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The South In A Global World

ISSUE:  Autumn 2002

James McBride Dabbs wrote, “Of all the Americans, the Southerner is the most at home in the world. Or at least in the South, which, because of its very at-homeness, he is apt to confuse with the world.” One might see here a nascent globalism—Southern hospitality as humanism—while recognizing at the same time an insularity that was inward-looking rather than hospitable. The relation of the South and the world has changed: the South is now “transnational” or “global,” we assert.

In this time of so-called “globalization,” the nature of place and region is, as they say, “problematized.” Place matters, yet place is mind as much as matter, or some mix of both and more that is difficult to define and describe. Migration of peoples, of businesses, of ideas fuzzes borders, and home becomes where the heart is (or the heartless aren’t). Yet in some ways globalization renders region and regionalism stronger than ever, as nation-states weaken or shrink in importance.

In this context of exploring the nature of place, identity with space and especially region, within a global framework, the American South looms as an important “case”—not unique, but distinctive and important. I will explore four questions:

  • 1)

    What or who is the South?


Remember how William Faulkner posed the question. Quentin Compson’s Northern roommate asked, challengingly, “Tell about the South. What’s it like there. Why do they live there. Why do they live at all”

Roy Blount Jr. answers, tartly, “The South is a place; the north is just a direction.”

More later on that.

  • 2)

    What is globalism?

  • 3)

    What are the prospects for the South (or any regional identity) in a global world? How are globalism and “Southernism” intertwined?

  • 4)

    What should we do? What should Southerners do, or what should anyone do, to seize new opportunities not just for wealth and development but to build and sustain a good and viable society and culture?


For example, a global South must confront not just Civil Rights but Human Rights, not only justice defined nationally but justice defined globally. What does this imply?

Two topics, then, the South and the world. I begin with the South: what is it? What are we talking about or getting at when we ask about the American South?

It goes without saying and yet has to be said that Southern identity is complex, has many levels, and that we must cut below stereotypes.

What, then, constitutes Southern identity? What I propose here is to focus on a single feature of Southern identity and a seemingly negative one, namely its oppositional character. That is, the South famously sees itself as opposed to the rest of the nation. The Confederate soldier in a cartoon grumbles, “Forget hell!”

This aspect of Southern identity comes out proudly, sometimes aggressively, in opposition to other identities. And it may not matter, in fact, not exist, until it is opposed. Most of us have had the experience of not really thinking of ourselves as Southern until we were living in the North, or were somehow challenged to stand up for the South. Even black Southerners sometimes affirm their Southern ties in the North (although they may disown Southern identity when it entails the Confederate flag or singing Dixie). I heard a black dancer interviewed on “Fresh Air” recently assert to the Philadelphia host: “I like to eat. I’m a Southern girl.”

It is not just Southerners who define their identity. Non-Southerners do that too. Non-Southerners sometimes draw a line between themselves and Southerners. A colleague noted that Memorial Hall at Harvard lists Harvard students who fought for Germany in World War II but excludes those who fought for the Confederacy. Oppositional identities are crafted from outside as well as inside, and they are emotional. Consider Freud’s brilliant example of the “narcissism of minor differences,” which shows how small differences may breed large resentments.

Note also what “Southern” is opposed to; it is opposed to other identities in America. You are a Southerner in comparison to a non-Southern American, not in comparison to a non-American. In relation to a non-American, a Southerner is an American. Global relations evoke another opposition, American/non-American. An obvious point, but important when examining the relation between the South and globalism, is that the relation between Southern and non-American is different from that between Southern and Northern.

Is Southern identity entirely Oppositional? No, but this oppositionality is a key feature because it structures relations to the “outside,” to the world beyond the region, and this is crucial to understanding the relation to globalism, as I shall argue.

Now, when an identity is deep and emotional and Oppositional, it is useful to step back and view it from a distance, in space and in time. This helps us be objective, at least for a moment. So let’s briefly view the South comparatively—as an example compared to other examples in the world—and historically—as a development over time.

Comparatively, how unique is the South? How similar to and different from other places or identities? Careful studies show, for example, how the South as a plantation system displayed strong similarities to practices of Russian and Prussian estate-owners and Junkers of East Germany—also with Caribbean, Latin American, and other colonial plantation-based societies. James E. Crisp at North Carolina State University defines the South as a unique overlap of a white majority and a plantation society. More elaborately, he would say that the South is the northernmost extension of the plantation system of South America and the Caribbean and the southernmost extension of a dominant Northern European culture. Still others compare the South with South Africa: Alistair Sparks’ The Mind of South Africa is explicitly modeled after W.J. Cash’s The Mind of the South. So the South is one example of more general patterns.

