Thursday, July 25, 2013

The New Mind of the South, by Tracy Thompson

Tracy Thompson in The New Mind of the South (Simon & Schuster, 2013) provides an overview of the contemporary South.  As a native of East Point, Georgia, who grew up during the Civil Rights era, she is well aware of the many changes the South has undergone, of the progress it has made from older times, of the contradictions that remain.  Her tone is personal, and in ways her book offers more a personal commentary than a historical or sociological study.  She has researched her topic, but perhaps not thoroughly enough.  She cites scholars and historians, but offers no list of the works she consulted.  She has interviewed many Southerners, including leading scholars in Southern history.  This is all to the point of emphasizing that this is a commentary of substance but not really of scholarship.  Occasionally her prose lapses into trendy jargon. But the book is of interest nonetheless, and it is especially effective at discussing the agrarian origins of the South and their continuing influences, both among white and black citizens, and in the new urban movements emerging in large southern cities.  Her treatment of the demographic changes that have swept across the South in the past thirty years are excellent (her second chapter, “Salsa with Your Grits,” may be the best in the book).  She offers interesting observations about ways in which the South has changed as compared to how it thinks it has changed.  Her final chapter is about Atlanta, the megalopolitan city that in many ways incorporates all the issues and contradictions that she discusses in her book. 

Race and the heritage of slavery are a major focus.  Thompson points out that white Southerners have not always remembered events of past racial violence clearly.  Textbooks used in Southern schools, even until fairly recently, often glossed over the racial realities of the Southern past.  Racial reconciliation has occurred, to an extent, but she finds that it has further to go—no doubt about that, as recent events make clear. 

Occasional unevenness stems from Thompson’s desire to explain the South along with her compulsion to insist on its foibles.  Though she argues that the generalized conceptions of what the South once was no longer apply, she nonetheless herself sometimes indulges in generalities.  Much of the book in one way or the other documents the paradoxical persistence of racism in a modern South that still struggles to confront its racist past.  Thompson is absolutely correct that race and racism are major forces in the modern South, but it seems to me that she has approached her topic with certain conclusions apparently predetermined.

The New Mind of the South reminds me of Robert Penn Warren’s remarkable long essay Segregation, published as a book in 1956.  In that moving personal essay he recounts his travels around the South of the 1950s, interviewing people both black and white about the growing Civil Rights movement.  He feels morally drawn to the movement, even as he recognizes the sweeping changes it will bring.  His book is a struggle to define his own Southern identity, and Thompson‘s book reveals a similar struggle, though I don’t know whether she has read Warren’s essay.

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