Reading John Shelton Reed’s “One South” (1982)

Of the five decades covered by Nobody’s Home, the 1980s are the beginning of the middle, to me: the socio-political middle, middle of the changes, the cultural middle, etc.  By 1980, the Civil Rights movement (as a historian might define it) was over, the two-party South had become a short-lived reality, and for a while, Southern schools were becoming as integrated as they would ever be. This evolution would continue into the 1990s, before shifting hard in the early 2000s to the ruby red South we experience today. 

It was during that time, John Shelton Reed was writing about the changing South. His book The Enduring South, published in 1974 by University of North Carolina Press, kicked off a steady stream of books that spanned the 1980s and 1990s.  (A couple more extended this run into the 2000s, but those prior decades constitute his most prolific period.) Among them was One South: An Ethnic Approach to Regional Culture, published in 1982 by Louisiana State University Press. This collection of essays centers on “regional sociology” and “folk geography,” asking in its own way: what does it mean to be Southern? and who is Southern? These questions dominated the post-Civil Rights South, which was also becoming urbanized as it shed legal segregation, and Reed addresses them with a mostly data-driven approach.

In his introduction, Reed expresses his preference for writing Southern with a capital rather than a lowercase s because it is a place, not just a directional descriptor. He writes, “To the extent that the South remains cohesive and distinctive, to the extent that we can still speak of one South, we are witnessing in some sense the triumph of history over the centrifugal forces of geography and economics.” In short, Southerners’ sense of themselves and their home is historical, and that sense remains even once the forces of change were applied. Yes, the Mason-Dixon Line and its raison d’être are bygone, and yes, the deep poverty of early twentieth-century South was improved upon, but even without that trifecta of farming, poverty, and segregation, the conception of there being a “South” is still with us.

The first of the book’s four sections, “Sociology In and Of the South,” lays the foundations for exploring what is expressed in the book’s subtitle: can Southerners be regarded as an ethnic group? That would be possible, according to Reed, for this reason: “It is less that Southerners are people from the South, for instance, than that the South is where Southerners are from. The criteria for membership in a regional group have more to do with identification than with location.” That’s where “folk geography” comes in. Who is a Southerner? Why, whoever considers himself a Southerner, that’s who. 

Reed refers often to Howard Odum, whose work earlier in the century produced Southern Regions of the United States, but Reed’s assessment is that Odum achieved more in terms of quantity than quality. So, here we have all this information and data . . . what do we do with it? how do we interpret it? what does it tell us? That’s Reed’s concern, fifty years later. Southerners, then, are people who identify as Southerners, who “believe that they share certain characteristics that set them off from others.” Those beliefs may include the sense of being different from other Americans, may be supported by “regional ‘imagery’,” and may be ossified by the fact that relatively few outsiders come in to affect the status quo.  Near the middle of the first chapter in this section, Reed remarks:

 . . . a regional group has a myth of itself that furnishes not only a basis for identification but a rationale for at least some aspects of its culture. Understanding that myth may be the key to understanding not only how members feel toward their group but how they think and feel about a great deal else.

As the first essay-chapter ends, he adds the important factor of institutions in what is “shaped and transmitted.” These include: “the family, the school, the church, the press, political and voluntary organizations, and the like.” And, often, it is these organizations that are “devoted to preserving some version of their culture or propagating some myth of their experience.”

In the second essay-chapter, Reed asks, “What Became of Regional Sociology?” He comments early on that this sub-discipline, as practiced in the South by Howard Odum,  suffered from its ambivalence about politics—wanting simultaneously for its work to have political effects while protecting its work from political influence. Moreover, this “led to a neglect of subjects not seen as problems, and of problems not seen as amenable to a political solution.” Given the factors used back in the day, Texas was left out “the South,” and Marylanders “feel themselves part of the South [but] are simply mistaken,” since the “the South” was a poor, farming region, etc. So, there was a waning, and then . . .

There was a “revival” of regional sociology, which relates to this project: “Since 1970 or so, however, some interesting things have been happening, and it may not be premature to speak of a modest revival, if not a full-fledged renaissance.” After the Civil Rights movement ended, a number of things happened, among them: Southerners had to question their new reality, African Americans gained opportunities to have their voices heard, and academics and their associations “produced a flood of remarkable descriptive material.” Though not all of the writers were sociologists, one certainly won’t have any trouble finding material about the South that was produced in the 1970s and ’80s.