Like comparison, history reminds us that what we take for granted as a present or recent circumstance was not always so and will not always be so.

The South was not always the South. As David Moltke-Hansen and others show, the South, as a firm identity, is recent—it dates from about 1830. The South as an identity was created for political, economic, and cultural reasons as people spread from the older Southeastern states westward to Arkansas and Alabama. Literary figures such as William Gilmore Simms forged the identity, and political dispute hardened it. It is intriguing to imagine that Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, close friends whom we now imagine as Southerner and Northerner, might not have thought of those identities at all in their day, late 18th and early 19th century.

So the 18th-century South was more like the 21st-century South than the 19th- and 20th century South in this way: global. This 19th-century period was preceded by a global time in the 18th century when the South was emerging as an economic force (prior to the Civil War, more than half of American exports were cotton) and was a culturally diverse area attracting a variety of immigrants (Patricia Nichols estimates that at least 50 languages were spoken in Charleston in the 18th century).

This brings us to globalism. Commentators such as an observer, writing as recently as the late 90’s, recognize changes in the South, but primarily within a national perspective—how the South was growing in national influence, how America was becoming Dixiefied even as Dixie was becoming Americanized, to use the phrase of John Egerton. But the South is also, like the rest of the world, part of globalism, and has been accelerating in its globalism since the end of the 20th century.


What is globalism? More to the point, what is Southern globalism? How is globalism emerging in the South? Globalism is the integration of the world, economically (dollars make the world go round and go round the world), politically, culturally. Globalism is impacting us locally. Globalism creates diversity as people, things, and ideas migrate here as we (and our ideas and things) go there. Globalism is not just capitalism—booming when the economy booms, disappearing when it falters, as in recent times—but it is also an attitude, an identity.

Here are data from the 2001 Southern Focus Poll, administered by the Odum Institute and sponsored by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and the Center for the Study of the American South. Results suggest that while some Southerners see themselves oppositionally—as different from non-Southerners—a majority of those surveyed focus first on global ties. On this poll I asked Southerners whether they saw themselves primarily as different from non-Southerners or as linked to people around the world. Nearly 50 percent of respondents answered “connected to people around the world.” Fewer than a third of those surveyed viewed themselves primarily in terms of their difference from non-Southerners.

Aside from a poll, signs of globalism are everywhere in the South, though of course with a Southern accent.(Literally this is true: children of migrants from China, Germany and elsewhere talk like their peers, including a Southern accent, as we all hear.) Automated bank tellers ask customers to choose between English and Spanish as the language of transaction. Ninety-eight percent of agricultural workers in North Carolina are reportedly Hispanic.

Contrast this with the recent South, which was pretty parochial.

Remember the South, those of you who are old enough, 40 or more years ago. The cars on the road were Chevrolet, Ford, and other American brands; there were no Toyotas or Mazdas, and few Mercedes, BMWs and Jags. Restaurants were American, mainly Southern, serving ice tea and corn bread. There were no Chinese, Japanese, Indian, or Mexican restaurants, except in large cities. If you worked in agriculture or construction—and I did both—your fellow workers were black and white—no Hispanics—unless you lived in border states such as Texas. But today a scholar discussing the influx of Hispanics into Rome, Georgia refers to the “Latinization of Rome.”

One experience.

In 1962, my wife and I went to Indonesia, where I undertook research for a dissertation at Harvard. We lived in a slum with a family in Surabaya, on the eve of “the year of living dangerously.” The family had 12 children, two of whom were dead of tuberculosis by our departure in ‘63.

Indonesia really did seem like the other side of the world then. We had no telephone communication, all our talk was in Indonesian, etc. When we left, we thought we’d never see our Indonesian family again.

Fast forward to 2002: one of the 12 moved to Durham. His son was graduated from the North Carolina School of Math and Science and is getting an MBA from Carolina.

So the world has come to the South.

And the South to the world (via Delta, CNN, Bank of America, blues, and bluegrass).

Two results: 1) the South has moved from opposition nationally to integration globally, and 2) the South has shifted from dualism to pluralism, as the black-white dichotomy is complicated by Asian and Hispanic migration.

Globalism poses an opportunity and a danger for Southern identity. It is an opportunity for the South to transcend its negative oppositional identity. Why? Because the South is not opposed to the rest of the world in the way that it has been set in opposition to the rest of the United States. The South’s traditional opposition is within a national, not a global frame.

