Just a few weeks ago, I was at a dinner party for tourists in Paris. It's a long-standing event thrown each Sunday by a '60s-era radical, an expatriate named Jim Haynes, who originally hails from Louisiana. Everyone spoke English and mingled about trading business cards and contact info. There was an affable Scottish journalist, a retired Australian architect, a towering Czech businesswoman, and somehow I got stuck sitting next to a blonde, well-coiffed woman from Houston wearing an expensive fur vest. When I disclosed the fact that I grew up in Birmingham, Alabama, she cocked an eyebrow and said, "You sure don't look like you're from Birmingham." When the Canadian woman nearby asked her for clarification, she explained, "You're about a hundred pounds lighter than anyone I know from there." Later, when I revealed that I write about film, we got on the subject of Oscar nominations. We stuck to the Southern-themed ones. She wondered if she'd like Django Unchained, and I assured her that she probably wouldn't. I asked her thoughts about Beasts of the Southern Wild, and she balked and said she'd had no interest in seeing it; Houston was close enough to the gulf for her to feel the impact of Katrina firsthand. (We agreed there was something problematic about a young director from New York taking it upon himself to represent a story so inscrutably about Louisiana.) And then she said, "So many people think there's something mystical about Louisiana. I just don't see it." I guessed she was unfamiliar with the provenance of our gracious host. Without missing a beat, she added, "You know one movie about the South I really loved? The Help. I grew up in Atlanta with a black maid and so did all of my friends. That movie really spoke to me."
Finally speechless, I excused myself politely from the conversation. I felt strangled by my Southern identity—it is something I passionately explore in my writing, something I constantly seek to delineate and explain, and yet I was being beaten over the head with unflattering stereotypes in what was supposed to be one of the proverbial salons of Paris. I was outraged by a conversation I initially settled into out of—what else?—comfort. It was a well-worn effortless chat too easy to resist in the twilight hours of a long weekend festooned with local color. So why was it so damned upsetting?
This loaded exchange could be a case study from The New Mind of the South, Tracy Thompson's ambitious sociological analysis of our mystifying region. Thompson, a native of the greater Atlanta area, writes that the inspiration for her book was two-pronged. For one, a piece of neglected family lore surfaced a few years ago: Her ancestor was a Union sympathizer, a detail that ran contrary to anything she grew up hearing from various elderly relatives, who implied a historical family-wide devotion to the Confederacy. As Thompson points out, "When your past changes, your identity changes. People have an instinctive need to reconcile their image of themselves with their image of where they came from"—a powerful phenomenon that can be witnessed on any given episode of Henry Louis Gates Jr.'s PBS show Finding Your Roots. Secondly, Thompson, who has lived in D.C. since 1989, acknowledges that the quaint, oak-lined streets of her hometown—the historical theater of the civil rights movement—have fallen into an overdeveloped exurban chasm that commands the entirety of North Georgia. Her "past was disappearing," and she wanted to discover what was going on now. She writes, "What did it mean to be a product of a region so largely defined by race in a so-called post-racial era, when the nation had just elected its first African-American president? And did it even matter?"
While the title of the book consciously riffs on The Mind of the South, W.J. Cash's sanguine exercise in self-loathing, published in 1941 and still largely considered one of the more profound examinations of our regional attitude, Thompson's work does less to encapsulate a consciousness than examine facets of her biography against the drastically altered socioeconomic landscape of the South. Essentially, Thompson yearns to define "Southern identity" in the twenty-first century. She heavily reports on points familiar to any progressive-minded resident: the true cause of the Civil War (slavery vs. the publicly accepted "states' rights" narrative), the gritty details of twentieth-century race relations (including anti-miscegenation laws and horrific lynchings), the "brain drain" of small agrarian communities in the Black Belt, and the staggering influx of Mexican and South American immigrants to the Southern states (and their similar cultural values).
The chapter on Atlanta is so fascinating and thorough it almost merits a book in itself. Thompson began her professional career as a reporter for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution in the 1980s, so the city is presented as well-traversed territory. Her passages about this perplexing place display both her casual expertise on the region and the practiced drama of an investigative journalist:
What happens in the next ten to twenty years in Atlanta will show how well this city—a mecca for young, educated, and upwardly mobile black people, with an unbroken forty-year history of black leadership—will be able to cope with increasing ethnic diversity, dwindling natural resources (like water), and some of the worst traffic congestion in the country, not to mention ingrained residential segregation that's a legacy of its Jim Crow past and the biggest gap between rich and poor of any city in the United States.
Atlanta, despite its tireless Gone with the Wind associations and storied traffic vortexes, exists in the minds of nonresident modern Southerners of my generation as something of a mirage: Is it a cultured, cosmopolitan city with a majority-black population? The place that hosted the Olympics, one of the best memories from my childhood? Is it heaven there? Not exactly, but that's precisely the illusion Atlanta's local government would like to convey, squandering billions of dollars in the process. As Thompson opens the chapter:
[Atlanta] is Southern in its inferiority complex, in its defensive need to be validated as a "world-class" city, Southern in its reflexive need to sugarcoat racial realities, Southern in its resilience and adaptability in the face of calamity. It is Southern in the same unintentional way Scarlett O'Hara was Southern: shrewd, afflicted with a remarkable incuriosity about its own past and an almost childlike attachment to its illusions. Over and over, it has been unafraid to morph into some new version of itself; over and over, it has chosen some kind of packaged myth . . . over authenticity.
