Moderated by David Ibata

Today we explore the South in the second decade of the 21st century. A cultural historian discusses “Dixie”; the word stirs emotions from nostalgia and pride to anger and bitterness, yet few agree what it really means. A geographer tells why the South’s economic prospects are brighter than in other areas of the country. And a social observer lists trends in race, ethnicity and attitudes that are dramatically reshaping the region.

Dixie: What’s in a name?

By Coleman Hutchison

In the recent dust-up over country singer Brad Paisley’s song “Accidental Racist,” most of the attention has fallen on the song’s description of a Confederate flag on a Lynyrd Skynyrd T-shirt. The song’s reference to “Dixieland” has drawn far less comment and ire.

Why? After all, Paisley’s protagonist — “just a white man comin’ to you from the Southland/Tryin’ to understand what it’s like not to be” — seems to think that the flag and the nickname are simple signs of Southern pride and little more. But the song’s emphatic, perhaps ironic, use of “Dixie” raises questions about what is at stake in this name.

Put simply, “Dixie” is a word that is widely read and little understood. It evokes strong associations and engenders even stronger feelings, despite the fact that there is little agreement on what, exactly, it means. People often use Dixie as if it were a mere synonym for the South. Such usage whitewashes the word’s origins and obscures the South’s complex cultural histories.

While there is no definitive etymological source for the word, scholars trace its use as a nickname for the South to the minstrel song “Dixie”: “I wish I was in the land of cotton/Old times there are not forgotten …” In the weeks after its first performance on Broadway in 1859, “Dixie,” with its problematic image of African-Americans longing for the plantation South, became a stand-in for the region as a whole.

Originally performed in blackface and published in dialect, the song was popular in the North and the South in the lead-up to the Civil War. During the war, “Dixie” became the de facto Confederate national anthem, which caused some Southern nationalists to worry the song would “impose its very name on our country.” Needless to say, those worries were well founded.

The song and its nickname continue to shape how people think about the South. Among many other things, Dixie functions as shorthand for regional pride and racism; tradition and backwardness; a sense of place, and a sense of outrage. Dixie has been used both by and against Southerners, with varying degrees of affection and disgust.

In the 21st century, the word helps to sell everything from beer to botanicals. Even products that have an ambiguous relationship to the South — for instance, Dixie Cups, or the Dixie Chicks — become Southern by association.

We cannot assume Dixie names the same thing in the same way each time it is used. The South has always been a difficult region to define. Moreover, the South’s increasing diversity runs counter to the word’s sectional associations.

Many contemporary Southerners want nothing to do with Dixie as a nickname or a cultural identity. Yet writers, artists and critics persist in using the word to tell about the South. Paisley is far from alone. (Although he does seem enamored of the word; three songs on his new album, “Wheelhouse,” name-check “Dixie.”) As a result, we can be sure that Dixie won’t be soon forgotten. We would do well, then, to think carefully about the power of this five-letter word.

Coleman Hutchison is an associate professor of English at the University of Texas at Austin.

The South will rise again

By Joel Kotkin

The common media view of the South is as a regressive region, full of overweight, prejudiced, exploited and undereducated people. Yet even as the old Confederacy’s political banner fades, its long-term economic prospects shine bright.

For one thing, Americans continue to head south; it’s attracting the most domestic migrants of any U.S. region. Last year, six of the top eight states in terms of net domestic migration were from the old Confederacy — Texas, Florida, North Carolina, Tennessee, South Carolina and Georgia. The top four losers were deep blue New York, Illinois, New Jersey and California.

In the 1950s, the South, the Northeast and the Midwest had about the same number of people. Today, the South is almost as populous as the Northeast and the Midwest combined. This dominance will be further assured because Southerners are nurturing families, in contrast with residents of the Great Lakes, the Northeast and California. Greater Atlanta’s child population, for example, rose by at least twice the 10 percent rate of the rest of the country over the past decade, while the New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Boston and Chicago areas experienced declines.