The danger is that, without opposition, Southern identity might disappear. Some might see this not as a danger, but as a relief.

So what is the future of the South in a global world? I conceive of two options:

  • 1)

    Southern identity disappears. Hodding Carter predicts this. The South was born, lived as a culture for a century plus, then the South will die. Good riddance!

  • 2)

    Southern identity endures. John Reed predicts this.


Let us pursue the hypothesis that Southern identity does endure.

If so, in what form?

Southern identity could endure in a positive but distinctive form. In this scenario, the South would emerge as a unit different from others, and hence distinctively useful or viable, yet integrated into global currents. Note the example of the European Community. The EC has decided that nations are often too small for globalism and too big for viable localism, so regions sometimes serve better than nations within an integrative system such as the EC. The EC has thus created a Committee on Regions. Might the South emerge as such a region in the world, or part of the world?

The South would participate as a partner in world systems, just as Atlanta was part of the Olympics as a world endeavor and—a lesser example—the University of North Carolina is partner with nine other universities in Europe, all together offering a joint degree. Integration is happening.

If one is to view the South as an integrative partner with the world, the question arises: What does the South, as the South, offer the world?


First, the South offers a history of defeat, suffering, and moral loss that resonates with other regions that have gone through (or are in the midst of) similar historical transitions. Secondly, the South offers an example of repositioning within a nation, economic gain, and global resurgence. Third, the South suggests a program of “integrating with a difference,” of joining national and global processes without loss of regional distinctiveness.

My general argument is this. The special role of the South could be a positive, integrative side of its oppositional identity. It is in but not wholly of America the Beautiful, the U.S.A that is the City on the Hill—the perfected Utopia—but also the world bully, the most powerful nation. The South, owing to its somewhat marginalized and oppositional history within the United States, can and in some ways does provide a link to the rest of the world that the nation as a whole, and specifically the triumphalist North, cannot, at least not in the same way. The North, for example, might connect to other places through ethnic links, but the South’s connection to the world is grounded in a regional identity. I would also propose that the idea of place itself, expressed in the South’s regional identity enriched by new dimensions, including ecology, offers a potential constructive tie to the rest of the globe.

To illustrate the South’s role in contrast to that of the triumphant North, consider two examples from a recent conference on intellectual history of the South. The focus is on special ideas and images the South offers the world.

British historian Michael O’Brien argues that interest in the South from outside the USA is growing, while interest in the South as a region of special study (of history) is diminishing within the United States, in and outside the South. When O’Brien was at Cambridge, only Faulkner was of interest, and then only as a steamy exotic. Now the South is relevant to Europe. Why? America is the world power, but it’s hard to accept the unadulterated boosterism of mainline America; Europe sees that as innocence. Thus, the South has a peculiar resonance with Europe. It is not innocent; it has suffered defeat; and it shares with Europe a sense of being Americanized while remaining, to some degree, anti-American.

But now, to add to O’Brien’s comment: to defeat add triumph, as the South joins the world—albeit sometimes grudgingly.

O’Brien illustrates a theme that is explicitly Southern, yet manifests a human theme, the burden of history.

This suggests another direction of Southern identity; and a danger: as Southern themes are seen as human, as universal, they cease to be distinctly Southern, but instead are subsumed under more general categories—lessons of feminism or racism, for example.

As Southern identity gets fragmented into other categories— gender, class, etc.—it may die not with a bang but a whimper. Or maybe not. Let me give an example: Scarlett O’Hara.


Drew Faust reinterprets Scarlett O’Hara, re-examining the Margaret Mitchell classic Gone with the Wind, which since 1936 has sold 500,000 copies per year. Here’s Drew’s take on Scarlett.

Scarlett was an emancipated woman, or trying to be one. While assuming the facade of a lady, she wanted to be a man, and she did later became patriarch of Tara. Scarlett cared for only two men, besides Ashley, Rhett and O’Hara, both of whom failed her. O’Hara went mad, and men are portrayed as foolish. The Old South emerges as a “happy female conspiracy.” But Scarlett confirms the old values. She was punished, never found happiness, and generation after generation has re-imagined the end of the novel, with Rhett returning. Drew Faust, then, treats Gone with the Wind not as story about the South but about female emancipation.

