Books discussed in this essay:
The New Mind of the South, by Tracy Thompson, Simon & Schuster.
In Love With Defeat: The Making of a Southern Liberal, by H. Brandt Ayers, NewSouth Books.
Since the dawn of introspection, which predates Homer at least, what collective mind has been more exhaustively or passionately psychoanalyzed than the Mind of the South? In the decades since W. J. Cash probed and disparaged it in his historic 1929 essay for The American Mercury, “The Mind of the South” has been revised and revisited by armies of Southern scribes and scholars, and still most of us are unconvinced that we’ve got it right. The Southerner’s tireless search for his identity has been viewed ironically by outside observers—no one has ever written about the “Mind of the Midwest”—and there is no Fellowship of Northern Writers who meet and drink and apply Freud’s tools to the works of Hawthorne or Melville. But I’m in no position to join the ironists; I devoted large sections of two books to this unique obsession, and have addressed it repeatedly in the pages of the Oxford American.
As a troubled South pursues its self—its soul—deep into the twenty-first century, there’s no better place to start than Cash, that doomed and prescient native of Gaffney, South Carolina, who is still remembered by Southern diehards as a traitor to his people. It’s significant that his original essay was published just before October 29, Black Tuesday, when the stock market crashed and launched the Great Depression, the national ordeal that distracted America from so many of the terrible things that happened in the Jim Crow South. Another significant footnote is that Cash’s editor at theMercury was H. L. Mencken, whose notorious 1917 diatribe, “The Sahara of the Bozart,” argued persuasively and hilariously that the South possessed very little mind worth analyzing.
Cash scarcely quarreled with Mencken’s assessment. “It follows from both his romanticism and his theology that the Southerner is ungiven to reflection,” he wrote in the Mercury. “Thinking involves unpleasant realities, unsavory conclusions; and, happily, there is no need for it, since, as everything is arranged by God, there is nothing to think about. . . . To question is blaspheme.” Just yesterday I spied a bumper sticker in Hillsborough, North Carolina, that demoralized me as much as it might have depressed W. J. Cash: relax—god is in control.
If we submit to Cash’s arguments, we conclude that the Mind of the South is a poor one indeed, and that Cash and all his intellectual descendants—by virtue of their introspection alone—are rogue Southerners of a very rare type. In his celebrated book-length elaboration of the essay, published just months before his body was discovered hanging in a Mexico City hotel room in 1941, Cash listed, along with tendencies to violence and intolerance, the typical Southerner’s “aversion and suspicion toward new ideas,” “incapacity for analysis,” and “inclination to act from feeling rather than from thought.”
Cash and Mencken left most of their Southern readers enraged or deflated. But the native “incapacity for analysis” never stifled a penchant for it among Southern writers, or their painful quest for an integrated identity—for some way to reconcile the white South’s heritage of guilt and relentless denial with what the poet John Donne called “an honest mind.” The search for the Mind of the South has engaged each generation since poor Cash threw down his gauntlet. This spring there are two new books by liberal white journalists from the Deep South, honest minds both, that deserve more critical attention than they’re likely to receive.
Tracy Thompson, an Atlanta native and former Constitution reporter now based in Washington, has published a book with the ambitious, seductive title The New Mind of the South. With such a loaded title, Thompson has gripped a monstrously large bull by the horns, though she wrestles it gallantly. More modestly titled and positioned is H. Brandt Ayers’s memoir In Love With Defeat: The Making of a Southern Liberal. Presented as standard autobiography—an aging Alabama newspaperman reflects on his journey—Ayers’s book outweighs Thompson’s because of the history he witnessed and influenced, and the major figures he knew intimately. If you know another Southerner who can reminisce about serious private conversations with Robert Kennedy, George Wallace, Jimmy Carter, and Bill Clinton (among many others), I’d like to meet your friend. “Brandy” Ayers, editor and publisher of The Anniston Star, derided as “The Red Star” by Alabama racists, was an actual player in some of the dramas that created the modern South, for better or worse. And he played for the right team.
