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The New Mind of the South

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The New Mind of the South

Writers and political observers have been announcing the death of the South for decades now. The South, they say, has been assimilated, urbanized, blanderized and strip-malled out of existence—except maybe for a few isolated patches of Appalachia and the Mississippi Delta, where hillbillies and rednecks still dwell. Yet this amorphous thing we call "Southern identity" seems remarkably spry for something so dead; it keeps showing up in Presidential elections, at NASCAR rallies, on magazine racks, in film and in literature—and while all this is going on, millions of black Americans have been quietly moving back to the South in a steady stream since the 1970s. These days, in fact, slightly more black people than white people proudly identify themselves as Southerners. But you'd never know that from the media, where political commentators routinely use the word in ways that assume Southerners are all white.

My Southern credentials are as authentic as it gets—both sides of my family have roots in Alabama, Georgia and east Tennessee that go back for at least six generations—but aside from having pale skin, none of the conventional definitions of "Southerner" ever seemed to fit me. After 20 years of living outside the Deep South, I decided to set out to make sense of my native region as it moves into the second decade of the 21st century. What I discovered was a South that was both deeply familiar and yet newly transformed—more ethnically diverse, as intensely religious as ever yet torn by political-religious schisms, deeply scarred by a racist past yet more sophisticated about race than any other part of the country, its political and social conservatism increasingly offset by a rising new generation that thinks very differently than their elders about "God, guns and gays." So what's the same? A deep and uniquely Southern sense of community, with taproots that reach deep into an agrarian past and a history of slavery.

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Simon & Schuster, Hardcover, March 2013, ISBN: 9781439158036