The Art of the New Old South

Tressie McMillan Cottom
6 min readDec 7, 2020
A snapshot of the fight for the new South narrative.

We are living in one of the most generative eras of Southern cultural production since Dolly went pop and Designing Women said “y’all” once a week on network television. From country music to digital and print media, we are trying to figure out the American South…again.

I say “again” because American popular culture has an ongoing, cyclical obsession with the U.S. South. “The South” is a stand-in for how the nation wants to see it itself at any point in time. Debating the morality of Southern cultures is one way that the nation reckons with empire and economics. We are not well versed in international or global cultures in this country. Therefore we do not have the vocabulary to talk about geo-politics “out there”. Instead we talk about the geo-politics “in here” — in the Appalachias, in Mississippi, in Texas. Extracting natural resources, controlling the “borders”, policing what it means to be a “real American” — we hash all of that out in our disdain of and attraction to the South.

The South does not stop existing when popular culture moves on. It is always engaged in its own Civil War over what the place means or who is even included in “The South”. Right now, The South is making sense of two phenomena that are shaping how the region sounds and how it talks about itself: people are coming “home” and they’re bringing their ideas about home with them to a place that has its own ideas about what that all means.

Reverse migration is often talked about in terms of Black Americans returning to their family’s Southern roots. But economic crises have also pulled at white Southerners across the country, calling them home to cheaper housing and built-in childcare. You can be forgiven for not noticing it because mainstream media usually only refers to these returners in non-racial terms like “young people” and “millennials”. A noteworthy proportion of those movers are Black but a more significant proportion of them are not.

Some returners are moving back to the South and others are a generation or two removed from a direct connection to the area. No matter the strength of their direct ties, new and returning Southerners are bringing a range of political and racial identities with them. As one white woman told me on Twitter, many of these Southerners wonder “if they can keep the parts of the South they love…

Tressie McMillan Cottom

Sociologist. Writer. Professor. MacArthur Fellow. Books, speaking, podcast: