Back Pages: Travel author dishes up clichés about the South

Travel writer Chuck Thompson has done articles, reporting, essays and commentaries from more than 50 nations. But it is doubtful he’s ever generated anything like the controversy that has ensued online and in the arts/critical world over his new book Better Off Without ‘Em : A Northern Manifesto for  Southern Independence (Simon & Schuster). Thompson visited the Southern states that formerly comprised the confederacy and treats his journey as if he were on tour in another nation. He suggests that it might be best for Americans outside this area to view the South as a foreign land. Only he has far more respect for those in power elsewhere.

betteroffA couple of personal points for clarification: As someone born in Nashville and who grew up in South Georgia and East Tennessee during the Jim Crow era, there’s little in Thompson’s book (or the essays he’s been writing in its defense in various liberal publications) that I would dispute, either historically or currently. He’s devoted a full chapter to the region’s ugly legacy of racism. Only the most hopelessly naive sort would think either the emergence of several black politicians or the impact of Latino and Asian relocation has eliminated it. But I also spent 14 years on the East Coast, four of them at an elite college in Massachusetts (Amherst), and another eight working in Boston and Bridgeport, Conn. So I’ve seen my share of Northern racism and hatred, and it’s no prettier, particularly when it comes to such things as housing, education and the allocation of community resources.

Thompson maintains that while he met plenty of exceptions during his time in the South, the majority of folks living in the old (or new) Confederacy operate under delusions no one can cure. He considers them unsophisticated, uninterested in or afraid of the future, and content to pine for a world that never existed. Thompson doesn’t see the owners of a place like the Redneck Shop in Laurens, South Carolina as fringe types clinging to an illusion. Instead, he views them as representative of the South.

It is silly to attack this book for being biased, because the author never had any interest in objectivity. Thompson despises the South, and uses its ills and abuses to validate his disdain. He’s sorry for liberals, progressives, leftists, feminists, LGBT folks, atheists/agnostics, political independents and nonwhites who live in these states. He gives them a pass on religious fundamentalism, the area’s obesity rates, its obsession with college football, and everything else he feels makes being a Southerner shameful. He’s evidently uninterested in anything the South has contributed to the nation’s culture or history, because there’s little here about music, food, literature, dance, art, architecture, language (except in a negative fashion) etc.

There’s really no point (and the ridiculous exchanges I’ve seen online reinforce this) in trying to convince Thompson he’s engaging in the worse sort of dismissive analysis. He’s already tried to cover himself by claiming he’s only addressing Biblical literalists, Klan sympathizers, Dixiecrat politicians and business owners using migrant labor while decrying illegal immigration. Their existence strengthens his conviction America should let the South secede. Those inside its borders who don’t fit the profile should immediately head for the East Coast, Midwest, or West Coast.

My first thought when hearing about Thompson’s book earlier this summer was it must be satire. No intelligent author would intentionally pen such an insulting portrait of a region in 2012. But that’s precisely the case with Better Off Without ‘Em. It is entirely possible to agree with several of Chuck Thompson’s findings while thoroughly disagreeing with his attitude and approach. There’s much about the South that remains unlikable, but you can certainly find all these things elsewhere in America. Secession is not the answer, nor is elitism.

Gates Reader
Dr. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. occupies a prominent position in the world of arts and letters, particularly among black intellectuals and historians. The longtime director of the Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research at Harvard University and also executive editor of the online journal The Root, Gates has written 16 books and made 12 documentaries. But he probably got more mainstream attention a couple of years ago for his run-in with a Cambridge police officer that eventually culminated in a beer summit at the White House than he has for most of his scholarly writings.

gatesThe anthology The Henry Louis Gates, Jr. Reader (Basic Civitas), compiled with fellow Ph.D. Abby Wolf (assistant director of the Du Bois Institute) showcases Gates’ literary skills and versatility. It covers his works in eight areas, with essays, columns, and articles culled from several sources. A particularly valuable chapter is labeled “Excavation.” It spotlights historic works either uncovered by or featuring Gates. One of these is the introduction to Harriet E. Wilson’s Our Nig: or, Sketches from the Life of a Free Black, an early 19th-century volume. Others include introductions to the comprehensive Africana: The Encyclopedia of the African and African American Experience, Second Edition and The Schomburg Library of Nineteenth-Century Black Women Writers.

Gates has written about rap and the chitlin’ circuit as well as politics, economics, and philosophy. He’s interviewed Condoleezza Rice and Oprah Winfrey. In addition, he’s extended his horizons overseas, with articles about blacks in Latin America and England. While always scholarly and grounded in the academy, his writing is broad enough to be featured in the pages of such publications as The New Yorker, New York Times, and The Washington Post.

Henry Louis Gates, Jr. has an impressive legacy, even if he doesn’t spend as much time in the limelight as fellow scholars Dr. Michael Eric Dyson or Dr. Cornell West.  The Henry Louis Gates, Jr. Reader is a vital chronicle of his work.

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About Ron Wynn

Ron Wynn is a music critic, author and editor. His features, reviews and articles have run locally in the Nashville Scene, The City Paper (Nashville) and on ArtNowNashville.com among others. Wynn is currently sports editor for the Tennessee Tribune and a contributor to Jazz Times. He is former editor of the New Memphis Star and former chief jazz and pop music critic for the Bridgeport Post-Telegram and the Memphis Commercial Appeal. Wynn has contributed to such publications such as Billboard, The Village Voice, Creem, Rock & Roll Disc, Living Blues, The Boston Phoenix, and Rejoice. He was the editor of the first edition of The All Music Guide to Jazz (1994), and from 1993 to 1994 served as the jazz and rap editor of the All Music Guide. Wynn is the author of The Tina Turner Story. He has contributed liner notes for numerous albums; his liner notes for “The Soul of Country Music” received a 1998 Grammy nomination.