Review: The New Mind of the South by Tracy Thompson

I've had a hard time getting engrossed in any books lately, starting several but not getting very far into anything. Until last week when I read this article on Salon.com about the vast number of people who believe that the American Civil War was fought over States' rights, rather than the fundamental issue being slavery. I discovered that the article was an excerpt from the book The New Mind of the South by Tracy Thompson, a reporter and essayist born and raised outside of Atlanta, several generations a Southerner, who now resides outside of Washington D.C.

Born and raised in Ohio, I've lived in the South for over a decade, and it still doesn't feel comfortable most of the time, leaving me with so many questions and wonderings about why Southerners think and feel the way they do, why they do the things they do. So anytime I can gain some insight, a glimmer of understanding, I will seek it. I tracked this book down, not terribly optimistic that it would hold my attention, given my recent track record. But thanks to a road trip I finished the book in just a few days.

Did I get the answers I was looking for? Am I still as confused about Southern attitudes and culture as I always was? Click through to see whether The New Mind of the South is worth picking up.




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I realize that non-fiction isn't the usual fare for the Saucy Wenches, but from time to time one needs to explore themes that are more grounded in reality, and this seems like such a time. At a time of transition in my life, I'm trying to answer the questions associated with whether I should stay in the place I've called home for more than ten years, or whether it's time to move on. So, gaining a bit more understanding about the South seems appropriate and the article I linked above showed me that The New Mind of the South could be as good a place to begin as any.

Ms. Thompson opens the book by attempting to define exactly what "Southern" means, discovering that it's complicated, which is unsurprising considering the breadth of area The South covers, encompassing wildly varying geographic areas, and groups of people. But what she found was that two constants unite Southern culture--evangelical religion and slavery. If you know anything about American history, you know that slavery left its indelible mark on the South:
The emergence of the Republican South in the 1960s was based on the need of Southern whites to assert the primacy of property rights and freedom from government intervention, which was a reaction to residential integration and school busing, which was born of the civil rights era, which came out of Jim Crow, which emerged from Confederate nationalism, which originated in the South's need to defend...slavery.
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The line between "history" and "current events" in the South is notoriously hard to draw.

The author discusses the role of slavery, in depth, from the highly successful Southern campaign to rebrand the Civil War as The War of Northern Aggression, something that wasn't about slavery at all but about The North's attempt to cripple and subjugate the South, to the horrors of lynching during the Jim Crow era, to the Civil Rights Movement, to the modern struggle between each of the disparate groups that call Southern communities home. It's a wound that we in the U.S. haven't fully dealt with, leaving many issues still unresolved. 

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She also spends a full chapter discussing the role that evangelical Christianity has played in the history and culture of the South. It's a fascinating look at an aspect of Southerness that has always made me very uncomfortable, being a Northern girl raised with the idea that religion is personal, not something shared in public, like at school or at government meetings.

A few intriguing ideas discussed in the book answer questions that I've had for years! One of the first things I noticed upon relocating from a Rust Belt city was the lack of ethnicity in my new home. Sure, there is a healthy mix of white, black, and Hispanic populations, but where were the Greek, Polish, Hungarian, Italian, and other Eastern European communities I was used to? There are no peirogi restaurants or Hungarian festivals to be found, which was disconcerting to me. But, as Ms. Thompson explains, immigrants did not move to the South in significant numbers until the last few decades, and those new immigrants tend to be primarily Hispanic.
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Another interesting tidbit is that the current wave immigrants moving to the U.S. from Latin American countries are moving to The South more than any other region. In fact, in North Carolina, which I call home, "foreign-born residents increased from a little over 115,000 in 1990 to roughly 614,000 in 2000--a mind-boggling 274 percent." An important statistic that politicians would do well to pay attention to.

From an unflinching look at the Southern rebranding of The Civil War, the Jim Crow era, and the Civil Rights Movement, to an exploration of the impact America's changing agrarian needs has had on farming communities in The South, to a visit with Ms. Thompson's hometown of Atlanta, The New Mind of the South is a fascinating look at a unique swath of the American fabric, written in an easy-to-read voice that draws the reader into the narrative. I would highly recommend this book to transplants, people thinking of moving South, Southerners who are open to self-reflection about their customs, or anyone just interested in learning a bit more about a fascinating place with a challenging history.

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