Why are people moving to, and breeding in, what the media tend to see as a backwater? The South’s economic growth has outpaced the rest of the country for a generation. With their history of poverty and underdevelopment, Southern states generally have lower taxes, and less stringent regulations, than competitors in the Northeast or on the West Coast.

A portent of the future can be seen in new investment from U.S.-based and foreign companies. Last year, Texas, Louisiana, Georgia and North Carolina were four of the six leading sites for new corporate facilities.

In the long run, some critics suggest, the region’s historically lower education levels limit its ascendancy. Every state in the Southeast falls below the national average of the percentage of residents aged 25 and older with a bachelor’s degree.

Yet this education gap is shrinking, particularly in the South’s growing metropolitan areas. Over the past decade, the number of college graduates in Austin and Charlotte easily eclipsed the performance of New York, San Francisco and Chicago. Greater Atlanta alone added more than 300,000 residents with bachelor’s degrees over the past decade, more than Philadelphia and Miami and almost 70,000 more than Boston.

Over time, these trends will have consequences. More Americans than ever will be brought up Southern. The drawls may be softer, and the social values hopefully less constricted, but the regional loyalties are likely to persist. Rather than fade away, Southern influence will grow over time. It’s the culture of the increasingly child-free northern tier and the slow-growth coasts that will, to evoke the past, be gone with the wind.

A version of this article previously appeared in Forbes.

Joel Kotkin is executive editor of NewGeorgraphy.com and teaches at Chapman University in Orange, Calif.

A place tested by change

By Tracy Thompson

Tracy Thompson is a native of metro Atlanta and author of the new book, “The New Mind of the South.” The following is adapted from a talk she gave in March at the Atlanta History Center.

Wrenching change: Ours is the story of one huge wrenching social change after another. Race is the fundamental reason the South is of such enduring importance in American history. This is where the ideals of American democracy were first tested against the realities of different skin colors.

Immigration: The amount of change in the past 45 years is mind blowing. The biggest change, of course, is immigration. Today, Arkansas, Georgia, North Carolina and Tennessee lead the nation in births to Hispanic mothers. The first generation of those babies are now teenagers, and in a year or so, they will begin to vote and are quite aware of the fact the Republican Party in the South has not been very friendly to them. Today, 10 percent of Gwinnett County’s population is Asian, 21 percent is Latino. There is a Hindu temple in Riverdale in Clayton County, and in Fayette County, there’s a mosque down the street from the courthouse. So is this the end of the South as we once knew it? Well, of course it is. But that’s not to be confused with the end of the South.

African-Americans: The other piece of the immigration picture is the black re-migration into the South. For most of the 20th century, Chicago and New York were the two metropolitan areas with the biggest black populations. For the last few years, Atlanta has overtaken Chicago. The affluent young black professionals you see today working in these downtown high rises are the grandchildren or great-grandchildren of people who left Mississippi or Alabama or Georgia in 1935 or so with nearly nothing.

Religion: Religion in the South has become a lot more politicized, and politics in the South are starting to sound a whole lot more like religion. At a Baptist church in Clarksdale, Miss., I had expected to encounter familiar hymns and a familiar order of service. Instead, the sermon that day was about the story of the wheat and the tares, and how real Christians need to make sure that they’re not pulled into a consortium of cultural Christians who look like Christians, but aren’t really. Religion used to be something that bound Southerners together. Today, it’s divisive.

Racial reconciliation: It’s a spontaneous grassroots kind of thing. When I left Georgia in 1989, people had just begun to talk about commemorating the 1946 lynching of two black couples at Moore’s Ford in Walton County. Today, there are several kinds of movements happening all over the South. The chapters of the past that they’re dealing with are incredibly painful, but it’s vitally important that they be remembered, not as a way of picking at old wounds, but as a way of teaching us where we’ve come from and who we say we are.


7 comments Add your comment


June 7th, 2013
8:24 pm

Prof @ 8:56 pm – Interesting Observation by you. I was born and raised here in Atlanta. I have lived in various parts of the U.S. over the years. Being a Black Male in America, I can honestly say the Level of Racism towards people of color seems uniformly the same with small subtle differences.

