The Realization of Innovative Work for Lasting Change

As Jennifer Rae Greeson and Scott Romine acknowledge in the introduction to their edited collection Keywords for Southern Studies, “The question at issue [within the field] has evolved from ‘what is southern studies studying?’ to ‘what does southern studies do?’”[1] Southern studies has surpassed the presumption of southern exceptionalism by situating “the South” “within a transnational, global context” and applying “wider theories and paradigms.”[2] “The South” is neither a monolith nor an object confined to boundaries. Southern studies has effectively integrated the theories and methodologies with which scholars engage “the South.” Such achievements are rooted in transdisciplinary discourse and interdisciplinary performance, developing fertile ground for a fluid enterprise. With the resources accessible through engagement in the field, scholars can complicate and interrogate constructed racial and regional binaries. Through such activity, scholars have independently and collectivity confirmed Leigh Anne Duck’s notion of a “Southern studies without ‘The South.’”[3] This does not negate the significance of “the South” as an object of study, but rather inspires innovative exposal of the object’s founding structures of power. In turn, scholars have shifted their study from supposedly fixed notions of identity and place. The displacement of “the South” in scholarship does not imply a “Postsouthern sense of place,” as suggested by Martyn Bone, but signifies inspired critique of the object’s social, cultural, economic, and political implications as they pertain to the past, present, and future. Accordingly, for southern studies scholars to truly realize innovative work for lasting change, they must engage an objective “South” through a subjective lens.

Given that southern studies scholars inevitably encounter implications of power in their engagements with “the South,” their work must signify its persistence and realized operations. Reformed interpretations of “the South” have undoubtedly displaced those presented in prior work, specifically those reflective of the Southern Agrarians’ idyllic — thus southern chauvinist — I’ll Take My Stand: The South and the Agrarian Tradition (1930). Scholars operating in New Southern Studies (NSS) have expounded the past and present implications of southern exceptionalism, clarifying the U.S. South’s racial and regional binaries as they pertain to national and transnational operations. The interdisciplinary nature of southern studies has achieved the transdisciplinary discourse necessary for cross-disciplinary adoption of these theoretical revisions. In turn, all scholars are engaging their objects of study through more critical and subversive lenses. As southern studies scholars come to terms with the seeming persistence of the founding conceptualization of race as it intersects with gender, class, and region, an admittance of subjectivity is more valuable than ever. Regardless of personal lived experience in and engagement with the U.S. South, the paradigm shift that has shaped southern studies undoubtedly signifies on scholarly understandings of and consideration for “the South.” Thus, there is minimal, if any, remove between the realization of innovative work for lasting change and an admittance of political interest.

Regardless of the vocalization of subjectivity in one’s work, intimate and incisive engagement with the recently realized “South” will inevitably suggest political and structural implications. Whether a southern studies scholar is conducting fieldwork within an urbanized or suburbanized southern space, as in the cases of Robinson and Delerme, respectively, or disproving the “exceptionalism” of U.S. emancipation, as in the case of Kerr-Ritchie, traditional notions of regional and racial binaries are complicated. All of the findings presented in this scholarship indicate structures of power; forces that have constructed intersecting myths of Southern, American, regional, racial, class, and gender exceptionalisms. By aligning Delerme’s examination of the navigation of race in the transnational space of the U.S. South with Robinson’s study of southern black exceptionalism, southern studies scholars dually highlight and complicate racial and regional binaries. Thus, when southern studies scholars interrogate these obscured “objects of study,” they deconstruct “the South” in favor of its underlying and persistent regional and transnational operations. Regardless of discipline or scholarly interest, southern studies scholars must identify and respond to the inevitable politics apparent in their work and that produced by others. Intentional engagement with an objective “South” through a subjective lens allows scholars to transcend superficial conceptualizations of the past and present.

The tools available in an interdisciplinary southern studies field enrich the disciplinary soil necessary for a mediated yet pointed approach to study of “the South.” Given this ideal role of the field as a space of transdisciplinary critique and disciplinary revision, all southern studies scholars must recognize the value of work on “the South.” Although southern studies will never be a definable field, as “the South” is constantly revising southern studies, it can realize both stability and fluidity. By pursuing Houston A. Baker Jr. and Dana D. Nelson’s call for a “new Southern studies” and a “complication of old borders and terrains, and the [construction] and survey of a new scholarly map of ‘The South’,” New Southern Studies has advanced the breadth and depth of study of “the South.”[4] Given their application of critical theoretical frameworks and embrace of an ever-expanding quantity of program studies (black studies, women’s studies, Appalachian studies, Indian Studies, etc.), southern literary and cultural studies scholars inevitably expose fertile terrain for subjective and active critique of power structures. As southern studies envelops the scholarship of program studies, “the South’s” service as a symptom of a more expansive and persistent disease is exposed. Taylor’s Reconstructing the Native South (2011) represents this interrogation of the overarching forces that have ultimately determined the “fixed” constructions affecting “the South,” as she engages “both Native and non-Native struggles in [the U.S. South]” as they pertain to the “totalizing power of advanced capitalism.”[5] Although her work is clearly politically inspired, pointed revisions of the conceptualized “South” through subjective lenses do not require such blatant and directed charges. Given that any complication of the paradigm should implicate critique or interrogation of traditional notions of power, southern scholars can produce innovative work for lasting change in all spheres of study.

