But I remain hopeful, partly because I often learned from my students. That is one of the pleasures of being a professor, and this was so as I was thinking about this lecture. I was on a thesis committee for an Honors College student, Meagan Henry. Her wonderful thesis was on the Christian writer C. S. Lewis, and it was about the idea of transformations. It struck me that our campus continues to be in an on-going transformation from an older worldview to a newer one.
Meagan wrote of the need for “new stories and new experiences,” and that is what I have learned teaching about the South over a long time period. There are many ways to be southern, and we should affirm those that reflect our creativity and achievements, not our failures and defeats in the past. The dominant black–white paradigm has been a central factor in creating southern culture, although of course the South is, again, more complex than this binary may imply. Despite segregation, the South’s peoples have managed to interact over generations. Ours is the story of distinctive cultural groups—Natives, Europeans, and Africans—who created a new culture in the South. In the course of living together on southern soil for centuries, they maintained cultural traditions while exchanging cultural knowledge and blending their expressive traditions in creative ways. The South discovered you cannot segregate the eardrum. People with musical talents crossed racial lines to hear each other’s music and make use of it in making their own. Jimmie Rodgers heard African American singers on the railroad crews of Mississippi and then created the white blues as the father of country music. Hank Williams learned to play the guitar from a black street singer in Montgomery, and Ray Charles listened to country music growing up in Georgia, so it was no surprise when he chose to record a soulful country music album in the 1960s. Elvis Presley grew up poor, in a society that threw together whites and African Americans who shared economic deprivation and also their music, and the result from people like Elvis and Fats Domino and Chuck Berry and Carl Perkins and Little Richard was rock ’n’ roll.
The South discovered you could not segregate the palate. Barbecued ribs, fried chicken, grits, cornbread, okra, black-eyed peas—these went in a cauldron of racial amalgamation, in which meat and vegetables, recipes, and ways of cooking boiled down into a new stew distinctive to the South. Thinking of food reminds us that the southern story is not just a biracial story, as the Native Americans of the Southeast pioneered southern foodways, and not only that, but environmental knowledge, folk beliefs, transportation routes, and so many other cultural forms trace back to the Native peoples of the Southeast. Restoring the Indians to the center of southern history is a lesson I’ve learned in studying the region, and one that will continue to preoccupy scholars telling new stories, which in fact are old stories unacknowledged.
The southern saga is of peoples from dramatically different cultures trying to live together and build a better society. The story includes injustice and tragic moments, but it also reveals heroic struggle and the possibility of change and reconciliation.
And there is the crux of whose South it is. The diversity that has always been a part of southern life, the presence of peoples of a variety of cultural ways, has often not been acknowledged. There are many Souths and many southerners. The University of Mississippi and the state of Mississippi need to be in the forefront of the contemporary South’s struggles to affirm, to say yes, to its legacy. The South is no longer the home of nineteenth-century southerners; those of us who claim the southern identity are no longer twentieth-century southerners. We are twenty-first century southerners. As the United States and the rest of the Western world increasingly interact with peoples from many cultures from around the globe, the southern story will likely continue to resonate. The southern saga is of peoples from dramatically different cultures trying to live together and build a better society. The story includes injustice and tragic moments, but it also reveals heroic struggle and the possibility of change and reconciliation. Acknowledging the inclusive story of the southern past and present is a possibility that has to be a collaborative project, one that will require work to achieve. I have learned teaching about the South at the University of Mississippi that that is the South’s legacy to the world.
Whose South is it? It’s all of ours if we shoulder its burdens, embrace its complexities, appreciate its diversities, revel in its joyful noises and delightful flavors, and build on its history to forge a twenty-first century South.