In Love With Defeat is a book that thoughtful Southerners—and ignorant outlanders—would do well to read and ponder. During the civil rights struggles that began in the ’60s, most whites in the Deep South were faced with the same choices that faced Ayers. Unique to him, as the owner of a small-city daily, were his leverage, access, grave responsibility, and direct exposure to the consequences of his decisions. Every Klansman knew what he thought and where he lived. As a journalist who fought this fight only on a typewriter, and from a very safe distance at that, I confess to an exaggerated reverence for those like Ayers who were there, who knew that a bullet through the window or a bomb in the garage were everyday possibilities.
When black people recall the ’60s, it’s not just black heroes and gross white villains they remember, not just Martin Luther King Jr. and Bull Connor. They remember ordinary white people and their choices—the whites who rose to the occasion and the ones who failed to rise. Ayers has every reason to be proud of the role he and his newspaper played in keeping Anniston from becoming a racial battlefield like Selma or Birmingham. But this memoir, unlike so many others, is not an exercise in self-congratulation. In fact it’s something of a very different order, more of a lament for a bright, lost moment when the much-trumpeted “New South” seemed to promise a racial, social, and educational transformation as dramatic as its economic rebirth.
Ayers was a charter member and early president of the L.Q.C. Lamar Society, a biracial conspiracy of progressives who hoped to become a permanent, benevolent force in Southern politics. Founded in 1969 and instrumental in building the coalition that elected Jimmy Carter, the Lamar Society began to lose ground and focus when the Republican Party came south to court the race vote. But before it quietly dissolved, the Society and its lofty aspirations created an ironic, nostalgic bond between its members, who were arguably the best and brightest of a previous generation of Southerners.
“Its end wasn’t dramatic,” Ayers writes. “There wasn’t a blinding nova ignited by collision with some fascist death star. It disappeared into the moist, fragrant Southern night as imperceptibly as the last firefly of summer.”
Yes, the author is a writer, too. The genesis and history of the Lamar Society is a chapter in the Book of the South that I only half comprehended, though I’ve been a part of several conversations among members who assumed that I knew more. (One of the pleasures of both these books, confirming that I’ve been sitting at the Southern table for a good long while, is that I meet people I know in every chapter.) Tracy Thompson, a prize-winning investigative reporter, was never a connected insider like Brandt Ayers. A full generation younger, she was a child during the pivotal years of the civil rights movement. But The New Mind of the South is a book that rests on an impressive foundation of research and reporting, including several years of selective travel through the Deep South of her childhood. Thompson, too, has something to teach us.
The chapter she calls “The Big Lie”—in short, the lie that the Civil War had little to do with slavery and that most slaves were overjoyed to be housed and fed—is a disturbing exposé of the United Daughters of the Confederacy, who have often been dismissed as harmless or mildly ridiculous. Actually those magnolia maidens were running a propaganda machine that would have awed Joseph Goebbels, a fact I’m embarrassed to have overlooked or forgotten. They censored textbooks, terrorized educators, and paralyzed the fragile Mind of the South with antebellum fairy tales that still circulate today. A Pew Research poll in 2011 indicated that nearly 50 percent of America, including non-Southerners, believed that the Confederacy fought to defend “states’ rights,” not slavery. The Daughters are still at it, according to Thompson, who once attended a UDC event in Virginia where six-year-old “Children of the Confederacy” in little gray rebel uniforms recited the happy slave myths for their mothers’ approval.
Similar doors of perception swing open for the reader of Thompson’s chapter “Jesusland,” where she reveals that she learned the monarchist mantra “the powers that be are ordained of God” in a fundamentalist Sunday school. What, then, of the myth that the Mind of the South is fiercely individualistic and libertarian? According to Thompson, this may appear to be a flagrant contradiction, “but it’s not—Southerners are all in favor of authority as long as we are the ones exercising it.” That fits perfectly with my conclusion that the South was never really opposed to “big government” or big business either—as long as their agents were local.
Brandt Ayers’s intention is to tell his own story honestly; Tracy Thompson’s is to make a point—several points, some she makes more convincingly than others. But what they have in common, besides honest minds that most people would label liberal, is their anguish over the towering contradictions Southerners are required to hurdle in order to find peace of mind. Southernness, for unfortunate natives with inadequate denial mechanisms, seems to be a fraternity of torment.