Although scholars studying “the South” may not address objects of study through explicitly subjective and active lenses, their engagements with “the South” expand the boundaries of southern studies scholarship. For example, Foster’s sociological study, “Everybody Gotta Have a Dream” (2014), may neither be particularly innovative nor progressive, but his findings implicate the political, economic, and social burdens that young black men must confront as they pursue upward mobility and cultural relevance. While southern studies scholars from the social sciences (anthropology, sociology, human geography, and oral history) must respond to ethical codes of conduct and Institutional Review Boards, their subjectivities are manifested in the selected objects of study and the theoretical and methodological approaches with which their work is conducted. As such, for truly innovative work for lasting change, these scholars must pursue objects and adopt interdisciplinary practices that dually critique the constructed “South” and elevate the agency realized in their fieldwork. Examination of subversive placemaking and non-normative community and cultural operations, such as that presented in Giancarlo’s “Spatializing Black Culture” (2020) and Chapman’s “Katrina babies” (2017), reflects the ways in which this pursuit can be realized. Giancarlo demonstrates “how boucheries serve culture-sustaining roles for black Louisianans,” thus elevating black cultural operations over the dominant racialized perception of space and cultural production.[6] The promotion of agency in opposition to overarching operations of power is, itself, a political and subversive act.

Southern studies as a space for transdisciplinary discourse has realized an overwhelming wealth of choice in how scholars dismantle “the South.” This opportunity materializes through interdisciplinary application within disciplinary space. The amalgamation of theory and methodology does not implicate a distancing from disciplinary training, but rather indicates a shift in perception towards what “the South” was, is, and may be. As such, southern studies scholars should approach the traditional paradigm while also exposing its constructed nature. The aforementioned works by Robinson and Delerme balance this negotiation, as they identify the persistence of racial and regional binaries as malleable manifestations of power. Given their constructed nature, these binaries are increasingly forced to adapt and thus strain as the U.S. South experiences globalization and migratory shifts. Such works are not forthrightly subjective, given the disciplinary backgrounds of and methodological approaches undertaken by these two scholars, but their findings challenge the authority of seemingly fixed constructions.

For all southern studies scholars to effectively adapt their scholarship within appropriate subjectivities, southern studies as a space for academic engagement must become increasingly accessible. Scholars across disciplines do not have the propriety to critique the “credibility” of others’ works as they pertain to valuable interrogation of “the South.” Evidenced in the aforementioned oversight required in certain disciplines within the social sciences, their freedom to address the magnitude of the broader object — represented by “the South” — is limited. These scholars have appropriately balanced this act through their emphasis on the local as it intersects with place and identity. Such engaged scholarship allows for interrogation of oppressive and resistant identity and place operations. The wealth of works collected in Coffey and Skipper’s Navigating Souths: Transdisciplinary Explorations of a U.S. Region (2017) relays this progress in the study of “the South.” Chapman’s “Katrina Babies” (2017), Ferreti’s “Southern Inhospitality” (2017), and Radishofski’s “Last (Un)Fair Deal Going Down” (2017) all implicate constructed binaries as they pertain to forces of oppression and the respondent resistance. Chapman complicates the “white, heteronormative frames of kinship” by clarifying the “nonbiological forms of social reproduction” as they pertain to queer people of color.[7] As Chapman challenges constructed social frameworks, Ferreti addresses Alabama’s maintenance of racial and regional boundaries in an increasingly globalized world. As such, these works align with the more pointed pursuits evidenced in work within New Southern Studies, but their vocalizations of such critique manifest in active engagement with and exploration of realized experience in the U.S. South.

