Bostonian Southerners Know Their Place
Miles and years north ofthe Grits Line, alumnifind common ground
William Ferris, history pro-
fessor and senior associate
director of UNC's Center
for the Study of the
American South, reminded
Carolina Club members
what they're missing when
he toured four New England
cities last spring.
Chapel Hill was 90 degrees and sunny. Boston was 50 degrees and raining, and on that spring day 40 dis-
placed Tar Heels needed a taste of the Southern Part of
The answer canle in Professor William Ferris, sport-
ing a Carolina blue tie, a familiar drawl and, like the
rest of the group, a longing for sweet tea and barbecue.
"Southerners, more than any other people, have fall-
en in love with the places they've lived," said Ferris
during his lecture on the culture of the
South."They've painted them, they've written
about them, and they've sung about them."
Ferris, who is senior associate director of
UNe's Center for the Study of the American
South, spoke to the Boston Carolina Club as
part of a whirlwind GAA-sponsored tour of
four New England cities - Boston; Provi-
dence, R.l.; and Hartford and Greenwich,
He spoke ofregional differences ("In
California, ifyou meet someone, the first
question you ask is,'What do you do?' "he
says. "If you're in the South, the first question
is predictably, 'Where are you from?' "), what defines
the South (geographically, he says, it's typically the 11
former Confederate states), and some of the more
painful issues often associated with the region: race,
class and gender.
"We can look at the South as the most American and
the most un-American place in our nation," he said.
"We look at both a beautiful and a nightmarish kind of
But Ferris is unabashedly biased toward the South
- and with good reason. On a small farm in Vicksburg,
Miss., he grew up listening to scratchy radio recordings
of the Grand Ole Opry. Ferris plays a Martin steel
string guitar and wails the Blues. When he tells stories,
his eyes widen, his arms flail, and with ease he quickly
alternates between Irish, French and Texas accents.
He taught at Jackson State,Yale and the University
of Mississippi before coming to UNC in 2001. Rolling
Stone nanled him one of the nation's top 10 teachers in
1991. He's the co-editor of the Encyclopedia of Southern
Culture and is immensely proud ofbeing at UNC, say-
ing he "feels like a rabbit in a briar patch."
Indeed, Chapel Hill appears to be at the crossroads
of the American South. Wilson Library is a frequent stop
for anyone researching the region, and next year UNC
plans to pioneer a program that will combine study of
the South with other departments such as religion,
music and African-American studies.
September / Octob e r 2004
Increasingly, the South is in vogue. NASCAR quickly
is becoming a national sport, Krispy Kreme has gone
international and Southern nouvelle cuisine is on the
rise. (Mama Dip's cookbook is the No. 1 bestseller at
"Food and the South is enormously important;' Ferris
said. "It is a window.You can map Southern worlds by
what people eat and drink. Ifyou map consunlption of
bourbon, it will define the South rather neatly."
There's also something Ferris calls the grits-and-ice-
tea line: "When you leave the South and you ask for
tea, it may be hot tea. If you ask for grits, they may put
milk and sugar on it, which is awful."
But some fear that a mass marketing of Southern
culture - whether it's through music, tea or doughnuts
- eventually could dilute the meaning of what it means
to be from the region. Ferris doesn't seem to buy into
that notion. "In every generation, there's been enormous
change;' he said."But certain things do not change."
One of the cornerstones of the South, which Ferris
says will always remain, is a strong tie to fanlliy and
what the Southern writer Eudora Welty (who earned
an honorary doctorate from UNC in 1976) called "a
sense of place."
"People have enormous pride and attachment to the
places they grow up in, even though they may have long
since moved away," Ferris said."Often when Southerners
die, they're brought home. They're brought to the place
that they think of as home. Those things don't change."
The event marked a shift ofsorts, as the Boston
Carolina Club seeks to extend its activities beyond peri-
odic get-togethers at local sports bars. Past events mainly
have drawn a crowd of young professionals, but Ferris
attracted new graduates as well as those 40 years out.
For many participants, this event was their first taste of
the Carolina Club.
"There's been a lot of transition this past year," said
the club's new president, Aime Goldberg ' 98."I don't
want people to think it's locked into going to a game
or to a bar, because that's not for everyone. Some peo-
ple have kids, and we're trying to get more events that
will appeal to everyone."
Perhaps most of all, the evening brought a bit of
nostalgia for a group that Ferris referred to as part of
the Southern Diaspora.
"I'm not even from the South; I didn't grow up on
grits," said Goldberg, a New York native who is a real
estate lawyer in Boston. "But I came to know it. And
now I miss the sweet tea. I wish I were in Chapel
- Matt Viser '02