“What’s it like to be liberal-minded in the Deep South?” Ayers asks. “It is to be pulled this way and that by complex, contradictory feelings about your own people—about yourself. It is to feel inescapably, even willfully one with a people who disappoint and hurt you, who make you laugh and bite your lip in frustration, whose charm and generosity live side by side with meanness and bigotry.” From the back pews, a quiet “amen” to that.
I should explain that the phrase “in love with defeat,” a repeated theme that became Ayers’s title, does not refer to the fate or mindset of the beleaguered liberal. He employs it to describe the others, the adamantly unenlightened who cling to the South’s lost cause and all the grim failures that followed from it. In some parts of the homeland, he acknowledges, the long shadow of the War remains a central fact of life. Declaring his own allegiance to the future, not the past, Ayers ends his narrative with a confession that once again, “in the white hair phase” of his life, he’s actively engaged in a quixotic conspiracy—the Blue South Project—which is scheming to break the Republicans’ current stranglehold on the South.
The Republicans and their Tea Party cavalry are the key, it seems to me, to any useful twenty-first-century psychoanalysis of the Southern mind. These are the patients to interrogate, on the couch or under a bare lightbulb in a very hot room. The old “Big Lie” so dear to the Daughters of the Confederacy is of less interest to me than a new Big Lie we hear every day, the one insisting that “big government,” creeping socialism, and the liberal social agenda have turned the South against the Democratic Party, now to the point where Democratic congressmen (outside gerrymandered black districts) are as rare as ivory-billed woodpeckers in the states of the Old Confederacy.
Like the War, we hear, it has nothing to do with race. It has nothing to do with a two-term president who is not white, who in spite of his timidity and uneven achievement seems to make good sense to two-thirds of the rest of America—a president who was easily reelected in spite of the majority of the white South, which preferred a money-changing Wall Street Mormon from New England. Except for his skin color, Mitt Romney had as much in common with the average Southern voter as the Sultan of Brunei. No one writing honestly about the South ever swallows the second Big Lie, or denies that our native Tea Party is the White Citizens Council reinvented, a bunch of old Wallace voters in a new line of goofy costumes that are only a slight improvement over Klan robes.
Brandt Ayers makes short work of Big Lie II. He points to George Wallace’s “anti-government racism” as “the ideological cornerstone of the modern Republican Party.” Racists began to switch parties, he recalls, long before Nixon implemented his Southern Strategy. “Unwittingly,” he writes, “Sen. Goldwater led a motley parade of White Citizens Council members, Kluxers and generic racists out of the Democratic Party to install racial prejudice as the Founding Core of the Southern Republican Party.” After a recent conversation with Jimmy Carter in Anniston, Ayers reports that the ex-president is of the same opinion.
“At the end of the day,” Ayers concludes, “progressive voices in the South fell silent because liberals do not burn the fuel—fear and hatred—that keeps the right wing taut, suspicious, alert, and strong.”
Enough, then, of Republican blithering about the totalitarian threat of health-care reform. They’re not fooling anyone. But moral objections to right-wing hypocrisy are painless compared to the corporal punishment we’re enduring in North Carolina, where the backlash against Obama brought a swarm of dormant racists out of hibernation and elected a Tea Party legislature light-years to the right of anything Tar Heels have seen since Jesse Helms was in knee pants. The ghost of the late Senator Helms, Jim Crow’s last true disciple, would dance a jig on his headstone if he could watch our defeated liberals gnash their teeth. As a direct consequence of President Obama’s color, we’ve been transported, half of us kicking and screaming, back to the South of John C. Calhoun.
What impressed me most about these new books is that their authors wear no blinkers. The highest compliment I can pay Brandt Ayers is that he covers a lot of ground and betrays no blind spots I can detect. Tracy Thompson is no less clear-eyed. In her pilgrimage of return, she finds parts of her familiar South deserted and desolate, others soulless, overbuilt, and denatured—no longer Southern in any meaningful sense. But somewhere between her hypothesis and her conclusion she’s obliged to pull a switch on the reader. You will search this book in vain for her formulation of the New Mind of the South. What she shows us instead is the new face of the South, the increasing homogenization of our population and the potential for positive change that all this moving and mixing might represent.
