Symposium Ponders Southernness

March 10, 2003

Heather Heilman

As Tulane's Deep South Regional Humanities Center emerges from the incubator, with a half dozen or more new projects under way, the first question it faces is, well, just what is the Deep South?

"We decided our first task was to define ourselves and to critically examine the concept of Southernness," said Shana Walton, assistant director of the humanities center.

The grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities that brought the center into being mandates that it will focus on a five-state area that encompasses Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Arkansas and Tennessee.

But what is it about the region that differentiates it from the rest of the nation and what role does it play within the larger whole? What, if anything, does the Gulf Coast have in common with the Ozarks or the Mississippi Delta? And what does it mean to be a Southerner in the 21st century? Those are some of the questions that will be addressed by a panel of diverse experts in the Presidential Symposium, "Southern Roots, American Culture: A Conversation About the Meaning of Region," which will take place on Thursday, March 13, at 4 p.m. in Freeman Auditorium at the Woldenberg Art Center at Newcomb College.

"The panel is made up of four people who are exploring the connection between identity and region, and who identify themselves in multiple and complex ways," Walton said.

William Christenberry is a painter, photographer and sculptor. He was born in Tuscaloosa, Ala., and draws heavily on the surrounding landscape in his work, but he lives in Washington, D.C., where he is a professor at the Corcoran College of Art and Design.

"I'm not terribly taken with the idea of being categorized as an Alabama artist or a Southern artist," he told the Alabama Arts Council. "I'm an artist. My subject matter tends to come out of what I know best, and that I feel most strongly about, which is a regional thing."

William Ferris, currently a history professor at the University of North CarolinaChapel Hill, is the founder of the Center for the Study of Southern Culture at the University of Mississippi and a former director of the National Endowment for the Humanities. The regional humanities centers were founded during his tenure at the National Endowment.

He is a native of Vicksburg, Miss. Noel Polk is a pre-eminent Faulkner scholar, but he's also the product of middle-class Picayune, Miss., a town that bears little resemblance to the setting of a Faulkner novel. He's the author of Outside the Southern Myth and teaches at the University of Southern Mississippi.

Natasha Trethewey is a poet and English professor at Emory University. Her first collection, Domestic Work, was the winner of the 1999 Cave Canem Poetry Prize. Her recently published second book, Bellocq's Ophelia, is written in the voice of one of the Storyville prostitutes photographed by E.J. Bellocq in the early 1900s. Trethewey is a native of Gulfport, Miss.

Nick Spitzer will be the moderator. He's a professor of folklore and cultural conservation at the University of New Orleans and the former state folklorist of Louisiana, but is probably best known as the host and producer of the radio show "American Routes," syndicated by Public Radio International. He's the only non-native Southerner in the group, but his sense of identity is at least partly tied to south Louisiana.

"I'm not a native, but I do feel like I'm a local," he said. "I fit into the place."

He believes the South is the region that has had the greatest impact on American culture as whole, despite any lingering reputation it may have as a cultural backwater. It's taken awhile for its organic, vernacular contributions to get the respect they deserve.

"The blues, for example, deal with the human condition in a most profound way that embraces both sadness and joy, often in the same moment. There's not a whole lot in Western high art that quite does that." Of course, the South has changed a great deal since it gave birth to jazz and the blues, and it continues to change. "There's a constant tension between conserving what's valuable from the past and moving forward into something new."

Spitzer knows that no big questions or challenges are going to get resolved at the symposium, but there is still considerable value in talking about them. "I see conversation as the fundamental symbolic human activity," he said.

In attendance will be the winners of a high-school essay contest sponsored by the center and universities throughout the five-state region. Walton plans to collect their essays on "What Does It Mean to be Southern?" into a book. "The kids are addressing some of the same questions as our symposium speakers," she said. "I was surprised to find how passionate they are about their regional identity."

Heather Heilman can be reached at

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