cadre of southern and northern journalists from Peter Applebome to Brandy Ayers to Nicholas Lemann to Diane McWhorter — to name just a few — have vigorously debated the changing nature of the South and written about it with considerable nuance. Rather, it is meant to hint at the galaxy of stories that come into focus when one begins to view the shifting conditions of the region in relationship to its still vital historical character.
So the South is different, with its own dynamic history and stories. But should journalists use it as a lens through which to examine the nation’s most divisive problems and conditions?
In thinking about how to answer that question, it strikes me that one of the basic tensions that threads its way through many southern stories has to do with whether the region is still chained to its racial past, or whether it has reached catharsis, redeemed itself, and joined the rest of the country. This theme was central to the national interest in several recent stories: the Trent Lott affair, the revelation that Strom Thurmond supported a black daughter for a half-century, and the Confederate flag debates. It presumes that the South is perpetually behind the rest of the nation. I would suggest just the opposite, that the South is on the leading edge of a whole series of stories that are vital to the rest of the country because it has been forced, largely by virtue of its racial past, to publicly confront issues that the rest of the nation has been able to avoid. Therefore, I think that the South offers the country an incredible opportunity to talk about everything from the identity of the political parties, to race, to AIDS.
The difficulty with this enterprise is that the South is still often cast as completely other. So, as Peter Applebome, the former New York Times Atlanta bureau chief, who has argued that the rest of America is becoming more like the South, told me, talking about race in the South becomes a way of not talking about race in the rest of the country. It’s a point worth highlighting, and it extends beyond race. As we head into an election, Richard Oppel believes that the political horserace stories that can casually frame God, guns, and gays as southern concerns promise to oversimplify southerners’ relationship to these issues, and, at the same time, relegate the national struggle to come to terms with these same issues to the periphery of the debate. All of which seems to highlight James Cobb’s observation that many have come to believe that what “is wrong with America has metastasized across the country from its origins in the South.” The trouble with that, he said, is that nobody has an explanation for why the rest of the country provides such a wonderful “export market” for these Southern values. Given all of this, how can the press capture the region in a nuanced way that also offers insight into the country at large? Part of the trick is to make clear what elements of a story are southern and what are national.
Part of it also, it seems to me, requires journalists to investigate how our own relationship to the region serves and hinders our effort to render it in stories. Diane McWhorter, the white, Pulitzer Prize-winning southern journalist, who wrote Carry Me Home: Birmingham, Alabama: The Climactic Battle of the Civil Rights Revolution, is part of a long tradition of southern writers who have taken it upon themselves to illuminate the South for a national audience. At fifty-one, she feels that part of what she brings to her reporting is the perspective of having grown up during the civil rights movement. “My generation experienced segregation, knew what it was, but we don’t have to bear responsibility for it because we didn’t have to put our conscience on the line,” she says. This, she told me, has allowed her generation to look at segregation more critically.
In April 2001 she went to Alabama for the trial of Thomas E. Blanton, the ex-Klansman accused of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church bombing in 1963 that killed four little girls, a key event in McWhorter’s book. The national media descended upon Birmingham. The reporters covering the trial, McWhorter says, “were really scratching their heads, trying to figure out what the story was. The story their editors wanted was ‘Birmingham repents.’” The citizens of Birmingham, though, were so apathetic about the trial that people were recruited to fill the pews. Redemption, McWhorter noted, is a master American narrative, and one that is repeatedly forced upon the South. She chose, instead, to write a story that began to focus on the artificial enterprise that the nation, and by extension the media, undertake when they use a story like the Blanton trial to impose a notion of national and local closure on an event like the church bombings. “The average person in the South,” she told me, “is not living the redemption story.” The real story she described to me was much more subtle. Older whites, she discovered, were not eager to relive the events of the era, and blacks were afraid to get their hopes up that Blanton would be convicted. More tellingly, she found that for most citizens of Birmingham the bombing and the trial were not material to their daily reality. Tiger Woods had just been in town and, as a leader of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference noted to McWhorter, black kids in his church were more interested in his celebrity than in Blanton. Other blacks thought the money spent on the trial would have been better used to improve bus service.