Though she won’t say so directly, what Thompson concedes is that the white-dominated South where she was born has been so slow to change and so quick to regress that only a demographic metamorphosis can turn the page and start a new chapter. Not a New Mind but new minds, by the millions. She observes that the Hispanic population is swelling throughout the South, and that older black people who went north to escape the Jim Crow laws are returning, along with many of their children. These good citizens from Guadalajara and black professionals trained in Michigan will make the geographical South a much more cosmopolitan and culturally appealing place, after the old white fools are gone. But it might take centuries—as long as it took to forge W. J. Cash’s cruel old Mind of the South—before they have all interacted and interbred enough to establish an authentic “New Mind” where the old one had guttered out. And the hour of the new faces has not yet come, at least not politically.
So Thompson has cheated us, a bit. The enlightenment she fervently desires only comes when the South as we knew it is gone, when the collective psyche of the white people who have always lived here is no longer a factor. It’s those old white fools, the incorrigible ones, that both these writers describe so skillfully, with a touching mixture of affection and frustration. Loving portraits of an impossible people. Undeceived as they are, Ayers and Thompson share a wistful desire to see a rosy dawn, a light at the end of the South’s long dark tunnel. In Ayers it’s just an attractive hopefulness; in Thompson’s case it can seem naïve. One mean old Georgia redneck who adopts African-American twins does not constitute a major ray of light in the Mind of the South. But maybe the sheer fact of it would impress me more if I had been raised by and among racists, as she was.
True Southerners nurse a crying need to have things turn out well for the South. But well, you know, things may not. The Mind of the South may be a mind that’s been permanently damaged by history. This occurred to Thomas Jefferson when he wrote, in his Notes on the State of Virginia: “Ten thousand recollections by the blacks of the injuries they have sustained would produce convulsions which will probably never end but in the extermination of one or the other race.”
When such dark thoughts come to me, I wonder if I’m Southern enough to stay the course, if I’m sufficiently washed in the blood to stand the long watch before an uncertain dawn. Brandt Ayers remembers an itinerant black trio singing Stephen Foster songs on his father’s porch in Alabama; Tracy Thompson was a Georgia white girl who ran her fingers through her nappy hair and doubted her ancestry. By comparison, my Southern experience (two-thirds of my lengthening life) seems skin-deep and Johnny Reb-come-lately. My forefathers, nineteenth-century immigrants, got off the boat way too late to fight for the Confederacy or for the Union. During the summer of 2011, the hottest one ever recorded, I wrote an essay, only half facetious, predicting that global warming would render the South uninhabitable in ten years, uninhabited in thirty. I don’t recall tears in my eyes as I imagined that desolate landscape where magnolias once bloomed and mockingbirds mocked.
If your mind isn’t marinated in sweet tea and blackstrap molasses, the South can exhaust your patience. The war on science is embarrassing enough, with right-wing politicians taking money from Exxon-Mobil to deny climate change while the polar icecaps melt and poor people bake in their skins. Most of a century has passed since H. L. Mencken’s reporting of the Scopes “monkey trial” in Tennessee exposed the South to international ridicule. Yet there are Southern places where Darwin would still be burned at the stake. The governor of Kentucky is offering huge tax breaks to a creationist museum and theme park that will feature dinosaurs on Noah’s Ark. Astronomers have just revised the age of the universe to 13.8 billion years; the Bible Belt, counting Old Testament “begats,” comes up with four to five thousand years. Our fundamentalists still perform theological lobotomies on themselves and their children.
But the white South’s response to Obama, which has turned the map of the South to blood red and the Mind of the South toward the rabid right—this is the backsliding humiliation I didn’t see coming back when I was flirting with optimism. I care about the South, even when my shallow roots are showing. But if “the Deep South is the key to a truly unified nation,” as Ayers asserts, perhaps I despair of the Union. More likely, the Old Confederacy will render itself politically irrelevant long before it’s uninhabitable. We all have bigger fish to fry, like the survival of our species as carbon emissions turn the planet into a colossal sauna. I’d like the USA as a whole to survive me, because my grandchildren and other people I love will still be living there. I’m not sure I still give a damn—a deliberate echo of the pragmatist Rhett Butler—whether what survives includes a recognizable “South.” Maybe the time is ripe to look away from Dixieland.
Enjoy this story? Subscribe to the Oxford American.