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Does the South fit in a "global world"?

By D. G. Martin
Posted Monday, May 23, 2005

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How do you describe in a few words the dramatic post World War II changes to our Southern region? We are no longer the segregated, inward-looking “backwater” of our country, as many of our fellow Americans viewed us until recently. Nor are we bound so tightly to our special history as a defeated country or to the strong sense of place that set our people apart.

We are not as we used to be, for sure.

We are not as we used to be, for sure. But some of us maintain that there is still something special and different about the South and southerners—something that sets us apart from the rest of the country.

One important change is our growing connection to the rest of the world. UNC-Chapel Hill professor Bill Ferris, a Davidson graduate and former chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, makes this point by telling about an American business leader traveling to London. He flies Delta, changing planes at that airline’s home base in Atlanta. Upon arrival in London he catches a cab to the Holiday Inn (based in Memphis) and stops on the way to buy film at a local Wall Mart (based in Arkansas). Upon arrival at the Holiday Inn he picks up a FEDEX package (Memphis), he orders a Coca Cola (Atlanta) and turns on CNN (Atlanta again) to catch up on the world news. All these southern-based companies and hundreds more like them give their employees and suppliers a connection to the world that would have seemed fanciful a few years ago.

Not only is the South reaching out to the rest of the world, the rest of the world is reaching into the South. Immigrants and migrants, legal and illegal, fill the jobs that Americans cannot or will not fill.

There is also an out-migration of textile and furniture manufacturing jobs to other parts of the world where the cost of labor and other manufacturing costs are much lower.

This growing connection to countries and peoples in other parts of the world is a big part of the transformation of the South. Is this growing global connectivity a good thing for our region? How does this increasing globalism affect our region? Has it changed how we see ourselves?

A new book, “The American South in a Global World,” edited by James L. Peacock, Harry L. Watson, and Carrie R. Matthews, wrestles with the South’s changing identity as it reacts to the region’s growing connections with the rest of the world.

In one respect the book is simply a collection of impressive scholarly essays that deal with various aspects of the modern South’s experience with its growing contacts with the world. The titles of these essays suggest their variety and their focus on specific topics. For example, “Voices of Southern Mill Workers: Responses to Border Crossers in American Factories and Jobs Crossing Borders,” “The South Meets the East: Japanese Professionals in North Carolina's Research Triangle,” “North Carolina's Indians: Erasing Race to Make the Citizen,” and “Nonlocal Forces in the Historical Evolution and Current Transformation of North Carolina's Furniture Industry.”

The essays raise and discuss particular questions, such as, “Why has North Carolina, the state that has lost the most manufacturing jobs since NAFTA was passed, also led the nation in the growth of Hispanic immigrants who come to fill job vacancies?”

The individual essays illustrate the South in a global world in particular situations. Those who seek a comprehensive interpretation of the effect of globalism on the South should first read essays by two of the book’s editors, which have been, inexplicably, tucked in at the very end of the book.

In his essay, Harry Watson, Director of UNC’s Center for the Study of the American South, points out that the South began as an ethnically diverse and globally connected region, dependent on immigration and trade with Europe and Europe’s colonies. Only during the early 1800’s did the ethnic distinctions flatten “into two simple categories: black and white.” The realities of modern globalism are bringing to the South new populations who don’t fit into the “two category” model. But the region’s history may actually help it adapt and “southerners may mobilize long-established conservative values to smooth the process of change. Without rejecting family, faith, tradition, and respect for social hierarchies, southerners are likely to interpret them as reassuring verities that legitimize tolerance for superficial differences and make the newcomers feel welcome.”

UNC Professor of Anthropology James L. Peacock compares the South’s experience with global influences to those in other regions of the world. In some respects, Peacock says, the South fits in with other parts of the world better than it does with other parts of the U.S. “… [S]ome features of the South that have been regarded as odd from a northern or national standpoint turn out to resemble common patterns around the world…. Everything looks different when viewed as a part of a wider world.”

For those of us who are struggling to understand and cope with the changes that the world has brought to a region that we love, “The American South in a Global World” is a welcome gift.

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D.G. Martin is the author of “Interstate Eateries” a handbook of home cooking places near North Carolina’s interstate highways—available through Our State Magazine. He is the host of UNC-TV’s North Carolina Bookwatch, which airs on Sundays at 5:00 p.m. This week’s (May 29) guest is Carl Ernst, author of “Following Muhammad.”

Upcoming programs:

May 29: Carl Ernst, Following Muhammad

Special UNC-TV programming on June 5 and 12 will preempt NC Bookwatch

June 19: John May, Poe & Fanny

June 26: Walter Turner, Paving Tobacco Road

 
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Does the South fit in a "global world"?

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