WCU professor, former colleague publish book on identifying as Southerners

Feb 15, 2017
Political scientists Chris Cooper (left) and Gibbs Knotts are the authors of “The Resilience of Southern Identity: Why the South Still Matters in the Minds of Its People.”

CULLOWHEE — A book by a Western Carolina University political science professor and a former WCU colleague examines the American South in contemporary terms of its population and how Southerners view themselves ― and are viewed ― in today’s world.

In “The Resilience of Southern Identity: Why the South Still Matters in the Minds of Its People” by Chris Cooper and Gibbs Knotts, the authors make the case that the South’s sometimes drastic political, racial and cultural changes have not lessened the importance of regional identity but actually have played a key role in keeping it relevant in the 21st century.

The University of North Carolina Press publication is expected to begin hitting bookshelves locally and nationally this week.

Cooper is professor and head of the WCU Department of Political Science and Public Affairs while Knotts taught at WCU from 2000 to 2012 and is now professor and department chair of political science at the College of Charleston.

“Many have argued that in an age of increasing contact, mobility, and homogenization that regional identities are becoming a thing of the past,” said Scott Huffmon, professor of political science at Winthrop University. “But here Cooper and Knotts demonstrate that cultural distinctiveness is frequently enhanced by contact with other subcultures and has allowed people to define and redefine what it means to identify as Southern in the second decade of the 21st century.”

The book examines how music, food and other commonalities play a part, and obviously politics. It also looks at the darker side, with discrimination and white supremacist activity commonly associated with the South, especially during the turbulent 1950s and 1960s.

“Chris and I began talking about this project when our offices were located right down the hall from each other in the Stillwell Building,” Knotts said. “We started writing the book once I moved to South Carolina, but it was always fun to host Chris in Charleston or come back to Cullowhee to work on the project.

“We both consider ourselves to be Southerners but we don’t drive jacked-up trucks, fly Confederate flags or wear cowboy boots,” he said. “We always felt like the Old South was fading but there remained a high level of Southern identity for many people living in the region.

"We also noticed survey data that showed African-Americans living in the South expressed strong levels of Southern identification. A primary purpose of the book was to better understand Southern identity in the contemporary era.”

Because of the timeliness of the topic and current political and cultural divisions within the nation, many expect the book to have an appeal for a broader audience than academics, demographers and pollsters.

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