“There is no placeless, timeless location from which to know the world,” writes Shannon Sullivan in her introduction to Thinking the US South: Contemporary Philosophy from Southern Perspectives. Place matters, she says. Human beings are not “root-free.” Knowledge is “situated” and “embodied.” And if place matters, then what of “the South” as both a place and an idea? What does it mean to be Southern and to think from a Southern standpoint?
Thinking the US South is a compendium of ten thoroughly researched and referenced essays by U.S.-based professional academic philosophers writing from Southern perspectives in regard to the South. The essays are organized into three parts — Southern Identities, Southern Borders, and Southern Practices — and are bookended by an introduction and an afterword.
Sullivan is a professor of psychology and health psychology at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. She is the author of nine books, including Good White People: The Problem with Middle-Class White Anti-Racism, The Physiology of Sexist and Racist Oppression, and White Privilege. The critical philosophy of race is a significant thread in much of her previous work as it is here, but important too are borders, identity, class, religion, and gender.
Thinking the US South is indeed scholarly, and possibly too academic to appeal to some lay readers, but it’s threaded through with the essayists’ personal experiences. Its thesis is plainly stated: The US South has philosophical significance. And the essays work together to support a singular aim: They advocate for the formation of a new field of discourse in academic philosophy — “Philosophy in/of the South.”
Its scholarliness aside, however, Thinking the US South can help demystify the US South for those of us who grew up outside of it. My father was a Southerner, born and raised in Memphis, Tennessee; my mother was a Northerner from Gloucester, Massachusetts. I was raised not far from the Mason-Dixon line in Maryland. A recurrent theme of my childhood was the idea of the North-South divide. Because I, too, can only “think and know out of my own history,” I was intrigued to get a fresh look at what “Southernness” means to Southerners like my father.
What exactly is the South, for example? Michael J. Monahan asks in his essay, “Are you a Yankee? Purity, Identity, and ‘the Southern’.” Is the South only those states and territories that were part of the Confederate States of America? How is the South defined? And what are the differences in “self-concept” between North and South? Why does the North view the South as backwards and underdeveloped, and the South view the North as paternalistic and domineering?
According to Lindsey Stewart in “I Ain’t Thinkin’ ‘Bout You: Black Liberation Politics at the Intersection of Region, Gender, and Class,” there is a long “pattern of privileging the North” in relation to the South. In terms of racism, the North is perceived to be less racist than the South. But racism is a national — not a regional — problem. Sullivan herself in “Dumping on Southern ‘White Trash’: Etiquette and Abjection” and Linda Martín Alcoff in “The Southern White Worker Question” argue effectively that “corrosive divides between classes of white people help support racism against people of color,” whether those white people live in the North or the South.
I was moved in particular by a story in Alcoff’s essay about C.P. Ellis, who was once an Exalted Cyclops of the Durham, North Carolina chapter of the Ku Klux Klan. Though a virulent racist, he changed his heart and mind after chairing a school integration committee with Ann Atwater, a prominent civil rights activist, because he and she became friends. It turns out that racism is not as stable — or as simple—as we might think.
Stewart also introduced the concept of “principled indifference” into my personal lexicon. She uses examples from W.E.B. Dubois, Zora Neale Hurston, and Beyoncé Knowles to describe how black Southerners behave indifferently to white people and white people’s concerns in order to protect their inner lives. I’d never heard the term before, and it made an impression.
Thanks to Thinking the US South, I will never think about the US South in the same way again.
Thinking the US South: Contemporary Philosophy from Southern Perspectives
Edited by Shannon Sullivan
Northwestern University Press
Published March 15, 2021