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The creolization of the South

by DG Martin

Forget about your “race” as the main thing that sets you apart from other Southerners. Down here we are all “creoles” of one sort of another. It is your ethnic background even more than your race that distinguishes you from others.

In the past we have usually defined Southern people in terms of black and white, but a new volume of The New Encyclopedia of Southern Culture shows that race has been overemphasized and ethnicity underemphasized as keys to understanding who we Southerners are.

“Southern Culture is a product of nearly 20 generations of creolization (a blending of cultures after long exposure, coexistence, and interaction of multiple social groups),” writes Celeste Ray, a professor at the University of the South, and the editor of “Ethnicity,” which is Volume 6 of the Encyclopedia’s projected 24-volume series.

In her extended introductory essay entitled “Ethnicity & Creolization,” Ray continues, “What we think of as typically ‘southern’ is a product of centuries of cultural blending. Bluegrass is a mix of Irish and British fiddle traditions and African-derived banjo.”

However, Ray points out, Southern culture is a much more than a mere blending of European and African influences. “Cultural exchanges with American Indians transformed both Europeans and Africans in the South…” and gave a legacy of foodways (cornbread, grits and succotash), language (squash, hominy and opossum), clothing (buckskin), settlements and pathways of commerce. Africans and Europeans each brought a great variety of cultures to the South, where they blended over time. The foods that might have been originally eaten only by enslaved Africans or considered “soul food” (greens, hoppin’ John and fried catfish) have become a common part of Southern foodways, cutting across ethnic and racial lines. Ray emphasizes the many differences there were between groups of Europeans and Africans who came from different parts of their respective continents.

More recently the “creolization” of the South has continued as the people of the region have greeted waves of immigrants from Latin America, the Caribbean, Asia and Europe.

Following Ray’s long essay, several separate sections examine the influences of major ethnic groups, such as Europeans, Africans, Asians and American Indians. (Although only about two percent of Southerners identify themselves as American Indians, a whopping 40 percent claim some American Indian ancestry.)

A section called “Southern Appalachia and Mountain People” treats the people of this sub-region as a separate and influential ethnic group. Another section examines a suggestion raised by the works of UNC-Chapel Hill professors George Tindall and John Shelton Reed that Southerners themselves can be viewed as a separate ethnic group based on a common experience that embraced “both black and whites.” Notwithstanding their many remaining differences, Southerners are sufficiently creolized so that they may be a distinct ethnic identity.

The remainder of the volume is a series of about 90 succinct articles about specific ethnic groups that are part of the creolization process in the South. They are in alphabetical order from “Afro-Cubans” to “Yuchis.” North Carolina readers will turn to articles on the Cherokee, Lumbees, Catawbas, Waccama-Siouans and Saponys for information on their American Indian influences. They will want to read the special articles about the African tribal groups that furnished enslaved peoples to our state. And they may want to read about European groups who settled here, like the Moravians, Waldensians, Germans, Greeks, Syrians, English and Highland Scots.

What about the “Scotch-Irish”? That term has been abolished in this volume. So, you have to read the article on “Scots Irish.” This article incorrectly asserts that these peoples have been called “‘Scots Irish’ in America since the 19th Century.”

Previously, one of this article’s authors, Western Carolina professor H. Tyler Blethen, correctly explained, “Although ‘Scotch-Irish’ is the name most commonly used in America since the 1880s, ‘Scots-Irish’ has recently been coined by academics, out of deference to present-day Scottish sensitivities.”

Perhaps the inconsistency is due to an editor’s thorough scrubbing of the term, which would also explain why James G. Lyburn’s classic book, The Scotch-Irish, is incorrectly cited as “The Scots Irish.”

Let’s put that petty criticism aside.

As a thought-provoking examination of who we Southerners are and how we got that way, “Ethnicity” is a treasured addition to my bookshelf.

DG Martin is the host of UNC-TV’s “North Carolina Bookwatch,” which airs Sundays at 5 p.m. Check his blog and view prior programs at unctv.org/ncbookwatch.

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