I discovered that Whites in the North Love Blacks Particularly as a unified Group. They love our music and our many contributions to the arts. individually you are despised and Loathed. The relationship and strangeness of our being is commonly rejected. There is No Bond unlike in the South. We are a Stranger in a strange Land.

In the South its completely in a reverse order. Blacks are loved individually but Hated and despised as a unified group. Our music is hated but our foods are loved. I surmise that difference to the relationship of slavery and the South. In the south, we all live and work closer together therefore individual relationships are made out of concern and respect. Blacks have traditionally more intertwined in the Lives of most whites in a subservient status. We have been typically Your Maids, doormen, Yard men, Garbage collectors, drivers, waiters, office and school janitors, bus boys dishwashers at your favorite eating places, hotel maids and cleaners, parking valets, protective security.

We are the many nameless and faceless beings that you pass by everyday without seeing or acknowledgement of their presence. The ones you call to do the Dirty and unwanted Jobs that are presented before and around you.

The Invisible ones, yet we are always around and before you everyday of your waking lives. the hallways, walkways, parking lots, elevators, stairways
and the like.

For Us, The term DIXIE does not bring feelings of endearment or Joy. It brings a profound sense of sadness and despair. Many of those who have loved and represented that term have caused so much Heartache, Loss and Pain for most Blacks. The most ironic part is the only crime committed is having a Darker hue of skin.

It reflects a time period of America, when America did not live up to and would not live its own Principles, as written in the U.S. Constitution.

Oh yes it is something different! Something you could never imagine in your
wildest or imaginable dream. I would bet, if YOU were to personally experience it. You would call it a WAKING and WALKING NIGHTMARE!
and could not wait for it to be over!

I know what the underside of that Great American Eagle Looks Like…..its Not Pretty!


June 6th, 2013
8:56 pm

I’ve lived here in the South for about half my life, the other half way up in the North. I have to say that it seems to me that blacks and whites are at ease together here as they are not in the North, generally speaking. One of the things I like about this place is that if I, as a white person, look straight in the eyes of a black person with a smile, I usually get a smile back. If I say, “Hi, how ya doin?” I’ll get a, “Fine, how bout yourse’f?” But in the North, one does not make eye contact with strangers, period, and especially not those who are racially different from oneself.

When I go home to visit, I have to harden up my face and revert to my old nasal accent for protection.

“Dixie”–I can see why Bernie has these associations if he’s black, and he probably always will. But I don’t see the “South” as “Dixie”…that’s what it started from, perhaps. But it’s something different now.


June 6th, 2013
6:10 pm

Remember when Gary McKee was Atlanta’s DJ on WQXI? Quixie in Dixie! Also, when I a kid, I had a dog named Dixie. I didn’t realize where it started.


June 6th, 2013
4:16 pm

Whenever I see the word or Hear the song Dixie, I equate it with – Ku Klux Klan – Racisim – Jim Crow – Segregation – Not Christian – Slavery – Human Bondage – From Satan – A Barbaric Uncivilized and Cruel People.


June 6th, 2013
3:22 pm

As the first two comments illustrate, the southeast is still the leading producer of nuts.

The Privateer

June 6th, 2013
3:15 pm

My Southern heritage goes back to the 1600 on all branches of my family tree. We’ve watched most all ya’ll arrive here many times to much to our chagrin. I’ve watched Atlanta change from a great Southern city with Southern charm, covered by a canopy of trees, with easy going people with Southern manners to the crawl and sprawl we have today. We now have cluttered streets, crime, pollution, acres are bulldozed daily in the name of progress, and the people are now loud, rude, aggressive and usually curse at you in a heavy Yankee accent. The bad thing about having a great place to live is that when people discover it then they all move here and it soon becomes just like the same place that all just left. Sadly, that is the story of Atlanta and much of the South.


June 6th, 2013
12:07 pm

It is easy to understand why people wish to flee the more oppressive environments and lack of freedom created by big government in other parts of the country. However, what is difficult to understand is once they arrive why they often support politicians that attempt to implement the very same policies they wish to escape.