â€œAll fiction is about human nature…Whenever Iâ€™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.â€
– Flannery O’Connor
“Walthall bought an ancient Jaguar sedan for nothing, and when it ran, smelling like Britain on the skids or the glove of a soiled duke…”
— from Get Some Young, 1997.
Lee Ellis, in a New Yorker tribute titled “Sabres, Gentlemen,” quotes Hannah on the burden of Southern history:
“All the generations of wonderful dead guys behind us. All the Confederate dead and the Union dead planted in the soil near us. All of Faulkner the great. Christ, thereâ€™s barely room for the living down here.â€
The music of African-American (and Cherokee) fiddler Andrew Baxter backed-up by his son Jim on guitar is one great example of an old string-band tradition among African-Americans that is now almost completely extinct and was rarely recorded on phonograph records. Folklorists and researchers found that the rural string-band music so much associated with whites nowadays was commonly played also by blacks in the Southern States until the beginning of the 20th century but soon faded away due to migrations to the North and the cities, the popularity of Blues and Jazz during the phonograph years and changes in popular tastes. Many white musicians testified to have learned the banjo or the fiddle in their youth watching black musicians and some of this influential musicians were recorded by phonograph companies or on field recordings. Their repertoire was sometimes very similar to white string-bands but included tunes that were typically African-American in style. Some were able to play in more than one style to please their public, whether it was a white or a black audience. Andrew and Jim Baxter,for example, could play breakdowns, Blues or Church music even if their more Bluesy repertoire is prominent on the recordings we have of them, due to the popularity of the genre among the black record buyers from those days. They came from Gordon County, Georgia and were recorded in Charlotte, North Carolina in 1927 by the Victor Records company. They made the trip to the recording studios with a white string-band from their hometown called The Georgia Yellow Hammers. Due to segregation, they had to be separated on their train ride to Charlotte and recorded in separate sessions. But for one track, “G Rag”, Andrew Baxter played fiddle with The Georgia Yellow Hammers, a very rare example of an “integrated” band during the 1920â€²s.
Hale County in west central Alabama and Bamberg County in southern South Carolina are 450 miles apart. Both counties have a population of 16,000 of which around 60% are African American. The median households and per capita incomes are well below their respective stateâ€™s median, in Hale nearly $10,000 less. Both were named after confederate officersâ€“Stephen Fowler Hale and Francis Marion Bamberg. And although Haleâ€™s county seat is the self-proclaimed Catfish Capitol, pulling catfish out of the Edisto River in Bamberg County is a favorite past time. These two counties share another unique feature. Amidst a blanket of Republican red both Hale and Bamberg voted primarily Democratic in the 2000, 2004, and again in the 2008 presidential elections. Indeed, Hale and Bamberg belong to a belt of counties cutting through the deep southâ€“Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina, and North Carolinaâ€“that have voted over 50% Democratic in recent presidential elections. Why? A 100 million year old coastline.
During the Cretaceous, 139-65 million years ago, shallow seas covered much of the southern United States. These tropical waters were productiveâ€“giving rise to tiny marine plankton with carbonate skeletons which overtime accumulated into massive chalk formations. The chalk, both alkaline and porous, lead to fertile and well-drained soils in a band, mirroring that ancient coastline and stretching across the now much drier South. This arc of rich and dark soils in Alabama has long been known as the Black Belt. But many, including Booker T. Washington, coopted the term to refer to the entire Southern band. Washington wrote in his 1901 autobiography, Up from Slavery, â€œThe term was first used to designate a part of the country which was distinguished by the color of the soil. The part of the country possessing this thick, dark, and naturally rich soilâ€¦â€
Cretaceous rock units (139-65 million years old) are shown in shades of green. Older rock units are in gray, younger ones in yellow. From Geology and Election 2000.
Over time this rich soil produced an amazingly productive agricultural region, especially for cotton. In 1859 alone a harvest of over 4,000 cotton bales was not uncommon within the belt. And yet, just tens of miles north or south this harvest was rare. Of course this level of cotton production required extensive labor.
As Washington notes further in his autobiography, â€œThe part of the country possessing this thick, dark, and naturally rich soil was, of course, the part of the South where the slaves were most profitable, and consequently they were taken there in the largest numbers. Later and especially since the war, the term seems to be used wholly in a political senseâ€”that is, to designate the counties where the black people outnumber the white.â€
Readers can compare 2012 results using individual state maps at Politico.
Southerners, like Blue Ridge Hunt Master Ann McIntosh, are even courteous to hounds.
Glenn Reynolds devotes one of his postings to noting the differences in manners one encounters upon changing latitudes.
As a recent (female) Yankee transplant to the south, I canâ€™t speak of past southern manners, but I can speak of what Iâ€™ve seen and experienced since Iâ€™ve been here. Itâ€™s been nothing short of culture shock, in a wonderful way. I work in a retail store where itâ€™s occasionally required of me to help customers out to their cars with heavy packages. I have no problem with this, but I have yet to seen a man let me take the heavier box, and if I try to, they wonâ€™t let me. My male co-workers wonâ€™t curse in front of me, or even discuss â€œinappropriateâ€ subjects without first saying â€œexcuse my languageâ€ or â€œpardon me for thisâ€. I routinely have customers tell me not to worry about helping them with heavy packag, and that I should make the guys carry them. Iâ€™m called â€œmaâ€™amâ€! (And occasionally, â€œdarlinâ€™â€, which is also perfectly acceptable.) Iâ€™m treated like a lady wherever I go, not just another random customer. I rarely have to open a door for myself, and I canâ€™t tell you how many times Iâ€™ve been offered assistance to my car when my arms are full after grocery shopping, from both men and women alike. …
Iâ€™m amazed and grateful for a culture that teaches such manners. If this is a decline in southern manners, then I can only imagine what they were like at their peak.
