As you know by now, Charlotte, North Carolina was selected to host the 2012 Democratic National Convention, and between Michelle Obama’s email announcing the decision and the national media’s comments on said decision, there’s a lesson or two in how the South continues to elicit both positive and negative statements about its character that are drawn from the same tired old bag of regional stereotypes.
True, the First Lady really stepped in it when she made the claim that Charlotte has “great barbecue,” thus igniting what USA Today columnist David Jackson called “the Carolina barbecue wars.” But it was those other traits she associated with the region that caught my attention. The one about the city being “marked by its Southern charm” and “warm hospitality.” Just because Charlotte is in the South, does not make it of the South, at least not in the traditional sense. And the terms “charm” and “hospitality” seem to me, at least, to be holdovers from the generation before the modern civil rights movement. The local chapter of the NAACP, as well as some members of the LGBT community, aren’t exactly won over if recent editorials are any indication. (See for example Matt Comer’s comments in The Advocate.)
Still, Michele Obama’s comments were intended to be complimentary, and they pale by comparison to those of national newswire services. Although Charlotte serves as a major airline hub and the area has nearly one million residents, Reuters believed it important to explain that Charlotte is in North Carolina and should not be confused with Charleston, South Carolina. And the Associated Press described Charlotte this way:
“Located about 250 miles northeast of Atlanta, Charlotte has long straddled the line between New South and Bible Belt. Residents call their downtown ‘uptown,’ travel on a major thoroughfare named after evangelist Billy Graham and flock to NASCAR races in nearby Concord.”
Oh, really? Such a statement suggests, in tone, that only southern rubes would call their downtown “uptown,” that merely traveling on Billy Graham Parkway must mean an evangelical spirit permeates the air, and that, like lemmings, when Queen City residents hear the speedway beckoning them, they scamper to worship at the altar of NASCAR.
As a southerner, a southern historian, and an observer of how the mass media shapes perceptions of the South, I understand that cultural stereotypes have long existed as a way for people to identify regional differences, and in some cases, make them feel superior about their own region’s character. And yet, this sort of drivel sets my teeth on edge—mostly because it’s ill-informed. In truth, I personally use the term “downtown” for “uptown,” and I’m just as likely to travel on a major thoroughfare named Freedom Drive, and I’ve only seen the speedway in Concord once—as I drove by it.
Given the spotlight that will be on Charlotte and the South as election season gets into full swing, those of us who reside here will undoubtedly hear more from the national media about the region and its people. I imagine some of it will make us happy, some of it will surprise us, and then there will be those comments that will make us roll our eyes and shake our heads. It’s only just begun.
Karen L. Cox is associate professor of history at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. She is the author of the forthcoming Dreaming of Dixie: How the South Was Created in American Popular Culture as well as Dixie’s Daughters: The United Daughters of the Confederacy and the Preservation of Confederate Culture, which won the 2004 Julia Cherry Spruill Prize for the best book in southern women’s history. You can become a fan of Dreaming of Dixie on Facebook.