If you’ve ever been confronted with the question of Southern identity—whether you’re a Southerner yourself, or have mistakenly taken cornbread sweetened with sugar to a potluck where Southerners are present, and then been subjected to decisive and passionate lectures about why neither you nor your cornbread are authentically Southern—then this title has probably snagged your attention. If you pick it up, you’ll find that Tracy Thompson’s investigative work seeks an understanding of what it has meant, in the past, to be Southern, and what it means today.
The New Mind of the South dives right into the issue at the root of the South’s identity crisis—race. Thompson explores the lies that Southerner’s believe about Civil War history, the sudden influx of Latino immigrants into the New South, the return of black Americans to the South, and the role of religion and politics in Southern identity. She caps it off with a scathing critique of the city of Atlanta as a blight on the Southern landscape and as a microcosm, or maybe even a symptom, of the Southern identity crisis.
What allows this book to exist at all, however, is that throughout the upheavals and overwhelming changes in The South, over the years, Southern Identity has refused to die. Southerners retain their tradition as friendly, hospitable, church-going folk amidst the tumultuous changes since the Civil War, the Jim Crow laws, Civil Rights, and immigration. The roots of Southern Identity run deep and it’s interesting to see, through this book, that despite all the disillusionment and change, that tree still stands.
Like with all sociological studies, I walked away from this one feeling slightly more marginalized than I had before. Even more so because I’m not a southerner, so I have no noble justification for holding to politico-religious beliefs that are so disparaged in the academic world where this author is writing from. I can’t simply say, “Well, I’m Southern, and this is who we are.” I also doubt that Southerners would appreciate the analysis being done here. Maybe a rare few who are wrestling with the same questions that the author addresses. But that’s a fairly narrow audience.
Still, I found moments of insight that lifted me—left me feeling more enlightened than I had before. For instance, she mentions a phrase coined by Freud, “the narcissism of small differences,” during a discussion of denominational Christianity; she discusses the doctrinal battles that exist among churches of the same religion and how those battles take on vast importance in the region despite being entirely insignificant in the broader view of the world. Later there is long description of “the person at the center.” At one point, Thompson says, “The person at the center is also deeply familiar with, and yet an outsider to, the religion of his culture.” I often wonder how many people feel this way and don’t know how to express it. I felt that reading these words opened my eyes, some. Though I’m not a Southerner, I understand the continual process of unraveling the strands of your own preconceptions and illusions in order to find a more truthful understanding of the world around you.
I’d say overall I enjoyed this book. Though I think when describing the “person at the center,” Thompson was also describing her audience, which I would guess is fairly narrow. Perhaps I’m underestimating readers and not everyone is as defensive as myself when it comes to having themselves analyzed. Still, I don’t know how to recommend this book other than to say, if you’re interested in the current state of Southern Identity…this is definitely the book to read.
A.D. Cole is a homeschooling mother and aspiring romance novelist. She lives in the Ozark foothills and spends her free time reading, writing, baking and pondering life’s little mysteries.
Review copy was provided free of any obligation by Simon & Schuster. No monetary or any other form of compensation was received.