On 25 May 2018, Adam Kirk Edgerton’s “What’s Wrong with Being from the South? Just Ask an Academic in the North” appeared in the online Chronicle of Higher Education. The article opens with an anecdote from Edgerton’s undergraduate life in which the idea of escaping his upbringing is voiced, leading to an explication of prevailing academic presumptions against the rural South. Edgerton moves on to treat the mutually reinforcing effects of those presumptions on both academic populations and those who inhabit the rural South before decrying the reactionary impulses on both sides–including their historical grounding. The author also notes that the historical grounding that is typically presented serves to oversimplify matters, and that academics tend not to question that particular oversimplification, which situates geographical identity in much the same way that racial/ethnic and gender identities are by those populations academics would decry. Edgerton offers a gentle rebuke of the mental laziness involved in accepting the oversimplification and returns, at last, to the idea of the contradictory identities of displaced Southerners in (Northern) academe.
I cannot claim to come from the same circumstances as Edgerton, to be sure. I am from the South, true, but the Southernness of Texas is not the same as the Southernness of the Carolinas (and that of San Antonio, in the shadow of which I grew up, is more different still)–and my family is Midwestern, so that I never was as immersed in the South as were those around whom I grew up. Too, I am a cisgendered heterosexual white man of British descent, raised ostensibly Protestant by two veterans of the US military, so that I occupy quite a few positions of privilege. I am I cannot speak on the matter with Edgerton’s force. But I can speak to it, because I am also a Southern man who has been involved in academe elsewhere than the South (in New York City and in Oklahoma–and the latter is not the South, despite its strange desire to be so), and the…disdain in which the overwhelming majority of the South is held (Austin and New Orleans seem to be the exceptions), of which Edgerton writes, is not unknown to me.
This is not to say the South does not have its share of problems, of course, and even Texas. There is too damned much of each of racism, homophobia, sexism, and religious discrimination, there is too damned much jingoism, and there is too damned little regard for reflection and thought. But that is also true of other parts of the country. I have had to have pointed conversations with Midwesterners who made comments about “knowing how those Mexicans are” more often than with Texans, and to rebuke locker-room talk of certain epithets in New York City more than even in Lafayette, Louisiana. I have heard comments about “you people” from passengers on New Jersey Transit trains more than on VIA buses–all while being told that “racism is a Southern problem; we don’t have that up here [in the Mid-Atlantic].” And I’ve heard no few times the disbelief that I do not (normally) carry the accent/s around which I grew up from people alongside whom I’ve taught, or who hear me talk at Kalamazoo or elsewhere, when they learn that I’m from where I’m from.
I’m glad, therefore, to see Edgerton’s piece and to see the issues it raises get some attention. I’m less so that the issues are there to get the attention, but if they have to be, then, as Edgerton puts it, they ought to push all of us “to ask how academe might better speak to all regions of the country.”