Many have argued that as regional distinctiveness faded away, Southern identity evaporated along with it.
Political science professors Christopher Cooper and H. Gibbs Knotts studied it, and found that white and black southerners still have a strong and salient sense of what it means to be Southern.
Host Frank Stasio talks with co-author Christopher Cooper about his new book, “The Resilience of Southern Identity: Why the South Still Matters in the Minds of Its People” (The University of North Carolina Press/2017.)
On their motivation to investigate Southern identity:
Part of it was probably trying to understand ourselves. We’ve both lived in the South almost all of our lives, if not all of it – I think my co-author lived, like, a month in Michigan. But the rest of the time we’ve been here, and trying to make sense of this weird region that we call home, and really trying to understand why we would connect to a region that for many folks is connected with so many bad ideas.
On why people still connect with the South:
It’s odd, right? If you think about it, we don’t really need regional identification, or at least it seems that we wouldn’t. I mean, we've got media [so you can] be listening to this show in China if you want to. So why on earth would people connect to region? We really wanted to understand that. And what we found after talking to folks, is that I think this changes why the connection matters so much. We all want something to connect to that we think of as home and some sort of connection to our roots. And obviously that may be very different for me, than from you, than from some listener. But I think all of us kind of want that connection in a world where it’s harder and harder to find connections.
On the conflicted nature of Southern identity:
I want to be very, very careful and so does Gibbs, my co-author. We’re not trying to argue that all folks use Southern identity well, or that it’s always a good thing even necessarily. It is complex. And particularly if you talk to African-American Southerners who say that they’re Southern and are proud to be Southern but at the same time are trying to deal with a region that has been responsible for extraordinary suffering. So I think anybody who connects in any way as a Southerner is probably a little bit conflicted by that.
On African-American Southern identity:
It is a connection to region. There’s obviously a history and some roots in the South that folks have that are not necessarily connected to race, or may exist despite of these poor racial connotations. The Confederate flag is obviously a great example. If you ask somebody in Connecticut what they think of when they think of the South they may say “The Dukes of Hazzard,” they may say the Confederate flag. I think if you talk to people in the South, they’ll push back on you a little. They’ll say that might be the South for some people, but it’s not my South. We refer to that sort of negative view of the South and the way Southern identity has been used to oppress as the dark side of Southern identity, ways in which politicians may perhaps sometimes use this to connect to a more populist and frankly a little bit more racist attitude.
On food and its foundational role in identity:
Especially when you ask people in focus groups questions about food, you get some really animated answers. I think we expected to get these answers about politics and these kind of deep things, but when you ask folks, “what does it mean to be Southern?” they often start with food. They will talk about barbecue, they do talk about cornbread, they do talk about some of these traditional Southern staples. And when we look at survey data, what we find is that black and white Southerners actually have more similar taste palates, if you will, than white Southerners and non-Southerners do.
On ‘Southern’ finally meaning modern:
Atlanta called itself “the city that was too busy to hate.” So I think there was a time where Atlanta and some of the more progressive cities did try to run away from the South. And I think they’re running back to it. And I think restaurants are a great example of that. I’m talking to you in Asheville here and if I throw a rock, I could probably hit 10 different restaurants that call themselves Southern in some way, shape or form. That was not true 15 years ago in Asheville, in Durham, in Birmingham, in Atlanta, or elsewhere.