‘The New Mind of the South’ mixes sweet tea and civil rights

Author Tracy Thompson.   (Photo by ImageSmith Media/Dayna Smith)
Author Tracy Thompson. (Photo by ImageSmith Media/Dayna Smith)

“The New Mind of the South,” by Tracy Thompson. Simon & Schuster, 263 pages. $26.

SALISBURY — Sometimes we don’t know how Southern we are until we go somewhere else.


Back in the 1990s, I went to New York to chaperone my daughter’s high school choral group and soak up some big city life.

I was a stranger in a strange-sounding land.

That is, until the intermission of “Miss Saigon.” From the babble of many Northern voices arose a Southern lilt much like the voices I heard from neighbors in North Carolina. I had to smile. Just hearing a Southern accent made me feel at home.

What does it mean to be Southern in the United States? Reporter and essayist Tracy Thompson tackles that subject in “The New Mind of the South,” a highly readable and provocative look at our dual identity as Southerners and Americans. Some of her observations will sound like music to Southern readers’ ears. And some may be a little grating.

“The South exists wherever people are putting sugar in their iced tea and not their cornbread,” Thompson says. Oh, yes.

“We failed,” she says of slavery and the South’s understanding of human equality. “We failed miserably, in front of the whole world, and we had to deal with the consequences of our failure.” Painful but true.

That’s OK. Sometimes we need to feel uncomfortable. It takes more than reading “The Help” to understand the conflicted Southern psyche.

Thompson brings the perspective of both a native and an outsider, born in Georgia and living now in Washington, D.C. She has no illusions about moonlight and magnolias, but she knows plenty of people who do. And that, she says, is part of the South’s challenge.

“The stories we believe about our past have a huge role in determining how we live in the present,” Thompson says. She contends that those who choose to romanticize the Civil War and downplay the role of slavery are practicing denial — something she says the South did for most of the 20th century.

Only now is that beginning to change, she says.

The South has not cornered the market on racial differences, but it is the only region of the nation that is at least partly defined by those differences and the way we have dealt with them.

Thompson’s book falls short of the social history that W.J. Cash accomplished in his 1941 book, “The Mind of the South” — the inspiration for her title. But in its mere 263 pages, her book places today’s South in the context of its unique history and reveals some of the persisting inequities.

Case in point: In 1994, young, white Susan Smith told police in Union, S.C., that a black stranger had stolen her car with her two little boys in it. Within days her car was pulled from the lake into which she had let it roll with her doomed sons inside, all in hopes of satisfying a family-unfriendly lover.

Ministers at the time promoted a series of interracial worship services to quell racial resentment. But, Thompson says, some black residents of Union are still bitter about the acceptance of Smith’s cover story about a black carjacker and do not even remember the special church services. Meanwhile, white residents go on unawares, thinking the problem has been solved.

And so we see the difference in white and black perspectives — the same difference that has emerged since George Zimmerman was acquitted last month in the murder of Trayvon Martin in Florida. To whites, it’s yesterday’s news. To blacks, the verdict is another in a long line of injustices — not strictly a Southern problem but certainly felt deeply here and still very fresh.

History has a way of offering up parallels. “It’s not a big leap from modern proposals to require voters to produce some government-issued photo identification to literacy tests of the Jim Crow era,” Thompson says. “The ins and outs of the immigration debate aren’t that different from the contortions white Southerners once went through when they needed a minority group around to cook, clean and run a tractor, but didn’t really want to think of them as citizens.”

Ahem.

Yet blacks and whites in the South have a kinship, a shared narrative, especially if they lived through the civil rights era. “We have seen and experienced things most Americans only read about in books; despite our differences, the same history has shaped us both.”

“The New Mind of the South” goes beyond race to look at agrarianism, urbanization and other forces shaping our region. As much as the South has changed, much remains the same, Thompson says, such as our “deep sense of community and an almost tribal definition of kin.”

To that list of common values you can add our fascination with books about the South. Call us narcissistic. Or maybe we’re tortured, still trying to make sense of what happened from 1861 to 1865. And before. And after.

“The New Mind of the South” doesn’t have all the answers, but the insights Thompson shares make it a worthy addition to our bookshelves. After all, we are the new mind of the South. Reading this book is like looking in the mirror. If we don’t like what we see, at least we have a better idea of what to work on.

More on the South

Here are more good reads about the South and/or being Southern, recommended by friends and readers:

• Anything by Lewis Grizzard, especially “If I Ever Get Back to Georgia, I’m Going to Nail My Feet to the Ground.” True Southern Man. — Mike Fisher

• “Southern Food: At Home, On the Road, In History” by John Egerton is a classic examination of the South’s food history. Not a cookbook, although there are a few recipes. — Debbie Moose

• One of my all time favorite books is “A Short History of a Small Place” by T.R. Pearson. Pearson, from Winston-Salem, wrote a book that makes me laugh out loud and whose characters (and I really mean characters) remind me of people I knew. — Karen South Jones

• V.S. Naipaul: “A Turn in the South,” described as “a revealing, disturbing, elegiac book about the American South — from Atlanta to Charleston, Tallahassee to Tuskegee, Nashville to Chapel Hill. — Wes Young

• And publisher Simon & Shuster recommends this new title, coming out in September: “Rivers,” a “propulsive” (The Paris Review) debut novel from prize-winning author Michael Farris Smith of Mississippi. Smith delivers a chilling vision of the future Gulf Coast, a land pummeled by devastating storms in the years since Hurricane Katrina. — Maggie Higby, publicist


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