David Davis

Southern Studies professor insists there is no one Southern identity


By Tamara Gilbert, Ryan Grady and Yeji Bang

David Davis does not think the term ‘Southern’ is a concrete concept.

The Mercer University Southern Studies professor grew up in a town where people boasted their Southern identity, their belonging to the traditional Southern ideal. But for Davis, Southern wasn’t that simple.

Davis’ experiences in England, when he studied abroad during college, prompted his interest in the Southern culture.

“People in the pubs would hear my accent and ask me questions about the South. Usually stupid questions like ‘Oh, so you wear shoes?’ ” David said. “So I found myself explaining the South to the Brits and I noticed many things I found fascinating about literature that really resonated in the South.”

Davis grew up in the small town of Butler, Georgia and had no desire to identify with the South.

“As a kid, what I wanted more than anything was to get the ‘F’ out,” Davis said.

Davis saw college as his way out. So he did what he could in school — he studied and played football, winning scholarships for both academics and athletics that led to him attending Emory University for free.

“I went to Emory to do what people who attend Emory do,” Davis said. “You go to Emory to be either a doctor or a lawyer. And I’m not very good at math so I went to Emory to be a lawyer.”

An inspirational English professor, however, changed Davis’ mind.

“He encouraged me, he took my ideas seriously, and he made me think that I might actually want to study literature,” Davis said. “He encouraged me to study abroad in England and I took that opportunity.”

While in England, Davis found himself becoming interested in the place that he had tried so hard to leave.

Through his experience, Davis discovered that he had strong opinions about the South and that he wanted to talk about it. He decided that he wanted to attend graduate school to study Southern Literature.

“I set out on a pretty intentional path once I decided this is what I wanted to do,” Davis said.

Davis said there are different types of South that people identify themselves with, including the “poverty South, the “racist South,” the “conservative South,” and the “alternative South.” That part of the southern ideal, he said, is self-identification, and that when someone identifies themselves as Southern they choose to associate themselves with the positive elements of the South.

Davis, who has lived in either Georgia or North Carolina his whole life, said that from a perspective of strict geography he fits the criteria of a Southerner. However, as a person who is studied in Southern culture, he also analyzes and critiques the South.

“There are certain … preconceptions about the South, that irritate me, that I prefer not to identify with. But that is what [Georgia-based singer-songwriter] Patterson Hood calls the ‘Duality of the Southern Thing,’ ” Davis said.