The 80th Annual Meeting of the Southern Historical Association

SHA1This weekend in Atlanta, the city “too busy to hate,” there will be a meeting of the Southern Historical Association. Men and women, professors and graduate students will attend to learn about the latest scholarship on the American South, buy the latest books in the field, and visit with old (and new) friends.

Juanita Jones Abernathy
Juanita Jones Abernathy

There will also be a special conversation with Juanita Jones Abernathy, the widow of Dr. Ralph Abernathy, on Friday, beginning at 11:45 in Grand Salon East of the conference hotel, the Hilton Atlanta. Dr. Abernathy was co-founder of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and and advisor to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  Juanita Abernathy was an equally active participant in the Civil Rights Movement, participating alongside her husband in the most significant protests of the era including the Montgomery Bus Boycott, the Selma to Montgomery March, and the Charleston Hospital Workers’ Strike of 1968.


The Abernathys and the Kings
The Abernathys and the Kings

This year marks the 80th Annual Meeting of the SHA, affectionately known as “the Southern.”


The Bitter Southerner: Writing with an eye for nuance

bitterFolks who write about the South, think about its history and culture, and bristle at negative assumptions about the region from those who really don’t know diddly about it, will likely enjoy a new online magazine called The Bitter Southerner. This isn’t the fluff you’ll find in Southern Living or Our State, though certainly there’s a considerable readership for nostalgia illustrated with Bob Timberlake paintings and photographs of iced tea in mason jars.

No, this is a weekly online magazine that offers thoughtful, erudite articles that consider the South in its complexity. It also does what I’ve sought to do with some of my posts on Pop South, which is to enlighten the ill-informed by showcasing a region that is far more nuanced than it is often presented in popular culture.

The Bitter Southerner comes to us from Atlanta and to date has begun a series on original southern cocktails (The B.S. Cocktail Series) and published an essay by Patterson Hood of the Drive-By Truckers. This week the magazine hands over the reins to Ray Glier who has recently published a book on the SEC‘s dominance in college football.

Chuck Reece, the editor-in-chief, talked about the magazine in a recent radio interview and of how quickly word has spread about “The BS.”  Apparently, dozens of people from across the country (many of them ex-pat southerners) have “come out of the woodwork” offering to write essays, and for good reason. The Bitter Southerner is a smart magazine that appeals to the readers’ intelligence. So far, it recognizes that stereotypes, positive or negative, are not necessary in order to have a conversation about the South. That being said, it will be interesting to watch the direction the magazine takes in the coming weeks and to see how well it covers the region’s diversity.

New essays are published every Tuesday. I recommend you give it a try. And, if Chuck Reece is reading this, I’m available.

Reese Witherspoon and the Fallibility of the Southern Woman as “America’s Sweetheart”

Celebrity culture is an interesting phenomenon.  We come to know a celebrity’s public persona and many people assume they “know” the person.  And in some cases, the celebrity assumes that “the people” know him or her.

Reese Witherspoon's "sweet" mugshot.
Reese Witherspoon‘s “sweet” mugshot.

Enter Reese Witherspoon, or better yet a drunk Reese Witherspoon, whose celebrity persona is “America’s sweetheart.”  Except that this past week the nation learned something about her true personality when, while driving in Atlanta, her husband James Toth was pulled over and arrested for drunk driving.  She was in the passenger seat and instead of keeping calm and letting the officers do their job she got out of the car to announce to the officer “Do you know my name?” This was followed by “You’re about to find out. . .”  Blah, blah, I’m an entitled Hollywood actress who should get special treatment and I have lawyers.  Um, Reese, this is being videotaped.

Since this is a blog about the South, I wonder why it is that southern women often get the title of “America’s sweetheart?” We’ve had Mary Lou Retton (West Virginia), Julia Roberts (Georgia), Taylor Swift (from rural Pennsylvania–also known as North Alabama–and in country music she might as well be from the South), Britney Spears (Louisiana) and Reese Witherspoon (Tennessee). There have also been a number of beauty queens from the South who’ve won Miss America.

After shaving her head, Britney Spears had this "umbrella incident."
After shaving her head, Britney Spears had this “umbrella incident.”

I have a theory that white southern women who supposedly exhibit a certain feminine innocence and charm, not unlike the southern belles of old, are still held up as models of femininity for the nation.  Even if their private behavior isn’t innocent, very often their public personas suggest that they are well-behaved, models of traditional womanhood.  So, when they show their human frailties (Britney Spears) or that they aren’t sweet at all (Reese Witherspoon) it seems like they’ve taken a big tumble from their pedestals.  Except they shouldn’t have been placed there to begin with. It’s a precarious perch and they were bound to fall.

It is inherently problematic to assign southern women the title of “America’s sweetheart.” Southern women are not the mythic creatures of traditional femininity, nor do they embody the behavior that Americans and the media continue to portray them as having.  They are, like other American women, fallible human beings who can sometimes behave poorly.