In the third essay-chapter of the first section, Reed points out a set of facts that it hurts my heart to repeat. While the region has a long traditions of producing soldiers, lawyers, politicians, athletes, and entertainers, we are “much less likely” to produce “scholars, businessmen, or artists.” What may be worse is that “many Southerners have never even realized that this particularly deficiency exists.” I’m sorry to say that most who don’t realize it probably wouldn’t care, even if they were told. However, Reed points out that, despite the fact that we lag behind in scholarship, no matter which measure of achievement or success one may use, we have produced some “first-rate historians, writers, and literary critics.” He guesses that a general indifference to sociology may have to with the fact that, to an uneducated person, it may sound too much like socialism. But in the face of that lagging deficiency, we do have a good number of journalists and writers, who have served a vaguely similar function by documenting what goes on around them.

Ultimately, then, he ends section one by noting that Southerners tend not to be ideological, but more interested in people’s actions and in community. He notes that most Southerners know someone who is vocally racist, but will be more willing to excuse that person’s unseemly proclamations because they think about him as a person, not as an ideologue.  (Remember, this was 1982 – not 2022 – when somebody was less likely to stop speaking to you over who you voted for.) That anti-intellectual tendency also affects the general Southern interest in something like sociology, which is a science that attempts to turn data into conclusions.

Section two, “Exploring Southern Identity,” also contains three essay-chapters. The first begins with the “region as ‘an extension of the folk'” then explains “the geographic boundaries of the South as ‘that part of the country where the people think they are Southerners.'” I’ll admit that, when I read that, I was taken aback— Huh . . . ?  But Reed keeps going, asking three questions: “1) where is the South? 2) where is Dixie? and 3) what is the relation between the two?” His basic idea, which I wouldn’t have thought of, was to use phone books and look for businesses with either “Southern” or “Dixie” in the name, to see where those terms are common and where they fade away. Of course, some anomalies make this approach problematic – like Southern Illinois Roofing Company – but it’s one way to do it. Using standard deviations from a norm, Reed then delineated “Southern” and “Dixie” on maps using a metric of those deviations. Oddly enough, Charleston, South Carolina did not fall within his parameters for “Southern,” but otherwise, it’s what you’d think it would be, with Texas and Oklahoma, Kentucky and Virginia, and south Florida being the points where usage of those terms fades away. Shelton writes then that use of “Dixie” seems to him a “purer measure” than “Southern,” since that term has “more to do with attitude than latitude.” And when he researched that term, he found an area that would probably be considered the Deep South.

Next, in “The Cardinal Test of a Southerner?” Reed parses some polling data to discern where this identification may come from. First, he notes – as have other scholars – that, when discussing Southerners, people often mean white Southerners. And though the data he uses has relatively small sample sizes – less than 1,000 people in each case – he does notice some trends. Native Southerners feel appreciably more connected than those who move to the region, and the areas where the identification is lowest are predictable: “Appalachia, southern Florida, and western Texas.” Also not surprisingly, the people of the Black Belt in the Deep South felt the strongest identification.

Then Reed spends some time on the elephant in the room, the problematic question of whether racist, pro-segregation attitudes among white Southerners form the basis of this identification with being Southern. Not surprisingly, about 80% of white Southerners polled (in the studies he is using) supported strict to moderate segregation, but other questions pointed to the determination that “the decline of traditional Southern racial practices will not necessarily spell the end of the white South as a self-conscious sectional group.” In short, racist/segregationist attitudes were overwhelmingly prevalent among respondents, but these attitudes were not regarded as what held the “group” together.

So what does? The third essay-chapter in section two, about “Regional Stereotyping among Southern Whites,” tries to answer that. Reed begins by referring to his previous book, The Enduring South, and in particular the part that asked a group of Southern white college students what the “typical traits” of a Southerner are:

Southerners were seen as conservative, tradition-loving, courteous, loyal to family ties, conventional, generous, lazy, faithful, very religious, ignorant, stubborn, extremely nationalistic, jovial, and honest.

