To use the keyword “South” is to invoke, above all else, the importance of place and history. “South” is an imagined location, an inherently unstable unit of space, and yet most people in the United States feel they know exactly where it is: just below the Mason-Dixon Line and just above the Gulf of Mexico. One needs only a compass and an atlas to find it. But the term “South” defies such directional certainty; it has multiple meanings, competing positions, and different personalities. “South,” of course, is not the same thing or place or concept as “the South” or “Souths” or even “southern.” Much American studies scholarship seeks to understand the purpose and meaning of this much-anticipated place—envisioning “South” and its variants, wherever and whenever they are invoked, as situational ideals, as political statements, as self-referential terms, and as frustratingly mobile, sometimes overlapping spots on a map. Each “South” is the creation of a particular historical moment, though the idea of it lingers on powerfully, sometimes clashing and sometimes harmoniously blending with newer meanings of the term.
For a long while, there was only one South in the popular imagination, drawn from the critiques of H. L. Mencken and W. J. Cash and the dreams of Gone with the Wind and the Nashville Agrarians. Specifically, there was “the South”—a region defined against “the North” and captured by the melancholy prose of William Faulkner, by moonlight and magnolias, by the rattle of the air-conditioner and the creak of the front porch, or by rumors of black rape and fantasies of white racial supremacy. This particular South was assumed to be sexualized, tropical, and horribly violent; it was the low-slung id to the North’s preening superego. It was, most of all, a melodramatic conflation of the antebellum slaveholding South with the South of Jim Crow, featuring Bull Connor’s wild dogs and water hoses and bloodied young black men and women, all battling for their lives in a location whose borders were presumed to be unchanged from the days of the old Confederate States of America. In the 1950s and 1960s—when this place seemed most monolithic and uniform, when its rejection of racial equality seemed like one great shout—it was an easy habit to imagine it as a singular place, as “the South” or, more explicitly, as the only South. In the wake of the racial revolution, it was just as simple for those who loathed the imposition of federal authority and who saw parallels between Reconstruction and the civil rights movement to resurrect a vision of the Old South that owed far more to Margaret Mitchell than to John C. Calhoun.
What, then, was the difference between the Old South (defined by slavery) and “the New South” (defined by “free labor,” new technologies, “the Lost Cause,” and industrial manufacturing)? Generations of scholars—most famously, W. E. B. Du Bois and C. Vann Woodward—narrated the political significance of that New South, emphasizing the role of the region in national politics and its repeated efforts to control “the Negro.” But the worst abuses of Jim Crow emphasized for much of the US public a kind of yearning for slavery and “docile” labor and a certain perpetual indebtedness to the Old South. The New South, to borrow from Du Bois, seemed always to be “looking backward” at the Old South, resulting in a peculiar brand of conservatism that made it possible for the Confederate battle flag to reemerge as a symbol of resistance to civil rights and for the end of Jim Crow to be labeled a “second Reconstruction.” This somewhat synchronic South is still with us, flourishing in movies such as Mississippi Burning, in the novels of John Grisham, in “Great River Road” tours from New Orleans to Baton Rouge, and in journalistic travel accounts such as Tony Horowitz’s Confederates in the Attic (1999).
Of course, even within the borders of the former Confederacy, there was never a universal South. There was “the Southern South,” as Albert Bushnell Hart (1910, 6) once put it, otherwise known as the “Deep South,” though it was never exactly clear where this region-within-a-region began. There was also the Gulf South, defined by the port cities of Galveston, New Orleans, Mobile, and Charleston, as much connected to Havana as to New York. At different moments in history, the outer rim of the former slaveholding galaxy—Louisiana, Texas, and Florida—was culturally and geopolitically confusing, sometimes French or Spanish and not English, sometimes Catholic and not Baptist, sometimes brown and not white. The entire southwestern United States seems, at times, to have functioned as a hard-worn threshold between Mexico, California, and the Old South. Indeed, one of the most striking features of the region is not its permanence and uniformity but its repeated exchange (the larger southern expanse has changed hands, or been “sold” or “taken,” more often than any other part of the United States) and its memories of a past life as somewhere and something else. Excellent historical work on this oft-bartered and stolen territory includes that of Edward Baptist (2002), Gale Kenny (2011), and Edward Rugemer (2008).
