The Water In Which You Swim

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Well, I think our best-known project in the field of literature is our annual Faulkner and Yoknapatawpha symposium, a weeklong gathering of Faulkner lovers, the first week of every August. Another project that I’ve been personally very involved in and pleased about is our university’s blues archive, which is the world’s largest, with almost forty thousand records, the personal record collection of B. B. King, and the Kenneth S. Goldstein Folklore Collection. It’s really the consummate research collection on blues and Southern music. Associated with that is our magazine Living Blues , which is considered the pre-eminent blues publication in the world. In the fields of Faulkner and blues and, by extension, literature and Southern music, we’ve helped assemble truly significant and growing research collections and publications.

I understand you’ve been working with some of your colleagues in Cambridge and Boston to develop an unusual public school curriculum.

Yes. Isaac Tigrett, who’s the founder of the Hard Rock Café and whose home is in Memphis, and his partner, Dan Ackroyd, have established the House of Blues clubs. The first clubs opened on Harvard Square in Cambridge and in New Orleans and Los Angeles. Associated with these clubs will be a curriculum for public schools that will concentrate on blues, folk art, and race relations. Our Center and other staff at the university are developing this curriculum, which we feel it is going to be very exciting.

 

Have you received a lot of phone calls and queries at the Center from the national press since the election of Clinton and Gore?

We have. Our press inquiries have always been numerous, but they’ve dramatically increased with people wanting to know the definition of Bubba . They also want to know about the formula for Coca-Cola.

Are you implying that the Center has the secret formula for Coca-Cola?

Well, I can’t give it out, but I can share a taste of it with you.

You wrote recently that with the election of Clinton and Gore we can declare that a new South has emerged and that the region is finally joining the nation. And then you asked: Or is the nation joining the South?

That will always be a kind of two-way street that we are living on in the South: the Americanization of Dixie and the Southernizing of the nation. This in many ways has been part of our world from the very beginning, with figures like Thomas Jefferson, who so significantly shaped our nation’s future. Southern worlds, from country music and blues and rock ’n’ roll to Faulkner to politics, are significant to the nation’s identity. We’ve always been what Vann Woodward has called a counterpoint to the American experience. While the nation has aspired to financial achievement and progress, the South has stood apart in many ways. And yet emerging from the South we see the quintessential images of corporate America: Coca-Cola, CNN, Federal Express, Holiday Inn, WalMart. These are Southern-bred institutions that symbolize not so much the South as America.

Is there a true South today? And a “real Southerner”?

I think so. It’s like someone who was trying to find the Scutchalo Hills near where I was born. My father used to talk about how he once looked for it. He would drive down the road, and the local farmers would say, “Well, it’s just a mile down the road.” He would drive a mile, and the next person would say, “You just passed it. It’s a mile up the road.” I don’t think we’ll ever find the true South or the true Southerner, but there is such a place and such a being. They are lodged in storytelling, in a love for family, and in a love for humor and a good tale. A love for people. Eudora Welty has said that for her the family has always been the center of things Southern. Her wonderful book on friendship reflects a value that Southerners hold close to their heart, of trying to identify the places that shape people. And to celebrate those places. Even though we now have high-rises in Atlanta, you can still sit in a taxi there and hear the talk flow from the driver and know you’re in a place where talk and stories will always be at the core.

How would you describe the worst forms of racism in the modern-day South?

The worst forms of racism today are not the old nightmares of lynching and civil rights violence, of people shot and injured. It’s a more subtle racism now. We’ve become more American. We’ve become more like the rest of the country in that we do have desegregated public facilities, but what does it mean if you can eat in a Howard Johnson’s or Holiday Inn but don’t have the money to pay for the meal? You’re still vulnerable and still a victim. I like to quote the title of William Winter’s recent report on the South, Halfway Home and a Long Way to Go . The old blatant, grotesque worlds of racism have changed. And while race relations and friendships have improved, black unemployment and lack of opportunities in education and business are still there. We have a long way to go.

What are the South’s greatest hopes for race relations today?