The "Cotton Fields to Skycrapers" exhibit at Charlotte's Levine Museum of the New South has a first-edition copy under glass of W.J. Cash's "The Mind of the South."
Cash's 1941 book, made obsolete by Southern economic development after World War II, was revered by Southern journalists of my generation.
The spirit of the troubled North Carolina newspaperman lives on in efforts by The New York Times, sociology professors and cable news channels to understand those who support Donald Trump, the type of New York carpetbagger once despised in the South.
An examination of the South's persistent backwardness, "The Mind of the South" is one of those cult works breathlessly praised by acolytes at bars and parties. Several of my AJC colleagues considered the book a sacred text, and Cash's name was reverentially evoked by poets and novelists at the Sewanee Writers' Conference. Cash's apparent suicide in Mexico adds to his fascination.
The "Cotton Fields to Skyscrapers" exhibit told the story of poor Appalachian people who fled their depleted farms during the Depression to work in textile mills in North Carolina cities. They didn't need to go to a fancy restaurant in Charlotte or Charleston for "farm to table" dining.
The old mills now serve as condos for the millennials flocking to Charlotte, booming again after the 2008 bank crash. The old-time music, recorded in places like the long destroyed Charlotte Hotel, rises from iPhones tuned to Sportify. Their grandchildren work for international companies, rent out Airbnbs, or drive Ubers.
Cash's old property-stricken South was blown away in the 1960s, buried under glass and stone skyscrapers in cities like Charlotte and Atlanta. A video at the New South museum shows Charlotte's 1920s landmarks imploding in dark clouds of dust.
As elections across the South attest, the old white supremacy holds on, clinging with gnarled hands to political power against a new generation of different cultures and lifestyles.
The Mind of the South remains unformed. Cash's descendants keep trying to define it, all raising the objection, "and yet..."