Politics and Commentary

30Sep

Letter from America - 8

First appeared
Friday, 30 September 2011

There is no such thing as irony in Gatlinburg, Tennessee. This pleasantly-situated town, on the northern edge of the Smoky Mountain National Park, is more or less the American equivalent of a quaint Swiss alpine village: it has the flowerpot-lined roads, the heavy wooden architecture, even the cable-car rides up steep slopes covered in pine trees.

But they don’t do “quaint” in Tennessee. They do tattoos and motorbikes, long beards and cowboy boots, Hard Rock Cafe and souvenir shopping, neon lights and “family amusement” courtesy of Ripley Entertainment Inc. In short, they do bold and brash – unselfconsciously and unashamedly “Southern”.

Of course, generalisations about the American South tend to be as problematic as those made about the United States more generally. Gatlinburg is no more representative of the South than Gone with the Wind clichés or adverts for Jack Daniels. Yet Southerners do affirm their distinctiveness from other regions in this vast country; they’ll tell you they live in a place where “iced tea is sweet and accents are sweeter”, “front porches are wide and words are long” and “y’all is the only proper noun”.

Since the 1760s, when Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon surveyed an imaginary line (running west to east along the 39th parallel) in order to resolve a colonial border dispute, the Mason-Dixon Line has marked the end of the Yankee northeast and the beginning of the southern states. There is no obvious geographical boundary separating North from South; it is a cultural-historical divide that has been artificially – or, at least, deliberately – preserved.

Oil-drilling and manufacturing replaced agriculture years ago, but the rural mystique of the South persists. Ineluctably associated with this, however (particularly in the “Deep South”, the Confederate states of the cotton belt that fought for secession during the Civil War of 1861-65), are slavery and its consequences: racial segregation and the oppression of black people.

Today the South is in the process of redefining its identity. Over the course of four decades, sheer economic necessity has been forcing both white and black Southerners to confront the implications of integration – or, at least, space-sharing – in ways that are not experienced in ostensibly more “liberal” pockets of America such as New England and the west coast. (Here, South Africans might invoke comparisons between Gauteng and the Western Cape.)

Nonetheless, even if the black middle class in the South is set to be bolstered – as political scientist Daniel DiSalvo has noted – by a “new Great Migration” of educated African Americans away from the financially beleaguered North, race relations in the southern states are reflected in some damning statistics. What these figures have in common are the two “p-words” more strongly associated with black Americans in the South than with any other demographic in the country: poverty and prison.

One aspect of the judicial-penitentiary system in the South has been subject to renewed scrutiny of late. Troy Davis, who was placed on death row in 1991 and became something of a cause celebre as it emerged that due process had not been followed during his trial, was executed by the State of Georgia last week. The ongoing debate over the ethics and effectiveness of the death penalty has also been fuelled by the candidacy of Texas governor Rick Perry for the Republican Party’s presidential ticket.

Like George W. Bush before him, Perry is unapologetic about – in fact, proud of – his record when it comes to state executions (234 and counting). But the evident pleasure that his supporters take from his position on capital punishment is starting to count against him; after a recent televised debate in which his comments on “ultimate justice” drew applause, his ratings dropped noticeably.

A growing number of Americans, not least in the South, are not simply squeamish about the death penalty but are actively opposing it. In Atlanta, the Georgia state capital, crowds gathered to call for clemency for Davis; this message resonated with the Wall Street protests in New York, where many of the banners carried by those complaining about inequality and injustice in the US more generally cited the Davis case.

The South is changing. Rick Perry and company just don’t know it yet.

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