Being a Southerner is a lot like being a Jew, and every bit as complicated. For starters, this means there is no such thing as "Southern culture" — only "cultures," plural, which range from the equivalent of the militantly Zionist (the neo-Confederate crowd) to the Hassidic (regular attendees of the Ole Miss–Alabama game, perhaps) and all shades in between. Jews and Southerners are both self-anointed chosen people — Jews in a religious sense, Southerners in a cultural sense. Both identities substantially overlap with a specific type of religion (evangelical Protestantanism, in the case of Southerners), though within those parameters there's lots of room for variation. Both identities are voluntary affiliations that can be either adopted or forsworn, even if the natal imprint is tough to erase completely. Jews and Southerners alike know what it is to be a kind of invisible minority in the culture at large, forced to smile politely as they hear themselves referred to in unflattering, one-dimensional stereotypes: I'll see your Jewish American Princess or Shylock, and raise you one Alabama hick plus a Bible-totin', evolution-denyin' school board member from Dogpatch.
Jews have Ashkenazi and Sephardic ethnic subgroups; Southerners come in two basic ethnic varieties — African American and Caucasian. Jews have their Diaspora; likewise, millions of Southerners have been forced to hit the road bound for the lettuce fields of California or the steel mills of Chicago. The Jews have their Babylonian captivity; Southerners have — well, slavery. Both groups have ample experience with poverty and deprivation, yet from this poor soil both groups have produced a disproportionate number of authentic and utterly idiosyncratic geniuses. Jewish culture has always placed an extraordinary value on intellectual achievement and scholarly pursuits; Southerners . . .
Well, okay. No analogy is perfect.
I am a Southerner. The Thompson family roots go at least six generations deep in the soil of Georgia, Alabama, and Tennessee (though a few hardy adventurers have made it as far west as Oklahoma). A Southern identity is something I can't imagine myself without, and yet I've spent much of my life trying to come up with a definition of exactly what that is. Southerners are Americans with an extra layer of identity — yet "no Southerner, so far as I know, has yet seen fit to write about the 'twoness' of Southerners," historian Carl Degler wrote a few years back, referring to W. E. B. Du Bois's famous remark about the "double consciousness" of being both black and American. This seems incredible, given the lavish generosity Southerners have shown over the years in sharing their thoughts about their Southern-ness with the world — but it's true. Why? For one thing, because for much of the twentieth century Southerners themselves laid down such strict rules about what was and was not authentically "Southern" — and anyone tempted to tamper or find fault with those rules found that social ostracism was just the start of the punishments awaiting him. For another, it's been hard to lay down the burden of Southern history long enough to get a word in edgewise. Until quite recently, black people whose families had roots in the South as deep as mine were viewed one-dimensionally as just "black," not "Southern" — as if skin color made them magically immune to feeling affection for the place they called home; white Southerners were either racist Confederate flag-wavers, redneck comic relief, or apologetic liberals. If none of those roles appealed, you could try for Resident Southern Genius, but that was a very exclusive club to get into, or you could go into academia. Or you could just shove the whole thing into a mental drawer and get on with your life.
Most of us did just that, saving this subject for idle moments spent in the company of other Southerners when there was nothing better to talk about, a kind of intellectual Rubik's Cube. Then two things happened that made it newly relevant to me.
The first was an interesting story unearthed by a cousin in the course researching a Thompson family history. Among the nuggets of information he came up with was a set of papers on file at the National Archives referring to our common ancestor as a Union sympathizer during the Civil War. Thomas Thompson was a tenant farmer working a piece of land near the Chattahoochee River in what are now the southwest suburbs of Atlanta — in other words, deep in slave country, not in a border state or any well-known Southern pocket of pro-Union sentiment. According to his sworn testimony before a government commission in 1872, he had refused to support the Confederacy despite repeated harassment, imprisonment, and death threats. Toward the end of the war, he had been forced to leave the state in fear for his life, leaving his wife and children behind to make that year's crop, meaning they were on hand to greet General Sherman in August of 1864 when his army arrived to relieve them of their harvest, along with virtually all their other worldly goods.
All these years, this story had been sitting in the files of the National Archives; for all these years, no one in my extended family had ever heard of it — or if anyone had, had never spoken of it. My paternal grandmother, who had been born in Alabama just after the end of Reconstruction and thus had grown up with people who would have been eyewitnesses to these events, had never so much as hinted about any of this. Why would that be? Because nobody in my family wanted to believe it. The consensus was that Thomas Thompson had been trying to pull a fast one, posing as a Union loyalist in an attempt to get reimbursed for his lost property. Intrigued by the realization that most of my relatives would rather be related to a con artist than a Civil War–era Union supporter, I went down to the National Archives and did some more research. With very little effort, I turned up roughly two dozen similar cases just from the small county where these events had taken place. The documents were faded and hard to read, but the contents were vivid — stories of neighbor turned against neighbor, of entire networks of men hiding in the woods and farm wives who secretly fed them, of people who refused to fight for the Confederacy despite social ostracism, beatings, death threats, even being disowned by their relatives. And for what? The basic answer came in my ancestor's own words, carefully noted in a faded handwritten transcript preserved on microfiche: "I always was, am now and expect to be while I live, a Union man."
My family, anti-Confederates? I'd always wondered why, unlike every other Southern family I knew, ours had no Civil War stories. It didn't surprise me that history had not noticed us, but how could we have not noticed history? Now it seemed clear that we had — and the family silence about it actually made sense, too: in the haze of nostalgia that burnished the decades following the war, claiming a connection with relatives who had opposed the sacred Lost Cause would have been claiming kinship with a traitor. Your kids would have been shunned; you might have gotten death threats.
This discovery was both fascinating and unsettling — like learning that some old family keepsake painting you'd had for decades had, in fact, been hanging upside down. These events had happened within a ten-mile radius of where I'd grown up. The people in these stories had stood on their porches in July 1864 and watched as a vast Union army appeared on the horizon — first a trickle of men and wagons, then more, until the landscape was a sea of men and tents and campfires and livestock stretching from one horizon to the other. "The field was plumb full of soldiers picking peas," one said. "The woods was perfectly blue with soldiers," said another.2 I knew the road they had lived on; I'd passed the sites of those old homesteads hundreds of times. What I hadn't known was what had happened there. My keepsake painting wasn't just hanging upside down; it had been painted over. Now a different and more complicated painting was beginning to emerge.
From The New Mind of the South by Tracy Thompson. Copyright 2013 by Tracy Thompson. Excerpted by permission of Simon & Schuster.