Now Drew did not make the following parallel, but I will, to Michael O’Brien’s point, that the South, as a part of America, can influence the world in a special way, i.e. as apart from unrelenting American triumphalism. Scarlett, like the South generally, has much in common with women in most of the world. She is part of a patriarchial order and one that is colonized and defeated; yet she struggles. She also fails, and she also prevails. In studies of Indonesian women’s accounts of experiences rather similar to Southern women’s during wartime, I find very similar attitudes. Perhaps this helps explain the appeal of Gone with the Wind globally.(In Indonesia, for example, the film is beloved.) Scarlett is closer to women in much of the world than is, say, Gloria Steinem or Hillary Clinton.

The South offers the world not just shared historical experiences but an alternative ethical ground. Before exploring this, one must contextualize the notion of ethics itself. Like “belief,” as Rodney Needham demonstrates cogently, “ethics” is a concept with a particular cultural affinity. Belief, as a statement of propositional affirmation, such as “I believe in God,” and ethics, the assertion “One should do this, not that” fit especially well with transcendental religions and their offspring, notably the Semitic trio, Christianity, Islam, and Judaism. Two of these, Christianity and Islam, also have a powerful evangelical push, called “da’wah” in Islam, so they steamroll the world, proclaiming “Believe this, do this.” Everywhere this transcendental and abstract ethic, now secularized in such codes as Human Rights, encounters more particularized, embedded guides to living— filial piety, or the like, or simply tradition, custom.

In the American context, this general pattern plays itself out externally and internally. Internationally, America sees itself as the missionary and enforcer. Nationally, the North is the missionary and the enforcer “with the terrible swift sword” in the South and among Native Americans. Where does this leave the South? Specifically, this depends on context. Internationally, within the world, the South too is missionary. Nationally, in relation to the North, it has been often the object of reform.

Further, in its contrastive relation to the transcendental ethic, identified as “Northern,” the South affirms the opposite: tradition, honor, heritage. Robert E. Lee asserted: “There is only one rule: be a gentleman.” Commentators assert, probably correctly, that Northern sermons are ethical, while Southern ones are performative.

So here is an array of contrasts and types, often stereotypes. Depending on context, one can say things like this: “America, including the South, has taken on the role of missionary to the world”; and “America, excluding the South, has taken on the role of missionary to the South”; and “Portions of the South have taken on the role of missionary to other portions.”

Yet throughout these permutations, the South has variously expressed a motif—a certain commitment to place. The commitment can be grassroots (a community against the coal industry), and it can be romantic (the Agrarians). Often it is dismissed as laziness or stupidity—lack of entrepreneurial drive or ability. On the other side, it doesn’t satisfy green ecologists who themselves express a transcendental ethic that may dislodge the human element—expelling the loggers to save the owl.

The South affirms the value of place, placeness. Isn’t this unethical—my country right or wrong? Paradoxically, transcendent ethics have fostered the destruction of the earth, following the pattern of define mission, exploit place to achieve it. Alternative ethics value the earth, including the place we inhabit, and preserve and sustain it as itself an ultimate value (Berry, The Great Work). The value of place at least in principle can be part of this position. In this sense the agrarian ethics of Jefferson and of Goethe are more communal and less destructive than the industrial ethic of Franklin (cf. Max Weber). In the next century, one may see virtue in the stance of Lee as well as in that of Lincoln. Lincoln upheld human rights, the emancipation proclamation, while Lee was loyal to place: he would not invade Virginia. But in the next century, one finds human rights on the side of Lee, locating in Jimmy Carter a merging of ethics and ecology— human rights and preservation both—and in Bush, our newest “Southern” president, a disavowal of both.


Geographer David Harvey argues that the only way to build a better world is from an identity based in place. In other words, globalism has to be grounded in localisms. Harvey issues these warnings to those who would build a place-based world:

  • 1)

    the market model is inadequate, you can’t ignore the market but society has to be more;

  • 2)

    communitarianism is also inadequate, you can’t build a society from local volunteers; you also need hardball politics, national and global;

  • 3)

    no single authoritarian solution will suffice;

  • 4)

    technology alone offers no solution; and

  • 5)

    urban remodeling or other architectural arrangement of just space is not enough; you must also work with social realities.


These are all points that some Southerners instinctively grasp, and they have resisted any single reform—urban renewal, computerizing, bottom lining, communes, big government, a great intellectual plan that disregards history and tradition, including many isms—from feminism to Marxism, maybe even conservatism and fundamentalism.

Yet simply resisting through being won’t work: Southerners will find themselves plowed under, bulldozed over. Offense provides the best defense. So what can the South contribute globally?