One of the gifts the national press bestows upon the South, McWhorter says, is that by shining a light on the region it can help southerners see themselves more clearly, a process that can precipitate change. Shortly after she and other reporters focused on Birmingham’s apathy toward the trial, the courtroom began to fill with townspeople. The press, McWhorter believed, had helped make the city’s citizens recognize the significance of Blanton’s prosecution. In a more immediate way, the national media’s coverage of the trial had a similar effect on her. The day Blanton was convicted, she ran into the New York Times reporter Kevin Sack at a local bar. He set his computer in her lap. She read the story he’d just filed and broke into tears. It wasn’t the content of the piece that freed her to emotionally experience the magnitude of Blanton’s conviction so much as the fact that having the story recognized — seeing it in print — had made the events more real for her.
“It’s good that the South makes concrete so many of the issues in this country that are veiled,” she told me near the end of our conversation. “The downside is that because they are so concrete, the press turns it into the grotesque. So instead of seeing the South as representative, we see it as freakish.”
But it was her last point that really stuck with me. “We are drawn to the South because it is us.” That sentiment echoes how I felt when I left Alabama (and how I began this piece) with the thought that the South is a reflection of America. I still agree that it is this dynamic that continues to inform the nation’s fascination with the region and our desire to seek out its character and impose narratives on it. But I am not so sure anymore if I can say that the South is me or a mirror for my American experience.
Part of what made the South a valuable resource for me was the fact that it is still its own place, providing me with just enough contrast to my own experience to let me see both it and the rest of the country more clearly. Problems surfaced when the very history of the region, which so readily opened the window I was seeking onto the subject of race, overwhelmed my ability to view it freshly. So when I showed the first draft of my magazine story to a colleague in California, he pointed out that the portraits I had drawn were predictable. He expected the poverty, the illness, and the shoddy social services. Lost in that picture was the infinitely more interesting and evolving relationship my sources had to cities, rural life, and the issue of race in the post-civil-rights-era southern landscape.
Looking back now on how I eventually elicited what I hope is a richer portrait of the southern experience for my book, I am reminded of my parallel experience as a white man charged with trying to explore in some complexity the internal experience of an almost entirely black cast of sources. I think journalists — most people, for that matter — assume that sources who have been popularly cast as “other” experience events in a manner innately different than they do. It’s a form of cultural relativism that seemingly affords a certain respect and sensitivity to difference. Taken too far, though, I think it can severely limit our capacity to fully render our subjects.
Early on, I recognized that as a “well-meaning” outsider, there were a couple of obvious traps I might fall into: I could strike the politically correct posture of presuming to know nothing of their experiences as African Americans and in the process sacrifice the full faculty of my intuition and critical eye; or I could try to ingratiate myself by trying to somehow overempathize with what it was to be black in America, a strategy that would invite facile answers and, likely, quiet distrust. So I made two basic decisions: I would never try to sound even faintly black; and I would interview my sources as though I were questioning a white person, that is, I would give myself the freedom to employ the same set of emotional presumptions that I would with a family member. It was an approach that freed me to ask the kind of intimate and, at times, critical questions necessary to see anyone in their full humanity. Ironically, it also invited the kind of details and observations that allowed me to move beyond stereotypes and describe what it was about their experience that made it uniquely black.
I think on a certain level the logic that I used to report on an African American world held true for me in the South, as well. My own otherness — my outsider status — granted me insights that I could not observe at home and my southern sources could not see clearly for themselves: how David deShazo was caught in a netherworld between white and black that obstructed his ability to stop the spread of AIDS; that the leaden air of resignation that permeated rural Alabama had more to do with the poor housing conditions than the sentiments of a few whites who waved the Confederate flag; and how the southern conservative social ethos that perfumed these small towns was defined more by a deep desire of the people who inhabited them to believe that they had crafted a way of life in rural Alabama that kept them insulated from the social and moral crises that were affecting the rest of the country than by bigotry or closed-mindedness. More personally, my time in the South urgently raised the question for me of how we are to find a fresh way to speak openly about race in an era when overt racism seems to have receded, but the consequences of three centuries of racism continue to materialize. Yet I don’t believe we can explore such nuanced ideas about the South unless we force ourselves to set aside the confining set of impressions that pre-defines our understanding of the region. Only by doing so can we divine a more supple, human, and accurate portrait of the American experience in the South.