The section reads like a micro-history of Atlanta's contemporary reputation. As Thompson points out, the city has a long-standing tradition of resting on the shoulders of businessmen moved by the "implacable engine of capitalism," beginning with Henry Grady, the entrepreneur and newspaperman largely credited with arranging for New York investors to come and set up shop in exchange for cheap, non-unionized labor. Thompson also cleverly breaks down the reason Atlanta thrived in the afterglow of the civil rights era, when its sister city, Birmingham, began a long, wheezing implosion that's still happening: "What kept us from turning into another Birmingham, with its fire hoses and snarling police dogs, was simply that racial turmoil was bad for business. . . . What Atlanta had and Birmingham did not have was a sizable black middle class with economic clout, and a critical mass of black leadership."
This black leadership, as equally class-conscious as white leadership, also becomes a player in big business. Thompson portrays former Mayor Maynard Jackson as a perfect example of this two-fisted mobility.
Despite his bespoke suits and the freshly laundered handkerchief he always carried in his front pocket, Jackson did care about the working class, and the major accomplishment of his time as mayor was a huge increase in the percentage of city contracts awarded to minority firms. On the other hand, as a member of Atlanta's black elite, he was also perfectly prepared to issue instructions for the betterment of his social inferiors.
With that shaky heritage in place, Thompson visits the Atlanta of today, with its white minority (38%, according to the 2010 census) and its impressive black remigration—according to Thompson's data, the area claims one-fifth of black population gains in any major city throughout the United States. But, interestingly enough, this massive influx also inadvertently reveals the giant cross-section of wealth disparity in the black community.
In one example of the city's dysfunctional operations, Thompson catalogs the entire 1996 Olympics fiasco; "private funding" netted $5.1 billion in revenue for well-connected cronies, and taxpayers still coughed up $1 billion for necessary infrastructure improvements. This is now considered a perfect exercise in Atlanta's ravenous desire to appear viable and cosmopolitan on a global scale at the cost of its much-needed natural resources or affordable housing for its residents.
The New Mind of the South is an expansive study, but there are some noticeable gaps. If one were to sketch out the path of Thompson's non-Atlanta reportage on a map, there would be a large red mark on the Atlantic Seaboard, mostly in Virginia, where she attends a moribund United Daughters of the Confederacy conference, and on North Carolina, where she sits in on a Saturday morning gathering of the Randolph County Hispanic Association (North Carolina, Thompson reports, has seen a 274% increase in its foreign-born residents in the past twenty-three years). Then ticks appear on the map at Oxford and Clarksdale, Mississippi, in a revealing community profile that seems like a missed opportunity for a disarming and in-depth contrast between the two places (as opposed to just focusing on how socioeconomically devastated Clarksdale is, which seems like a foregone conclusion).
That's not to say that Thompson's research isn't impressive in its scope and probity or even inconclusive; she's just overlooked some key talking points. What about Louisiana, one of the greatest sites for analyses of race, not just historically, but even down to its current governor (and likely 2016 presidential hopeful) being a first-generation American, born to immigrants from India? What about South Carolina, whose Governor Haley represents a similar demographic of the new conservatism? Or, while talking about how immigrant populations have impacted the South, why not report from the front lines of working-class Alabama towns, where the most restrictive anti-immigration legislation has effectively devastated the workforce? Sure, it would likely take about five more years of exhaustive research, but if the New South could be categorized, these political landscapes would surely be part of its definition.
Besides reporting from disparate locations in the region, Thompson strives, however unevenly, to mention the regional customs that Southerners perform in conversation with each other. This encompasses anything from "placing someone"—asking where they're from and what their daddy does—to dotingly calling a perfect stranger "baby." To Thompson, this kind of friendly impulse to relate seems largely esoteric. However, she's been away for twenty-odd years, and as archetypal as these habits may sound, they're still the self-reflexive gestures Southerners make when found outside of their comfort zones. They're the reason I eased into a conversation in Paris with a rich white lady with whom I have basically nothing in common other than my race and regional affiliation. And even though that Houston woman is arguably of the same generation as Thompson, her biography—1960s Atlanta, black maids—is not my biography. I know Atlanta through its looming cultural shadow over the wee Birmingham of my youth, through hip-hop songs that were chart-toppers in the late '90s and early aughts, and now, through the Bravo network. In Thompson's terms, I am of the New South, which is a culture that is influenced as much by its black heritage as its white, with only a begrudging and historically ensconced separation. As Thompson correctly infers throughout her book, even two post-civil rights generations hailing from nearly the same location, the Atlanta-bred woman and myself, are so intrinsically different that we're barely capable of having a polite conversation about our shared culture. It's what the author posits early on when she describes the nuances of "Southernness" as "what the South has always done, which is to morph into something else when everyone—including us—least expects it." While The New Mind of the South has its flaws, it's high time that we're given an unflinching and accurate characterization of this place that has grown so different in even the last thirty years, despite sometimes clamoring to remain the same.
The New Mind of the South by Tracy Thompson
Simon & Schuster
272 pages / $26