UPDATE: Reader Bruce Webster writes: â€œIâ€™ve lived in Texas twice â€” two years in Houston (1979-81), and 18 months in Dallas (1998-99). The phenomenon is real. There is a cultural graciousness that permeates all ages. It doesnâ€™t mean there arenâ€™t jerks there (though I suspect a lot of them are transplants), but it does mean that there are genuine good manners everywhere. I think itâ€™s the guns. :-) ..Bruce.â€
New Jersey native Lee Habeeb moved to Mississippi. He explains to the unfortunates he left behind in the liberal-misgoverned, decaying rust bucket Northeast why he made the right move.
â€œHave you lost your mind?â€ is the refrain I heard over and over from friends up north when I told them the news. It was as if Iâ€™d just told them I was moving to Madagascar.
I then explained the move. I started with some humor. I explained that we have electricity in Mississippi. And indoor plumbing. We even have dentists. I told them we have the internet in Mississippi. And cable TV. I told them I travel a lot, and Memphis airport has planes, too.
I then told them about the quality of life in Oxford, and how far a dollar stretches. And the ease of doing business. When I show them pictures of my house, and get around to my property taxes, things get positively somber. On a home valued at $400,000, my tax tab is $2,000. My parents in New Jersey pay $12,000. And for a whole lot less house. On no land. When I remind friends about the pension liabilities theyâ€™ll be inheriting from the state unions, things get downright gloomy.
I then explain that my work is mostly done by the phone or internet. So where I live has little bearing on how much I earn. But it has a whole lot to do with how much I keep.
Having disposed of the economic arguments, I knew that one big question lurked: â€œOkay, Lee, but whatâ€™s it like living with a bunch of slow-talking, gun-toting, Bible-thumping racists?â€
My friends didnâ€™t use those exact words, but I knew itâ€™s what they were thinking. I knew because I thought the same thing about the South before I moved here. Most of what we Yankees know about the South comes from TV and movies. Think Hee-Haw meets Mississippi Burning meets The Help and you get the picture.
But my own prejudices bore little resemblance to the reality I encountered when I moved south. I fell in love with the place. With the pace of life, for openers. Things got done, and done well, but it always seemed as if people had time for one another.
Though Iâ€™d never owned a firearm, I learned that the locals took personal protection into their own hands, knowing that a call to a county sheriff wasnâ€™t a solid defense strategy. I also learned how much fun it was to shoot stuff, from targets to tin cans to turkeys.
The Bible thumpers proved to be more caricature than anything. The people I met didnâ€™t impose their religion on me. They tried to live by the standards of their faith. Sometimes they did; sometimes they didnâ€™t. But the pervasive pursuit of those standards made the South a better place to live. …
[I]t is with a sense of puzzlement that this Jersey boy turned Mississippian watches the decision making of President Obama. Millions of Americans may have voted for him in 2008, but millions have been voting with their feet, and he doesnâ€™t seem the least bit interested in understanding why.
Last December, gun manufacturer Winchester moved one of its plants â€” and 1,000 jobs â€” from East Alton, Ill., to my small town of Oxford. Joseph Rupp, who runs the company, explained: â€œWhile I am disappointed that employees represented by the International Association of Machinists chose to reject a proposal that would have allowed us to remain competitive in East Alton, we look forward to expanding our existing operations in Mississippi.â€
For a town of Oxfordâ€™s size â€” about 12,000 people â€” this was cause for celebration. For East Alton, which has 7,000 residents, it was a catastrophe.
And I wondered as I read that story, â€œDoes anyone on President Obamaâ€™s staff read the business section of the paper?â€ He should be studying the Winchester story, and why those jobs fled his home state of Illinois. He should be talking to Richard Fisher, the president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas. Fisherâ€™s recent report revealed that since June 2009, Texas alone was responsible for 37 percent of all net new American jobs.
He should ask Americans like me whoâ€™ve moved South why we did it. And he should be especially interested in understanding why African Americans are fleeing his home city of Chicago for the South, too.
If he dared to ask, heâ€™d learn that we are all fleeing liberalism and chasing economic freedom, just as our immigrant parents and grandparents did.
But he wonâ€™t bother asking. Our ideological academic-in-chief is content to expand the size and scope of the federal government and ignore the successes of our economic laboratories known as the states. He is pursuing 1960s-style policies that got us Detroit, while ignoring those that got us 21st-century Dallas.
In the downtown square of Oxford sits a bronze statue of our most famous storyteller, William Faulkner. â€œThe past is never dead,â€ he once famously wrote. â€œIn fact, itâ€™s not even past.â€
That line has great depth, but in an important sense itâ€™s not quite right.
It turns out that white Yankee migrants like me, African American migrants from Chicago, and businessmen owners in Illinois and around the world, see something in the South that novelists, journalists, academics, and our current president cannot.
The Southern Legal Resource Center wants to use the Civil Rights Bill of 1964 to protect the civil rights of a generally unrecognized minority. It wants persons of Southern Confederate ancestry to be recognized as a racial group. Sounds fair to me. But what about more recently arrived Confederates like myself? I was born in Pennsylvania, and my ancestors were all residing in Lithuania at the time of the late unpleasantness, but I currently do claim citizenship in the Commonwealth of Virginia. Shouldn’t more recent immigrants be able to claim “Confederate Southern American” status via naturalization?
I guess I’ll just have to fill out my census form as suggested, and take my chances.