(By contrast, they viewed Northerners as hard-working and progressive, but also arrogant and rude.) So, Reed wanted to  know what leads people to these kinds of assumptions, and moreover whether actually knowing and spending time around Southerners affects those assumptions— testing the “contact hypothesis,” a theory that says “the greater the frequency of interaction, the lower the prevalence of ethnic prejudice.” Put simply, it’s harder to buy into common derogatory myths if you actually know people described by those myths, and they don’t behave in the ways they are supposed to. When applied to sectional prejudices, these biased perspectives – beliefs and myths – actually do break down a little bit.

The third of four sections takes a look at “Southernness on the Margins,” and its chapters focus on Jewish people, black people, and the new middle class, respectively. While Reed does have a point in putting these groups “on the margins,” it implies something inherently problematic: that “Southern” means white people, mostly poor or working-class but sometimes rich. When I read a book, I always try to remember the time in which it was written and published, and the truth it was trying to tell from that time. Here, in 1982, forty years ago, Reed was pointing out what we acknowledge more openly today: that white supremacy pushed every other group to the fringes of society, allowing only the white mainstream to thrive and prosper in the clear light of day. What we also acknowledge openly today is: other subcultures survived, developed, and contributed to the larger culture in ways unacknowledged at the time but still present nonetheless. 

In the comparatively short essay-chapter”Shalom, Y’all,” Reed mainly discusses how Jews in the South have been neglected or ignored as a focus of study. They constitute less than 1% of the Southern population, and are mostly urban and well-educated with professional careers. This makes them distinctly different from the “typical” Southerner described above. Also, with respect to the voting behaviors of Southern Jews, they tended once again to be diametrically opposed to Southern whites in general. These facts are important, because in the South, common beliefs say that there are only two races – white and black – and by virtue of their skin tone, Jews are often considered white . . . well, sort of. 

Next, in “Blacks and Southerners,” Reed opens with historian LD Reddick’s quandary from 1960: black people facing “the conflict between embracing or rejecting the South.” The data that Reeds uses here shows something very interesting about trends among African Americans. Many left the South in the years after World War II, seeking better opportunities in the North, and of course, the Civil Rights movement laid bare the antagonisms created by the white supremacy. Combining the two experiences in successive decades – the 1950s and ’60s – who would blame African Americans for despising the South and everything about it? But polling data and surveys showed that a fondness for the South grew significantly in the early 1970s and even paralleled whites’ fondness for and identification with the region. In-migration restarted, many black people returned to the South, and nearly as many blacks said, Yes, I’m a Southerner, as their white counterparts. (To be frank, I was pretty surprised and a bit disappointed at how short this chapter is.)

But after that relatively disappointing chapter on the South’s African Americans, the next chapter was a refreshing burst of humanity and humor. “Grits and Gravy” looks at “The South’s New Middle Class”— calling them a “homegrown haute bourgeoisie.” These are your Southern Living types, the kinds of people who create and embrace a purchasing-and-consumption vision of what it means to be Southern. Early in the chapter, Reed calls them a “poorly understood population,” and I would agree. This group, which emerged as the movement was ending and the Sunbelt was emerging, contained a mix of natives and newcomers, well-educated and bootstrap types, some connected to the Democratic Party of old while others seeing a better future with the GOP. Reed tells us that, in 1930, only 15% of working Southerners had white-collar jobs, but by his writing that number had “more than trebled.” {Not tripled, trebled.] By 1980, there were a whole mess of people “getting and  spending, buying and selling, managing and ‘researching’ and ‘communicating’— which they seem to feel beats chopping cotton, and I wouldn’t disagree with them.” Furthermore, he cites the conclusions of a scholar named Harold Grasmick:

. . . the least volkische Southerners are those who 1) did not grow up on a farm, 2) did get some college education, 3) presently live in cities, 4) have traveled or lived outside the South, and 5) are frequently exposed to mass media— in other words, the new Southern middle class.

As perhaps the best indicator of this trend, Reed comments on an ad he saw for a “Southerner” t-shirt, an idea he finds absurd but which must appeal to a certain kind of person who feels the need to identify as outwardly and publicly as possible. Though Grasmick’s five points would easily describe me and my upbringing in the region during this time, I’m quite thankful that I know better than to be that guy, the one who wears a “Southerner” t-shirt .