As southern studies scholars heighten the intensity by which they interrogate the constructed “South” to signify its persistence and elevate previously obscured “Souths,” the notion of a singular definition of “innovation” must be dismissed. For example, evidenced in the 2010 discussion on “Understanding the South, Understanding America,” uncertainty among southern historians as they relate to the southern studies field exceeds past the inapplicability of cultural studies “jargon” and pertains to the depth of critique in their studies of “the South.” The arguments of both southern historians and New Southern Studies are relatively valid, as southern historians should diligently engage the work of NSS. On the other hand, as Wilson notes in “Reimagining Southern Studies” (2017), “the leading modernist historian of the South, C. Vann Woodward, had early moved away from the W.J. Cash metanarrative of the singular ‘mind of the South’ to deconstruct the South’s white power establishment and its white supremacist strictures.”[8] While this suggests an early progressiveness by southern historians, as Woodward’s innovative work had lasting repercussions in scholarship, this realization should not be an excuse for stagnant study in the postmodern moment. Current and future innovation in the discipline should address scholarship across disciplines to embolden its pursuit of race-making as overviewed by Adams and Ownby. The relative “straightforwardness” of emplotments of the past does not imply inactive and apolitical engagement with “the South.” In fact, interrogation of an “objective” past materializes into subjective narratives. As White’s Metahistory (1973) suggests, “no emplotment of the chronicle is without visible markers of ideology and argument.”[9]

Realization of study of an objective “South” through a subjective lens is only possible when southern studies scholars respond to and interrogate both past and present productions of historical narratives. Through this activity, scholars can expose oppressive embodiments of “the South” as they pertain to historicity. Subjective engagement with the objective “South” results in revelations of normative and non-normative operations. Work that has interrogated the “exceptional” nature of America’s “peculiar institution” has proven vital to southern studies scholarship. By shifting focus towards agency rather than subordination, scholarship across disciplines has expanded politically and actively. Through critical theory, all southern studies scholarship has undoubtedly been politicalized — whether intentional or subconsciously. This progress has already prompted work towards lasting change; southern studies scholars must continue to embrace this course through continued interrogation of the implications of “the South” as an object. Simple recognition of its constructed nature is significant but ultimately insufficient, as true innovation of work for lasting change mandates action.

Recent southern studies scholarship has identified the persistent reality of “the South” as it implicates economic, social, and political conditions, signifying the necessity of subjective critique. As evidenced in scholarship responding to program studies, approaching “the South” in regional and sub-regional contexts exposes the implications of these identity markers. Hayes’ “Deconstructing the Bible Belt” (2017) complicates “the South” by historicizing the notion of the U.S. South as the Bible Belt. Hayes dispels religious and political exceptionalism in the U.S. South by highlighting the national grasp of evangelicalism. Additionally, Engelhardt and Smith’s collection of essays, The Food We Eat, The Stories We Tell (2019), complicates New Southern and Appalachian cuisines by signifying the intersections of race, class, and gender that have been obscured due to the current cultural prestige of traditional foodways. Seemingly negligent markers of “the South” are laden with forces of oppression and resistance. Thus, true innovation in scholarship, regardless of disciplinary framework, is the complication of the traditional paradigm as it pertains to human and societal operations. Through their elevations of historicity as they pertain to the present conceptualizations of “the South,” these scholars aim to dually dismantle “the South” as idealized in the past and the present. Pointedly, Hayes historicizes “the Bible Belt” to clarify religion and the U.S. South as considered by other scholars. When southern studies scholars engage historicity as it relates to their objects of study, politics will inevitably arise. True innovation implies an embrace of this influence. For example, as they pursue the complication of “the South,” southern historians must clarify both the forces responsible for constructing normative fixtures and those actors navigating and actively resisting them. In turn, their work engages objective implications while also indicating the breadth and depth of “the South.”

Through dual embrace of the resources available in southern studies and a subjective lens, scholars are equipped to engage “the South” independent of and in dialogue with broader disciplinary and transdisciplinary scholarship. Given that the revelation of new, more antithetical “Souths” is the crux of southern studies, study of “the South” requires subjective consideration. As evidenced throughout recent scholarship, southern studies scholars’ engagements with “the South” inevitably require critical examination of structures of power. Thus, scholars must decide whether they will merely note the global bearing of dominant paradigms or pointedly identify and dismantle them. In their work After the Dream: Black and White Southerners Since 1965 (2011), Minchin and Salmond clarify the ongoing implications of civil rights legislation, identifying the political, economic, and social circumstances that have maintained and complicated the racial binary. Their work is emblematic of the value of subjective study of “the South,” as their emplotment of the post-civil rights era identifies the parties responsible for maintaining social hierarchies of race, class, and gender. Although progressive scholarship may strain personal and disciplinary boundaries, as seen in the recent fieldwork experience of Coffey, this tension indicates that work for lasting change is being done. While southern studies scholars must operate within disciplinary procedures, the implications of their work for other disciplines and the overarching dismantling of “the South” as an embodiment of power is significant.

Considering that subjectivity can implicate critical thought of political relevance, southern studies scholars should realize its influence through their work. Given the historicity of the constructed “South” as it pertains to structures of power, scholars encounter resilient forces of oppression. In their work, scholars must address these forces of oppression and suppression as they elevate acts that complicate and resist them. Southern historian Ted Ownby writes, “Perhaps nothing in the past decade or so has been as influential as the argument that concepts, ideas, arguments, assumptions about race, blackness, whiteness, gender, nation, region, and lots of other ideas are constructions [that people use to] support existing social relations, to try to make them seem natural or normal, or to subvert or at least complicate those social relations.”[10] As southern studies scholars continue to interrogate these constructions, they must dually examine their maintenance and active complication. For scholars to realize innovative work for lasting change, they must admit to the persistence of these constructions. Just as they have shaped the conceptualized and literal past, constructions of identity and place relay into the present. Admittance of their significance does not suggest inaction, as critique through a subjective lens can prompt the realization of agency.

