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.