Finally, we have “The South Today” section. Chapters ten through thirteen take up the last fifty pages of this 185-page book, but I could feel Reed winding down by this point. (Or maybe that was just me.) Early in the first chapter, he brings up a French sociologist named Frederic LePlay and his formula: “land, work, folk.” To elaborate, the kind of land a people live – desert, forest, mountains, etc. – will determine the work they do to make a living, and that work will then determine what their folk culture looks like. Thus, a rural, farming South will inevitably look different from an urban, middle-class South. So why isn’t this thing called “the South” gone? Reed proffers two reasons: “the nature and extent of religious belief and practice, and a relatively great attachment to local communities.” Near the end of the chapter, Reed alludes to a public opinion poll that asked Americans to name a person they most admire, and Southerners were twice as likely to name either a family member or a local figure. 

The next chapter examines another set of  issues we are still grappling with today, forty years later, and quite prominently as I write this: crime, violence, and guns. This chapter, “Below the Smith and Wesson Line,” begins with the fact that Southern cities were topping the lists for most homicides in the 1970s. Despite some others’ inclinations to blame a lack of socialization or a weak base of power to stop these acts, Reed’s idea is different: Southerners are violent because we are accustomed to violence. Southerners are no more likely, he writes, to be killed randomly by strangers than people in other parts of the country; no, people get murdered here in ugly situations by people they know. Of course, it doesn’t help that Hollywood portrays the South as a violent place in its movies. It also doesn’t help that violence and guns are mentioned in country songs, like “Coward of the County” and “Walkin’ on the Fighting’ Side of Me.” And then there’s the South’s favorite sport: football. Near the end, after stating his case, Reed asserts, the South “is a culture that accepts violence as a natural part of life.” Like it or don’t, he’s basically correct.

(I want to step away from my writer’s or book reviewer’s role for a moment to make some personal comments.  Reading a continuous narrative is much easier than reading a collection of topically related works, and that can means that a reader’s energy wanes as the collection nears its end. I’m sorry to report that such a waning hit me in the fourth section of One South. I took a deep breath and let out a heavy sigh before reading chapters ten and eleven, and by the time I got to chapter twelve, I found myself flipping the pages to see how far I had left to go. Thankfully, chapter twelve, which is about “quality of life” is relatively short and not data-heavy, but chapter thirteen is the longest one in the collection. Had I been Reed’s editor back in the early 1980s, I would have advised against making the last chapter the longest one . . . )

Reed’s twelfth essay-chapter is all about “quality of life,” which he takes to be associated with happiness. He begins by mentioning HL Mencken, who everyone knows had nothing nice to say about the South, then redirects his discussion toward a few facts that can’t be ignored. Yes, the South may suffer from poverty and other problems, but in-migration is constant and people who already live in the South like it here. Those facts begs the question: if the quality of life in the South is so low, then why do people come here and love it here? There is very little data in this chapter, which is one of the more conversational parts of the book, but Reed’s point here seems mostly rhetorical. Southerners seem happy being Southerners and don’t seem to want to be anything or anywhere else. 

Finally, after leaning heavily on Howard Odum near the beginning of the book, John Shelton Reed closes with another giant in the Southern studies community: I’ll Take My Stand. A goodly portion of the essay-chapter is taken up by an “anecdote,” which I took be an attempt at mimicking “The Life and Death of Cousin Lucius” in style, then he begins to ruminate in a loose manner about the issues addressed in the content of his book. I’ll be honest that, by this point, I was tired and ready to be finished. His assertion near the end that subjects are and will likely remain a “set of unexamined axioms” was a somewhat uninspiring conclusion for a book that I generally enjoyed about a subject I definitely care about.

Prior to compiling my Editor’s Reading List, I was not familiar with John Shelton Reed. That is surprising to me, considering his subjects and the time period that he was writing. Now, having read at least one of his books, I can relay that he combines intelligence and humanity well. One South contains some charts and graphs as well as some funny quips, especially in the “Grits and Gravy” chapter, which made me laugh out loud a few times. If I had to criticize the book, I’d say that the essay-chapter on African Americans was too short and his final, summative essay-chapter was too long. I hated that I ran out of patience with this book, but it also made me think of the best advice I’ve ever gotten about public speaking: make sure you quit talking before they stop listening.

One South reinforced what I’ve thought and what led me to create this project. Southern culture is varied and often strange, in part because we rely so heavily on beliefs, myths, and narratives. Reed’s main point seems to be that a Southerner is a Southerners because it’s in his heart to be a Southerner. That’s a pretty loose criteria for membership in a region that lacks boundaries and a culture that lacks clear definition. But that’s the South, like it or not. 


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