When Southerners Leave Home

Southerners have an acute sense of home and regional identification, a trait that makes mass evacuations and property losses from Hurricane Katrina even more poignant. William Ferris, former chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, and professor of history at the University of North Carolina, offers his insights to Scott Simon.

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

So much of American history is about people pulling up stakes and starting different lives someplace else. Things don't work out, or when a better opportunity presents itself over the horizon, people get moving: on ships, in wagons, in trains, even on foot. Nowadays, it's estimated that on average Americans pack up and move 10 to 12 times before they're done. So in America what does it mean to be home? That's a question that Southerners in particular have been grappling with since well before the Civil War. In the South, home has been a land to be cherished and defended, rescued and rebuilt. But now in the shadow of Katrina and Rita, many Southerners have found themselves again at that most American of crossroads.

William Ferris teaches history at the University of North Carolina, and is the former head of the National Endowment of the Humanities. He joins us from member station WUNC in Chapel Hill.

Bill, welcome back.

Professor WILLIAM FERRIS (University of North Carolina): Thanks, Scott.

SIMON: Do Southerners really think differently about home and home place than the rest of the country?

Prof. FERRIS: I think they do. Eudora Welty once said that the single most important element of being a Southerner is sense of place and the attachment to places, and when you meet a Southerner the first question that's always asked is `Where are you from?' and that gives you a kind of compass for understanding who they are and why they act the way they do.

SIMON: It's like a vintage?

Prof. FERRIS: Yes, and you can forgive a lot if you know that someone's from Chapel Hill or Atlanta, you say, well, I've known others who were a little eccentric.

SIMON: The huge populations of African-Americans who left the South in search of work in Northern industrial cities through which you can follow so much of the history of the 20th century--what about the sense of Southern identity that those families might have at the same time?

Prof. FERRIS: I think the deepest and most Southern of all people are black people, and those black families who left the South carried what Faulkner referred to as his little postage stamp of native soil with them. My old friend Robert Palmer once interviewed Muddy Waters for Rolling Stone magazine, and at the end of the interview, Muddy said, `Let's go out in the back yard and let me show you my garden on the South Side of Chicago,' and there he had growing cotton, corn and okra. A little piece of his world from Stovall's plantation in the Mississippi delta had been brought to Chicago along with his delta blues.

SIMON: We're speaking in a week, of course, in which there are people, evacuees from Louisiana and Mississippi, who will say, `Well, you know, maybe I have another chance in life now that I'm here in "fill in the blank,"' a border or Northern state, and talk about staying. I think we might project that there are evacuees from Texas who might be speaking in the same way in a week or two. How do you evaluate what they're saying now?

Prof. FERRIS: I think every one of these evacuees sees home as New Orleans, and in the coming weeks it may be Galveston, and some of them will not return. That's obvious. But in their mind, their home will always be New Orleans.

SIMON: What about Mississippians?

Prof. FERRIS: Mississippi has a deep sense of place. In Mississippi where I grew up on a farm near Vicksburg, they say that the two capitals of Mississippi are Memphis and New Orleans, and those are the cultural centers. So that's in part how we can explain the extraordinarily rich literature and music--when we think of Faulkner, Welty, Richard Wright, Tennessee Williams, of Jimmie Rogers, B.B. King, Elvis Presley. The range of talent that's come out of that state is also deeply rooted in the sense of place that we're talking about.

SIMON: Is Texas just different from any other place yet?

Prof. FERRIS: Texas is really--we could consider it like California, a nation-state with a gross national product that exceeds most countries. It's also a convergence culturally of at least three major cultural streams: the Deep South and the migrations that came from Mississippi and Louisiana and Alabama and Tennessee, Arkansas; it's also where the great border culture of Hispanics moving from Mexico into Texas; and it's where those worlds meet the West. So you have very distinctive histories and cultural threads of music, of literature, of businesses that converge in Texas for a fascinating and very complex kind of story.

SIMON: There's a part of me that thinks that this is going to be remembered as the storms of the late summer of '05 when we may have seen really very large migrations. And I'm wondering if you think the season will have a palpable effect in changing the demographics of the South and the nature of the society.

Prof. FERRIS: I think it will. In a way, we could think of this storm and its season as foreshortening what we've seen for the last century. We've seen great artists like Louis Armstrong, Mahalia Jackson go upriver from New Orleans to Chicago. But you multiply those artists and families by the thousands and you have a far greater movement of talent, of culture, of families that had essentially shaken the pumpkin that we call America and realigned in every imaginable way our lives as a nation.

SIMON: Bill Ferris, the former head of the National Endowment for Humanities. He now teaches history at the University of North Carolina. Thanks very much.

Prof. FERRIS: Thank you, Scott.

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