Sombreros and Motorcycles with Nicole King

sombreroscoverFor this installment of Porch Talk, Pop South interviews Nicole King, Associate Professor of American Studies at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, about her new book Sombreros and Motorcycles in a Newer South.  In it, she examines two iconic tourist attractions in South Carolina–South of the Border and Atlantic Beach’s Bikefest (also known as “Black Bike Week.”)

PS: Your book Sombreros and Motorcycles in a Newer South you investigate the cultural meanings embedded in two very different tourist attractions, both of which are located in South Carolina—South of the Border and Atlantic Beach’s Bikefest.  What drew you to study these two places?

I am drawn to overlooked places that have escaped scholarly attention. Both South of the Border —a Jewish-owned roadside attraction—and Atlantic Beach—a historically black seaside resort—were independently owned tourist sites that developed during the post-World War II rise of consumer culture and have managed to sustain their businesses and built environments outside of the corporate model of tourism. They both possess a distinct retro and individual aesthetic because of their independent histories during the rise of mass-produced consumer culture. Both places experienced their heydays during the period of segregated leisure culture in the South and dealt with desegregation and shifts in southern politics in interesting ways that speak to the importance of leisure culture as a defining aspect of southern culture and identity.

border_signAlso, I grew up in Conway, South Carolina, which is within an hour of both South of the Border and Atlantic Beach. I worked in the tourism industry throughout high school. Both places drew me in with a fascinating built environment that was distinct from the mass-produced tourist destinations in Myrtle Beach. Essentially, I became obsessed with the question: Why do these places look the way they do? What are their stories?

PS: You see these two tourist sites as representative of what you call a “Newer South.”  Explain what that term means to you.

The Newer South entails the refashioning of older regional constructions as they move into the twenty-first century. Like the songs by the Drive-by Truckers or, the independent films of Ray McKinnon, or the recreation of the Confederate flag in the colors of African liberation by young fashion entrepreneurs in Charleston, SC, the “Newer South” explores the “duality of the southern thing.” To me this duality includes a new generation of southerners coming to terms with the past horrors of the region’s past (slavery and Jim Crow) while also moving forward with a more diverse and progressive view on the region’s more postmodern identity—meaning that identity is constantly being refashioned in more hybrid and performative ways. In a historical sense, the Newer South also encompasses a shift in economics from the New South of manufacturing towards the current dominance of the service industries in the region.

PS: What does South of the Border tell us about southern history and culture?

Alan Schafer
Alan Schafer

South of Border represents the constantly changing aspect of southern history and culture on the physical and metaphorical “borderlines.” Alan Schafer, who created and ran the roadside attraction until his death in 2001, used his hybrid Jewish-southern identity to build a diverse base for his business and push social and political boundaries. Schafer was constantly changing and expanding his roadside attraction located just south of the North-Carolina/South Carolina border and working with recently enfranchised African Americans. On the other hand, South of the Border presents the refashioned racism of the Newer South with the mascot of Pedro, a problematic cartoon-like stereotype that essentializes the complexity of Latinos into a singular “lazy Mexican” stereotype. The South of the Border roadside attraction tells us about the good and bad of southern history and culture as it moves into the twenty-first century (still owned and operated by the Schafer family).

PS: How about Atlantic Beach’s Bikefest?

The Atlantic Beach Bikesfest, which began in 1980 as a motorcycle festival for African Americans during Memorial Day weekend in the Grand Strand mecca of coastal tourism in South Carolina, also represents the refashioned racism of southern culture. Following the South’s more blatant racism, which the Civil Right Movement fought against, the more subtle prejudices of the late-twentieth century see the rise of a supposedly post-racial “family values” that is still uses to oppress minorities. The regulation of the freedom of African Americans is apparent in how the City of Myrtle Beach and some local businesses attempted to limit and even bar black bodies from public streets and accommodations during the Bikefest. Because the city treated the black motorcyclists at Atlantic Beach Bikefest differently than they did the white bikers there a week earlier for a Harley Davidson festival—the black bikers had limited access to roads and hotels—the NAACP was able to file a successful discrimination lawsuits against businesses that treated blacks differently. The controversy surrounding this new form of racism played out within the realm of tourism—the new number one industry in South Carolina—and speaks to the importance of personal expression and freedom in leisure and popular culture as well. The young black motorcycle enthusiasts at Bikefest represent a subculture with its own distinct aesthetic—fast neon speedbikes—that is distinct from the history of white motorcycle subcultures.

PS: This blog examines the South in popular culture. Where do you think your book intersects with popular culture and ideas of the region?

The book speaks to the important social and political aspects of tourism as one form of popular culture. However, the overarching power dynamics of popular culture are also complex. There is not a top down model where producers simply control and manipulate consumers. The lines between producers and consumers of popular culture are blurring in the twenty-first century. We need to explore the intertwined mechanisms of control and resistance found in popular culture.

Author Nicole King
Author Nicole King

Furthermore, recreation and entertainment are now big business in the South and must be considered an important aspect of southern culture. We overlook the messages and collective meanings of popular culture at our peril. The images and experiences we produce/consume, even while on vacation, matter.


Ben Bernanke–South of the Border

If you’ve ever traveled on I-95 and made it to Dillon, South Carolina, then you most certainly have noticed (and how could you not?) South of the Border and its steady stream of neon painted billboards with “Pedro,” the sombrero wearing icon, trying to draw you in to the roadside attraction to eat a hot tamale or take your kids to “Pedroland.”

South of the Border, owned and operated for years by Alan Schafer, began as the South of the Border Beer Depot.  According to Nicole King, a professor at the University of Maryland-Baltimore County who has written about the creation of what is known as “S.O.B.”, Alan and his father Samuel had a successful beer distribution company and because they were Jews, could avoid the cultural stigma associated with beer sales that Baptists and other religious conservatives could not. Over the years, especially after the passage of the Interstate Highway Act of 1956, South of the Border grew from beer depot into a souvenir shop to catch the traffic now going up and down I-95.(See King’s article “Behind the Sombrero: Identity and Power at South of the Border, 1949-2001,” in Dixie Emporium: Tourism, Foodways, and Consumerism in the American South, edited by Anthony Stanonis).

Chairman Ben Bernanke

What you might not know and what I learned recently through a fellow historian and Facebook friend is that our current Federal Reserve chairman, Ben Bernanke, worked as a waiter one summer at South of the Border.  This must certainly be a feather in his sombrero and should have brought him more respect from Republican presidential candidate Rick Perry, who accused his fellow southerner of “treason.”  That’s right.  Fellow southerner.  Bernanke didn’t just work at S.O.B., he is originally from Dillon, South Carolina.  Take that, Senor Perry.

Alan Schafer

South of the Border is complex, just as complex as Alan Schafer, who died in 2001.  As King explains, the roadside attraction “memorializes the African American experience by selling ‘authentic souvenirs’ from Africa in a Mexican-themed tourist spot created by a progressive Jewish man in the predominantly Anglo, conservative, and Protestant American South.”  And that’s just for starters.

All this is to say S.O.B. is a fascinating place.  And it just became more fascinating to me, now that I know that Ben Bernanke, the man who can make economic markets go up or down whenever he speaks, once worked under the big sombrero.