What does it mean to be a Southerner? Is it simply a matter of birth, a special strain of pride, or is there more to this contentious identity that we’ve yet to understand? Famed Southern author Flannery O’Connor once said that “Whenever I’m asked why Southern writers particularly have a penchant for writing about freaks, I say it is because we are still able to recognize one.” The question that seems to remain is whether, with the massive influx of new faces every day into the region, Southerners will be able to recognize themselves.
Hoping to detail the current state of the Southern identity, Gibbs Knotts, chairman of the political science department at the College of Charleston, and co-author Chris Cooper of Western Carolina University have written a new book examining what being from the South means to those in the region. In writing The Resilience of Southern Identity: Why the South Still Matters in the Minds of Its People, the two political scientists looked into decades of survey data and conducted focus group studies to determine not only the current state of the Southern identity across different demographics, but also conducted focus group studies to see what characteristics and ideals individuals associate with Southern culture.
“We sensed that though there are all these changes in the region — people are moving here in record numbers and there’s suburbanization and urbanization — people still would connect with the South,” says Knotts. “We sort of felt that Southern identity remains strong when a lot of things would lead you to predict that regional identity wouldn’t matter anymore.”
Growing up in Atlanta, Knotts admits that he always had a tenuous relationship with his own identity as a Southerner. Associating the South with big trucks, large belt buckles, Country music, and racially conservative attitudes among white people, he sought to shed his Southern accent and move as far away from the identity as possible. It was while attending college at the University of North Carolina that he first became aware that there was more to being from the South than he had previously considered.
“I realized it was more nuanced and complex, and that with all the bad, there was also a lot of good. In some ways, Southerners had a passion, a uniqueness, that really fascinated me,” he says. “It was then that I considered that maybe I was thinking about the region in the wrong way. It didn’t mean that the reasons that I was turned off weren’t necessarily good reasons to be turned off, but it started a lifelong quest to try to figure out what’s going on down here and what makes the South unique. Is that going to last or fade?”
In their efforts to articulate what the modern South is all about, Knotts and Cooper set out to answer a few major questions: How resilient is the Southern identity? What types of people identify with the South? And what do people from across different backgrounds, races, and environments connect to their Southern roots?
The book uses four personalities to begin identifying the overarching aspects of Southern culture: celebrity chef Paula Deen, Congressman James Clyburn, former United States Poet Laureate Natasha Trethewey, and musician and cofounder of Drive-By Truckers Patterson Hood. By considering what each of these individuals embodies about the South, the authors are able to frame the discussion in a way that readers can relate and connect.
“You’ve got old and young, black and white, and they are basically all connecting to the region. They’ve made their Southern identity very much a part of who they are … But how common are these people? What’s the state across the South?” asks Knotts. “We found that 75 percent of people living in the South answered that they do consider themselves to be a Southerner. That’s been pretty consistent over the past several decades.”
In an effort to better understand what respondents consider when they self-identify as a Southerner, Knotts and Cooper gathered four focus groups — two consisting of African Americans, two consisting of white participants — and questioned each group about what being a part of the South means to them. Across racial groups, things like a connection to the land, food, the importance of family, and manners were common aspects of identity that draw black and white Southerners together. But while Knotts says more African Americans currently identify as Southerners than in previous decades, there remain aspects of Southern culture that prove divisive.
“We don’t want to gloss over the pretty key differences. The way our focus groups participants talked about politics, the Civil War, the Confederate flag, monuments — there were still some stark racial differences,” says Knotts, who adds that he and his co-author did not set out to write a “pro-South book,” instead aiming to highlight both the good and bad of the region.
Touching on what he describes as the “dark side of the Southern identity,” Knotts and Cooper touch on the disturbing white regional identity that led Dylann Roof to murder nine African-American parishioners in Emanuel AME Church, as well as how the Southern identity has factored into segregation and the Jim Crow era.
“We believe that there is a way to have a more inclusive regional identity. I certainly hope that we don’t go back to a time where being a Southerner is just something that whites in the South connect to,” says Knotts.
In terms of future points of study that Knotts believes should be considered, he says that consideration should be given to how the region’s rapidly growing Latino population could effect the perception of the Southern identity. Although it is impossible to say what being a Southerner could mean in 50 or 100 years, The Resilience of Southern Identity: Why the South Still Matters in the Minds of Its People serves to define the current state of Southern culture.
“We can say with a strong confidence, in 2017, that there is a surprisingly strong connection to the region,” says Knotts. “What it means to be a Southerner has changed some. It has become more inclusive, but it’s still resilient nonetheless.”