Why TIME Created a Special Issue on the American South

4 minute read
Edward Felsenthal is the Executive Chairman and former Editor-in-Chief of TIME.

It has defied a thousand obituaries, the region that winds from Virginia to Texas, through the Blue Ridge Mountains and the Smokies to the Delta, past the world’s largest peach, the Astroturf grave of Hank Williams and the gates of Graceland. The “No South” is how Louisiana novelist George Washington Cable envisioned it in a commencement speech to the University of Mississippi’s class of 1882. Books with names like An Epitaph for Dixie followed. Hodding Carter III, a son of Mississippi (and an early mentor of mine), carried the theme forward in a 1990 essay for TIME: “The South as South, a living, ever regenerating mythic land of distinctive personality, is no more,” he wrote, declaring single-party politics dead and noting the emasculating effects of mass culture on regional identity.

Long after slavery’s end, even as it became clear that the national shame of racial injustice was hardly unique to the region, the study of the ever-shifting Mind of the South has turned into an obsession–and a profession–for some. TIME devoted two prior issues to it, one in 1964, as the Civil Rights Act became law, and another in 1976 as Jimmy Carter hurtled toward the White House, the first President elected from the Deep South since the Civil War. But the debate over the New South has always been something of a straw man. As the historian Jack Temple Kirby explained in his book Media-Made Dixie (and as just about any Southerner knows from experience), the region is more layered, more diverse in culture and thought, than the stereotypes and much of the literature would have it.

“There are Jews in the South?” is still a frequent response to my telling anyone from the Northeast Corridor that I grew up in Memphis. And as a nonsmoking social drinker who wouldn’t know five-card stud from Texas Hold’em, I confess to reeling at TIME’s apparent surprise in the ’76 issue that Carter “is not a hard drinker, poker player or profane and garrulous see-gar-chomping raconteur.”

Yet there are certain enduring regional traits. One is the remarkable durability of single-party politics. The South, notwithstanding periodic head fakes, is today nearly as Republican as it was Democratic a century ago. Not only is it Donald Trump’s largest and most reliable bloc of support, but the GOP controls every single Southern state legislature. When the Democrats lost their last Southern legislative redoubt, Kentucky, two years ago, the Washington Post declared the party “basically extinct in the South.”

Distinctive Southern music, food and, to borrow from Julia Reed, a certain “never meet a stranger” civility, are also alive and well, despite recurring predictions that the region’s ways would be absorbed into broader American currents. Instead, the South has become a net exporter of culture–and a net importer of people. Years of reverse migration and economic expansion have transformed the demographics and psychographics of cities like Charlotte, Nashville and Atlanta. The population of the South as a whole will soon overtake that of the Northeast and Midwest combined, growth that will almost certainly translate into greater electoral and congressional power.

The South is a place of more diversity and forward motion than many assume, a reality reflected in the stories of the extraordinary group of contributors to this issue, all of whom have intimate connections to the region. It’s certainly true of my own story. A descendant of Confederate soldiers on one side and Holocaust survivors who met in Memphis on the other, I grew up, as we all did, on tragedy and promise, past and present, myth and music. It’s the complicated story of the South, one that, as the fearless Mississippi novelist Jesmyn Ward puts it in the opening pages of our special section, “demands nuance, introspection and ruthless clarity.”

Edward Felsenthal is the Editor-in-Chief of TIME

This story is part of TIME’s August 6 special issue on the American South. Discover more from the issue here.

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