A book by a Western Carolina University political science professor and a former WCU colleague examines the American South in contemporary terms of its population and how Southerners view themselves ― and are viewed ― in today’s world.
In “The Resilience of Southern Identity: Why the South Still Matters in the Minds of Its People” by Chris Cooper and Gibbs Knotts, the authors make the case that the South’s sometimes drastic political, racial and cultural changes have not lessened the importance of regional identity but actually have played a key role in keeping it relevant in the 21st century. The University of North Carolina Press publication is expected to begin hitting bookshelves locally and nationally this week.
Cooper is professor and head of the WCU Department of Political Science and Public Affairs while Knotts taught at WCU from 2000 to 2012 and is now professor and department chair of political science at the College of Charleston.
“Many have argued that in an age of increasing contact, mobility and homogenization that regional identities are becoming a thing of the past,” said Scott Huffmon, professor of political science at Winthrop University. “But here Cooper and Knotts demonstrate that cultural distinctiveness is frequently enhanced by contact with other subcultures and has allowed people to define and redefine what it means to identify as Southern in the second decade of the 21st century.”
Notably, the American South has seen once familiar landmarks and features fade. In small towns in the past couple of decades, mom-and-pop diners have been replaced by fast food restaurants, local hardware stores have given way to home improvement superstores and interstate highways crisscross the region.
“It seemed like regional identity was something that should be fading, too,” said Cooper. “You drive down N.C. Highway 107, for example, and it pretty much looks like any other strip in America. It doesn’t look like Appalachia or the South, necessarily. Like much of America, there is more homogenization to the modern landscape. Yet survey data, research into regional markers and mapping of names, showed that folks readily would say they were from the South. There was a slight rise in the black population that identified as such. And that’s what led us to this idea of a resiliency of Southern identity and pursuing this book.”
What constitutes a Southern identity varies. For some, it is about the connection to their origins or traditions and folkways, or maintaining cultural themes. “Even when Southerners move away, they hold to that identity,” Cooper said. “People need some anchor in their mind, to connect them to a place and provide an identity.”
The book examines how music, food and other commonalities play a part, and obviously politics. It also looks at the darker side, with discrimination and white supremacist activity commonly associated with the South, especially during the turbulent 1950s and 1960s.
“Chris and I began talking about this project when our offices were located right down the hall from each other in the Stillwell Building,” Knotts said. “We started writing the book once I moved to South Carolina, but it was always fun to host Chris in Charleston or come back to Cullowhee to work on the project.
“We both consider ourselves to be Southerners but we don’t drive jacked-up trucks, fly Confederate flags or wear cowboy boots,” he said. “We always felt like the Old South was fading but there remained a high level of Southern identity for many people living in the region. We also noticed survey data that showed African-Americans living in the South expressed strong levels of Southern identification. A primary purpose of the book was to better understand Southern identity in the contemporary era.”
Because of the timeliness of the topic and current political and cultural divisions within the nation, many expect the book to have an appeal for a broader audience than academics, demographers and pollsters.
“This is the first book in 30 years to use the tools of social scientists to investigate Southern identity,” said UNC Press Executive Editor Charles Grench. “While based on solid quantitative and qualitative research, ‘The Resilience of Southern Identity’ is written in nontechnical language that any reader can understand. Cooper and Knotts’ work appeals to me greatly for that reason: they bring cutting edge scholarship to contemporary questions in a highly readable way.”
Through its pages, “political scientists Cooper and Knotts examine how Southerners continue to hold onto a regional identity despite the region’s dramatic population growth and diversification,” said Ferrel Guillory, director of the Program for Public Life at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. “This sea change, they argue, has opened new and distinct ways for both white and black Southerners to think of themselves as Southern. For anyone wanting to better understand the nuances of the contemporary South, this is the book.”