Given that scholars are engaging their objects of study in the contemporary moment, a subjective approach to scholarship can introduce previously concentrated work into public discourse. Consideration of “the South’s” persistence is significant, as public discourse displays its strengths and weaknesses as a construction. Skipper, Green, and Chapman’s “Public History, Diversity, and Higher Education: Three Case Studies on the African American Past,” and Cook’s “Textual Politics of Alabama’s Historical Markers: Slavery, Emancipation, and Civil Rights” reflect scholarly engagements with this public space. Skipper, Green, and Chapman communicate their distinct experiences to highlight the possibilities of and challenges to the diversification of public history. Cook engages textual politics to highlight the inequity of black representation in Alabama’s AHA-produced historical markers. These scholars focus their work on two states in the U.S. South, but their findings indicate broader systemic issues. Neither works admit political interest, but their findings and arguments portray calls for public, thus political, action.

Southern studies scholars are studying “the South” through more critical and skeptical lenses, indicative of underlying subjective influence. In turn, the implications of the constructed “South” in global, regional, and local contexts have been identified, distorted, and displaced in favor of the actors maintaining and acting against this paradigm. Elevation of agency as it pertains to the constantly adjusting binaries that contextualize the “South” is crucial for work for lasting change. Elaboration of the modes and forms of this agency, manifested in scholars’ acknowledgements of political interest, can translate into awareness within the broader public, thus political, sphere. For southern studies scholars to continue to develop this scaffolding of active scholarship, the field as a whole must continue to incorporate scholarship previously considered inconsistent with study of “the South.” As Wilson recognizes, southern studies “has special meanings in terms of social activism, and a question for us to consider is how any new southern studies relates to social activism.”[11] Thus, southern studies scholars should more meaningfully identify commonalities in their research and those of scholars studying “labor history, immigration history, or ethnic studies.”[12] Additionally, as suggested by Vernon in Ecocriticism & the Future of Southern Studies (2019), southern studies scholars should pursue study of “the South” with ecocriticism and environmental studies in mind. Although these works may contrast in subject matter, the underlying implications of power are the same. As evidenced in Mauldin’s Unredeemed Land (2018), in which she highlights the intersection of land exploitation with race and class, all findings from work on “the South” signify on one another, indicative of the construction’s fortitude. By studying an objective “South” through a subjective lens, southern studies scholars can more fully realize the shared implications of their scholarship and thus, work towards real and lasting change.

[1] Jennifer Rae Greeson and Scott Romine, “Introduction,” in Keywords for Southern Studies, eds. Jennifer Rae Greeson and Scott Romine (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2016), 3.

[2] Sarah Robertson, “Pushing Boundaries in Southern Studies,” Journal of American Studies 48, no. 3 (August 2014): 702, https://www.jstor.org/stable/24485926.

[3] Greeson and Romine, “Introduction,” 2.

[4] Houston A. Baker Jr. and Dana D. Nelson, “Preface: Violence, the Body and “The South,” American Literature 73, no. 2 (June 2001): 243, https://doi.org/10.1215/00029831-73-2-231.

[5] Melanie Benson Taylor, Reconstructing the Native South: American Indian Literature and the Lost Cause (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2011), 23.

[6] Alexandra L. Giancarlo, “Spatializing Black Culture through Placemaking Tradition of the Rural Louisiana Creole Boucherie,” in Geographical Review 1, no. 1 (2020), 1.

[7] Alix Chapman, “Katrina Babies: Reproducing Deviance in the Future Unknown,” in Navigating Souths: Transdisciplinary Explorations of a U.S. Region, eds. Michele Grigsby Coffey and Jodi Skipper (Athens: University of Georgia, 2017), 75, 81.

[8] Charles Reagan Wilson, “Reimagining Southern Studies: Time and Space, Bodies and Spirits,” in Navigating Souths: Transdisciplinary Explorations of a U.S. Region, eds. Michele Grigsby Coffey and Jodi Skipper (Athens: University of Georgia, 2017), 33.

[9] Carrie Helms Tippen, Inventing Authenticity: How Cookbook Writers Redefine Southern Identity (University of Arkansas Press, 2018), 67.

[10] Ted Ownby, “Director’s Column,” Southern Register (Winter 2010): 2.

[11] Wilson, “Reimagining Southern Studies,” 49.

[12] Ibid., 50.