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A Vocabulary for New Conversations
By William Murray

Keywords for Southern Studies (2016) is an impressive collection of essays that communicates the diverse and ever-widening scope of recent scholarship on the South. Edited by Scott Romine and Jennifer Rae Greeson and published as a part of the University of Georgia Press’s The New Southern Studies series, the thirty brief chapters offer a useful vocabulary for those interested in the field’s expanding focus. Romine and Greeson organize the collection into five sections: “Regimes,” “Places,” “Peoples,” “Approaches,” and “Structures of Feeling.” The sections include between five and seven “keywords,” and for each word an author gives a definition or an opinion on the subject then concludes the essay with a suggested list of books and articles for future study. When read together, the chapters illuminate how scholars are pushing southern borders to new and exciting places.

Each essay, in its own way, solicits readers to move past old ideas of southern exceptionalism or a definition of the South as only the states that seceded from the Union, defended slavery, and then lost a war. We can see Keywords’ attention to expansion and challenging old definitions in the first keyword covered: “Incarceration.” In his chapter, Houston A. Baker Jr. connects the institution of slavery to ethics of capitalism and the current carceral state, all of which extend well beyond the region typically associated with Dixie. The essay delves into the interwoven fabric of national and international internment and explains the ways in which the imagined and real South has always played a role outside its traditional borders. Through this expansion of focus Baker, along with many others in the collection, illustrates that southern studies is no longer simply confined to one part of the world, strict black white dichotomies, or the mythologies that have dominated the region’s historic discourses. It is now a field interested in challenging accepted narratives and resisting easy categories.

The topics included in the collection range from the local to the global, but what ties the book together, beyond its focus on defining a vocabulary for southern studies, is the collective commitment to expanding these “keywords” past their conventional meanings. For instance, while words, such as “plantation,” “the folk,” and “segregation” are familiar to the field, Matthew Pratt Guterl, Erich Nunn, and Leigh Anne Duck, respectively, use their essays to challenge old assumptions. They reevaluate previous meanings, and ask readers to revisit these terms from fresh perspectives. Keywords also introduces subjects that have more recently been added to southern studies. For example, Michael Bibler introduces the “Queer/Quare;”Anna Brickhouse explores the relationship between the South and Haiti; and Eric Gary Anderson reminds readers that there were and are native southerners that deserve to be studied and understood. Taken as a whole, these essays produce a compelling introduction to the work being done by scholars who are imagining and reimagining the region.

Keywords’ not only emphasizes a break with old understandings, but many of the articles also introduce ongoing debates about the next stage of scholarship on the South. In particular, Jon Smith, Martyn Bone, and Thomas Haddox use their chapters to offer suggestions about the field’s future, and through their different opinions, one can begin to appreciate the vibrant dialogue that is currently taking place in southern studies. These authors explore how the South is never an easy region to grasp, and they offer complex and sometimes conflicting advice on how scholars should think about their work. While the collective effect of this discourse leads to a certain amount of destabilization, it also signals that there is room for voices to join in and carry on the conversation. Like most of the authors included in the collection, Smith, Bone, and Haddox seem far more interested in starting discussions rather than finishing them.

The absence of clear resolutions is also what makes Keywords a potentially frustrating read. It is impossible to sufficiently cover terms, like “plantation,” “nation,” and “trauma,” in a single book, much less a brief chapter. As a result, some of the essays feel underdeveloped or thin, and for readers expecting something like an updated version of The Encyclopedia of Southern Culture, there might be some disappointment. Instead of attempting a full definition or the final declaration on their keywords, the authors tend to illuminate aspects of their topics that point toward larger conversations taking place around their essays. While there are some drawbacks to avoiding definitive conclusions and fully defined subjects, this inconclusivity, I think, is an important part of the common assertion made by the chapters, which is to proclaim the exciting end to groupthink and myopic ideologies within the scholarship being published on the South. The chapters, through their limited focus, then, do not claim a finished knowledge; rather, they set the stage for others to enter the fray and add their own arguments for what these terms might signify.

Keywords for Southern Studies, therefore, is a significant addition to the field not only because it provides a wealth of information for those interested in the region, but also because it communicates how southern studies is growing and moving beyond old obsessions. It captures how the field is striving to understand its place within larger national and international conversations, and it introduces readers to many of the authors and ideas driving this progress, all of which make Keywords essential reading for anyone interested in how the South is being studied today.

Keywords for Southern Studies.
Edited by Scott Romine and Jennifer Rae Greeson.
University of Georgia Press, 2016.
424 pp., $89.95 hardcover, $32.95 paperback.


WHAT WE’RE READING NOW

By Erich Nunn

I’ve been working through with two recent books—Charles Hughes’s Country Soul: Making Music and Making Race in the American South (University of North Carolina Press, 2015) and Jack Hamilton’s Just Around Midnight: Rock and Roll in the Racial Imagination (Harvard UP, 2016). They join a cluster of recent critical books about race and music, including Karl Hagstrom Miller’s Segregating Sound: Inventing Folk and Pop Music in the Age of Jim Crow (Duke UP, 2010), my own Sounding the Color Line: Music and Race in the Southern Imagination (University of Georgia Press, 2015), and Jennifer Lynn Stoever’s just-published The Sonic Color Line: Race and the Cultural Politics of Listening (NYU Press, 2016). While these projects share a set of overlapping concerns, they differ in their specific areas of focus and the particular methodologies they bring to bear on questions concerning the interrelations of race, music, sound, region, and culture.

I haven’t yet gotten my copy of Stoever’s book, so I’ll restrict my comments here to Hughes’s and Hamilton’s. While the central insight of these studies—that the history of American popular music is deeply imbricated with questions of race—is not a new one (Tony Russell initiated this line of inquiry almost fifty years ago with this Blacks, Whites, and Blues [1970], the racialized structures of feeling, reflecting the cultural logic of segregation, through which audiences and fans respond to this music have proven remarkably persistent. While Hughes’s and Hamilton’s books are grounded in rigorous academic scholarship, both Just Around Midnight, which focuses on rock and roll’s racial transformation from black to white in the sixties, and Country Soul, which concerns itself with the interracial musical culture of the “country-soul triangle” (Memphis/Nashville/Muscle Shoals), promise to translate and communicatiethe insights of this critical examination of the politics of race and music to a larger popular audience.

PREVIOUS POSTS

March 2017: Review: South by Southwest by Janis P. Stout and WWRN by Amy Clukey
February 2017: Review: White Trash by Michelle Meyers and WWRN by Daniel Cross Turner