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The New Mind of the South Q&A

The New Mind of the South

Q. What got you interested in the questions that became The New Mind of the South?

I've always had a strong sense of my identity as a Southerner; at the same time, I was a Southerner who did not fit any conventional definitions of the term: I never felt comfortable waving a Confederate flag, I did not fit the description of some stereotypical Southern belle, I was not rabid about NASCAR or SEC football, I hated the defensive tone so many white Southerners took when speaking of their native region and I hated even more the apologetic, "what can you do about the rednecks" tone other white Southerners took. Most of all, I hated the pandering to stereotypes some Southerners did, writing books about "How to Speak Southern" or making a bunch of "you may be a redneck" jokes. I just loved the South, I felt it in my bones, and I hungered to understand it.

And then about 10 years ago a distant cousin researching a family history discovered that our mutual ancestor, who had lived within a few miles of where I grew up just outside Atlanta, had been a Union loyalist during the Civil War who endured a considerable amount of persecution for his unpopular views. This buried piece of family history brought home to me how much of the history I had absorbed by cultural osmosis, and how much of the history I'd been explicitly taught, was distorted and or just plain wrong. This was no abstract insight. History is a mirror in which we see ourselves, and that when the mirror is distorted, so are our perceptions of who we are—a particular problem for Southerners, who place such a huge value on regional identity. Discovering this little chapter of my own family's history suddenly put into perspective for me that maybe the problem wasn't that I didn't fit the "definition" of Southern; maybe the definitions were wrong. And so I set out to try to understand.

Q. How did you go about doing research for this book?

Like a lot of Southerners, I've always been interested in the Civil War—Sherman's army tore up the railroad right across the street from the house I grew up in—and in the beginning I fell down the Civil War rabbit hole: I spent a lot of time researching Unionists in the South before I realized that I had to start trying to figure out what this discovery meant to me, and how that related to the present-day South. And that took me into the field of how history is taught—specifically, how Southern history has been taught in Southern schools and universities for much of the 20th century. That in turn led me to the whole subject of the South's "shadow history"—the era of incredible racial violence that followed the end of the Civil War and which lasted, in varying degrees, right up through the 1960s, but which was erased from history books and relegated to whispered stories in the black community. That brought me more or less to the present day, and the question: how does this affect what's going on now? What is going on now? At that point, I got in my car and started following my questions out to where the data pointed me. I spent time in North Carolina, the epicenter of the Hispanic migration into the South. I went to the Mississippi Delta, where a rural-to-urban exodus has left vast swaths of unpopulated landscape and huge stretches of black poverty. I explored my hometown of Atlanta, a magnet for one of the most significant black migrations of the late 20th century. I went to a neo-Confederate rally in Wetumpka, Alabama, and to a Children of the Confederacy convention in Fredericksburg, Virginia. I put several thousand miles on my car. And out of all that, I got a book.

Q. "The South" is a pretty immense topic. How did you know where to start?

I didn't. I spent a lot of time at the beginning asking dumb questions of various scholars and experts who probably thought I was a complete ditz. One advantage, though, was that other Southerners of my generation had also spent years thinking about some aspect of the same question—what does it mean to be a Southerner?—and none of them minded talking to me about it. Southerners are obsessed with this topic and welcome a chance to go on about it. That helped immensely.

Q. How long did all this take?

From roughly the summer of 2006 to the spring of 2012. I wasn't working full-time on the book, though; I have two school-age daughters and lots of other stuff to do. Just getting through homework every night is a major chore. My husband would hold down the fort when I had to go out of town. The reporting trips were like mini-vacations in comparison to my everyday schedule. At night I got to go home to a blessedly quiet hotel room and control the TV remote—something I rarely get to do at home.

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