In national popular culture, “the South” has long stood as a universal marker of rural poverty and racist attitudes. In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the region was portrayed as the home of slack-jawed, poorly bred, and half-civilized whites. When Democratic campaign adviser James Carville defined the state of Pennsylvania by its cities, Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, “with Alabama in between,” the reference was to the section’s intellectual and financial impoverishment and, by extension, its presumed social conservatism. By this logic, there are Souths all over the United States: in Montana, where white supremacist groups are indebted to the slaveholding era’s enthusiasm for unrepentant white supremacy; in New York City’s Howard Beach neighborhood, where it is dangerous to be black, even if one is just walking on the sidewalk; and in Appalachia, where the deepest poverty exists. We lose some vital meaning of the word if we assume that “South” is always in the South or that it is subaltern in some way—always poor, always racist, always oppressed by its opposite, the North. South is, in fact, the most politically significant orientation in the United States. We gain some crucial understanding of this significance if we imagine the South to be a sort of situational location, as much a temporary mood or state of life as it is a state of mind, a political philosophy, or place of business. One need only follow the ebb and flow of former president George W. Bush’s Texas twang—here one day and gone the next—to understand that “the southern strategy” refers not simply to the nationwide electoral tactic devised by the apparatchiks of the Republican Party and described by Dan Carter ( 2000) and Thomas Frank (2004), among others, but also to a certain kind of cognitive style that strikes a particular racial, political, and socioeconomic chord for much of the United States.
“South,” though, cannot be contained by national borders any more than it is defined by the Mason-Dixon Line. The movements of capital and labor have reshuffled the human population since the 1960s, bringing migrant Central American laborers to the same southern cities in the United States that were once national signifiers of the civil rights conflict. Atlanta and Houston are home to expanding communities from Mexico, Panama, the Dominican Republic, Guatemala, and El Salvador. Nashville, Mobile, and other midsized southern cities are, in some ways, newer versions of New Orleans and Charleston, marked by polylingual, transnational, and economic connections to a “global South” running from Southeast Asia to Africa to Latin America. None of this is new. There were powerful links between the southern reaches of the nineteenth-century United States and the Atlantic world; the region was in many ways tightly bound to the Caribbean, with its traditions of human bondage and cash-crop agriculture, and it served as a cultural and economic outlier of the republic. These connections were strong enough to foster expatriate communities after the Civil War at nearly every longitude and latitude, most famously in Brazil, where the “stars and bars” are still flown. Much of the strongest work on this subject examines and carefully historicizes the extraordinary personal, intellectual, cultural, and economic links between the bottom half of the United States and the wider Southern Hemisphere (Smith and Cohn 2004; Cohn 1999; Greeson 2010; McPherson 2003; Stecopoulos 2008; Gruesz 2002).
But that South—the United States South—was never (and is not today) a part of what we call the “global South,” that band of subaltern states that lacks not resources, manpower, or ingenuity but only the capital advantage wielded by the “global North” in the world economy. From the geopolitical and financial perspectives of Venezuela, Sumatra, or Kenya, the state of Mississippi—with its near limitless borrowing capacity, its safe roads and reliable shipping firms, and its blue jeans, clean water, and quality health care—looks a lot like the state of Minnesota. In fact, to limit a discussion of the keyword “South” to the former North American hotbed of secession, slavery, and segregation is to reproduce this same system of advantage, ignoring more than half of the world’s population who actually live south of the United States and allowing the borders of that country to block off a comparative consideration of regional identity. It is a great irony that “the South” is technically, locationally southern in just one, rather limited context: within the borders of the United States. It is an even greater irony that any region of the United States, no matter how poorly treated, should develop its own parallel subaltern critique of “northern capital,” emphasizing dispossession and disadvantage at the hands of supposedly meddling, self-righteous outsiders and romanticizing the past over the present.
Many Souths, then, in very different locations define themselves against a wealthier and healthier North, with its strong-armed “Yankee imperialists” and its troublesome chauvinism. This does not mean, however, that we should simply point our fingers at Mississippi or Louisiana, noting their own imperial appetites, following their gaze southward. The great challenge of the future is not just to write about the dominant role played by “the South” in the Caribbean, in Central America, or in South America or to trace “influence” southward but also to consider the people, cultures, and institutions of those “other” places as equal partners in the making of hemispheric and world history, literature, music, and art and to weigh as well the role of this more accurately named South in shaping the local, regional, and national cultures of the United States.