The South is one of several places in the world that could contribute a solution to the global/regional question, showing how to globalize while, as my grandmother always told me, “Remember who you are.”

I conclude by re-stating my central thesis; I’ll call it the OPIN hypothesis: that the South is moving from an OPPOSITIONAL identity within a national framework to an INTEGRATIVE identity within a global framework. The South acts less in terms of opposition to the rest of the nation and more in terms of integration with the rest of the world.

We see this in many aspects, for example, a move from DUALISM to PLURALS M: migration of Hispanics, Asians and others, cause our black-white dualism to move toward a pluralism of many cultures. This is not entirely benign; we see signs of new isolationisms and exploitations, gated communities and Hispanic labor, for example, which I will address later.

Another aspect is that our sense of place is not lost entirely through globalism. Instead, we create a GROUNDED GLOBALISM, (acronym GLOBGRO).

Here’s the idea: Globalists say, “THINK GLOBALLY, ACT LOCALLY.” This is fine, but it’s imperialistic, top-down. It’s what’s wrong with the World Bank, UN, USAID.


Three examples: The Silesian representative in Poland’s parliament is a folklorist/anthropologist. She joins a VOLKSKUNDE approach to celebrating Silesian heritage with a political position representing Silesia in a national and international forum. The local is a base from which to act nationally and globally.

Second example: William R. Ferris, former chair of the National Endowment for the Humanities is a folklorist/historian/cultural broker who founded the Center for Study of Southern Culture at the University of Mississippi. Before that, he brought a mule trader to Yale, famously. He built regionalism into a national and somewhat international endeavor at NEH.

Third example: this essay, indebted to a Rockefeller project, which learns from the South in relation to the world.

You can tell many others—the point is to GROUND GLOBALISM, think locally, act globally; build from bottom up as well as top down.

Now let’s link space and time. A sense of regional identity depends on your place in the life history: an infant presumably has none, first cares only about the womb, then the mother, maybe the father, the breast, the bed. At extreme old age, this can be true again, as movement becomes restricted, at the extreme to the bed. Yet memory can range far, including regional identity, though at the extreme that too changes. The best description I know of all that is Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses. At the death of his father, Chatma finds his identity as Indian still strong in some sense, and the son rediscovers this identity on his father’s deathbed.

Less extreme than death is the phase of retirement. This is pertinent to the South and like places that attract retirees. In fact, two kinds of people migrate to the South: retirees who escape work and immigrants who seek it. Both challenge the integrity of regional identity because both arrive from outside the region and lack a concern with the region on the whole. Sharing that detachment, the two groups of migrants diverge in status and locale; the retirees are wealthier and enter gated communities or retirement homes or villages, while the immigrants are either poor or else professionals and live elsewhere, either in trailer parks or good houses, and they serve the retirees, either as laborers or as doctors, etc.

The question anthropologially and ecologically is this: how do these diverse groups and identities merge into community? How could they? How do they play a part in ecological planning to combat urban sprawl, for example, the Meadowmonts or better, which strive for integrated communities in the sense of combining shops, churches, and residence within a compact space? Do they also unite these diversities of immigrants, not to mention natives? Do retirees, active workers and professionals, migrants and natives, join a single community?

Whether they do or not, how do such communities participate in regional identity? Or do they care? And what does this imply for the so-called Southern sense of place?

The old South defiantly and oppositionally said, in Dixie land I’ll take my stand. The global Southerner might say, with Archimedes: Give me a place to stand, and I’ll move the world (or at least join it). Yet the danger is that the South joins the commoditizing, extractive, imperialistic globalization process—far more dangerous than the old oppositional insularity which at least confined exploitation and oppression to a region rather than expanding it globally (and recall that the South has long been a major locale for military bases, themselves agents of aggressive globalization).

These slogans return us to the idea of place, that place matters. Is place an anchor or an albatross? Place, region, space are often identified with parochialism, oppression, even patriarchy (despite the synergy of some societies in the world between women and place; think of mother earth and matrilocality, Minangkatan. Did not Scarlett return to Tara? The South, like other place-identities, helps keep alive placeness as a contestant in the game of defining identity. It is not, then, any particular ethical dictum or concept but rather its own existence that the South offers the world. What does the South provide? The answer is provided in Christine Rossetti’s moving poem: “What can I bring? I can bring myself.” If nothing else, that may answer Quentin’s roommate’s question: “Why do they live at all?”


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