When Jon Smith, a professor of southern studies at Simon Fraser University and one of the toughest critics in the field, told us that he would be visiting Atlanta in April, we invited him on the show to critique our first season. We discussed many of the things folks might identify as southern, including blue crayfish, cornbread, and Cahaba lilies. Our conversation highlights why talking about the south is important, and why it is sometimes necessary to dispense with manners in order to do it well.
We wanted to get right to the point and ask Jon what he thought of our first season. He responded with an overview about the strengths and weaknesses of the blue crayfish as a metaphor for the south. He argued that the south and southern identity consists of a belief that there is a south rather than any existing external traits of the region, and the blue crayfish may not adequately capture the element of desire in the way we construct the region. Ultimately, he argues, the blue crayfish wasn’t “invented” in the same way that the south was.
He also provided us with some excellent slogans for future About South merchandise including “I come from the land of blue crayfish,” “I’m proud to be a crayfish-person,” “Bitter Blue-Crayfisher,” and “Garden and Crayfish.”
Along with first-season guest Scott Romine, Jon is currently working on a project about southern food, so we next turned our attention to cornbread. Citing a passage from The Southerner’s Handbook: A Guide to Living the Good Life, Jon demonstrates how contemporary southern food culture becomes a carrier of regional identity, attempting to construct a white southern identity that isn’t about slavery. He notes that until recently, “southern food” didn’t exist: it was just food. The way some southern publications discuss food today may appear, at first, racially inclusive, and invested in building a better south; however, the rhetoric is still invested in the fantasy of southern exceptionalism, which causes far more problems than it solves. Jon argues that if we want to make things better, we need to proceed from a realistic assessment of where we are, and popular forums about the south tend to willfully ignore foundational truths about the region.
Our conversation then turns to the Appalachian Trail and Cahaba National Wildlife Refuge. Jon was back in the south to visit national, state, and local parks for a research project he’s currently undertaking. Although the Appalachian Trail is over 2,000 miles long, Jon notes that, interestingly, knowing that someone lives close to the Appalachian Trail provides more useful information about their home than knowing that someone lives in “the south.” Moving on to the Cahaba Lily, a rare lily that only grows in the shoals of a few rivers in Alabama, Jon points out that Alabama is the fifth-most biologically diverse state in the country, and it is much more logical to be proud of Alabama for its nature—and the collective political action required to protect it—than it is for us to be proud of the south or southern heritage, which is based on a fiction. “We all know what’s bad about the south,” Jon states, “and that’s why we want to talk about cornbread instead, but why not talk about the Cahaba lily? Not as southern, but as part of what is amazing about Alabama.”
We also briefly discuss the relationship between Jon’s scholarship and southern manners. He describes how his scholarship changed after Patricia Yaeger’s book, Dirt and Desire: Reconstructing Southern Women’s Writing, 1930-1990 (published in 2000). While Yaeger’s text went on to become one of the most cited southern studies book published in the last twenty years, it did not immediately receive the field's highest accolades. Yaeger advocated that southern manners are designed largely to hide injustice, and in order to fight injustice, one can’t be polite. Jon took her lesson to heart, making a conscious decision to be more direct in his scholarship. He describes the desire to affect change in southern studies and in the south as an “impossible job”: “If you’re not direct enough, you get ignored. If you’re too direct, people call you irrationally angry, and blow you off for that reason.”
Jon Smith is a professor in the English Department at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia. Along with Riché Richardson, he is the series editor of the New Southern Studies Series from the University of Georgia Press. He’s also the author of Finding Purple America: The South and the Future of American Cultural Studies. We would like to extend our thanks to Jon for this week’s episode. Read an excerpt from his book here.