For as long as I've been alive the old Confederacy has been a land without closure, where history keeps coming at you day after day, year after year, decade after decade, as if the past were the present, too, and the future forever. Cities grew and populations changed in the South, but the Civil War lurked somehow in the shadow of mirror-sided skyscrapers; the holocaust of slavery and the sweet-bitter victories of the civil-rights movement lingered deep in the minds of people on both sides of the color line. Yes there was change, progress, prosperity, and a lot of it. Southerners put their faith in money and jobs and God Almighty to get them to a better place and better times—and for a lot of them, white and black, those times came. The South got to be a more complicated place, where rich and poor—which is pretty much all there was before World War II—gave way to a broad-spectrum bourgeoisie with big-time aspirations. But as air conditioning conquered the lethargy-inducing climate and Northerners by the millions abandoned the rust belt for the sun belt, the past wasn't forgotten or forgiven so much as put aside while people got on with their lives and their business.
Now this part of the country, where I have my deepest roots, feels raw again, its political emotions more exposed than they've been in decades. George W. Bush and Barack Hussein Obama have unsettled the South: the first with a reckless war and a weakened economy, the second with the color of his skin, the foreignness of his name, the lofty liberalism of his language. Suddenly the palliative prosperity that salved old, deep wounds no longer seems adequate to the task.
Last month I set out driving through Tennessee, Georgia and the Carolinas, roughly retracing the deepest scar in the country—the blazing track of total war left by Union Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman in 1864 and 1865. After many years away I was exploring my own blood ties (which include an ancestor named after Sherman by his slave-owning-yet-Unionist parents), but also gauging the tenor of a region that has been critical to every U.S. presidential election since 1932, and may be again. "If you don't win anything in the South, you need 70 percent of the rest of the country," says Merle Black, a political scientist at Emory University in Atlanta. "If you can win some of the South, that gives you breathing space." Polls suggest Virginia is in play. And the Obama campaign is approaching North Carolina and Georgia as if they might be, although like most people, Black (who is white, and from east Texas, which is deep in Dixie) thinks John McCain will win in both those states if only as the default candidate, the un-Obama.
The South I saw was troubled by changes that go well beyond this "change" election. A generation is growing up with traumas more immediate than those of the 1860s—or the 1960s. Shana Sprouse, 21 and white, and born and raised in Spartanburg, S.C., says she's going to vote for Obama because her 26-year-old boyfriend is racked with cancer and she and he have spent the last two years trying to find ways to pay for his treatment or, now, his hospice. Jobs are disappearing to places that are truly foreign, not mock-strange states like California. New immigrants are introducing brown into a color map that has long been dominated by black and white. There is a sense that a world is ending, maybe not this year but inevitably.
The election, and Obama's candidacy, have focused these anxieties like a lens. I found whites frustrated and indecisive about the campaign, families at odds, generations divided. Many who thought themselves beyond prejudice were surprised by their suspicions of the young black man from up north. Meanwhile, many slave-descended blacks, hugely supportive of the half-Kenyan, half-Kansan, Hawaii-reared Obama, seemed afraid to hope too much, inoculating themselves with pessimism about the chances that any man of color could win the presidency, even this man, even today, or that, if he does, he will survive. As I say, emotions are raw.
People remember what they want to the way they want to, and call it history. That much is true almost any place in the world. But in the South, if people aren't careful, history can start to run their lives, even put them at risk. My father's brother, Tom, was a case in point: in the basement of his split-level home in suburban Atlanta he stored tons of artillery projectiles he'd dug up on Civil War battlefields. Many of them were still live ammunition. "I do worry," he told me in the 1970s. "If this house ever caught on fire, it could do a lot of damage around the neighborhood. You'd hear the last shots fired in the Civil War." (After Tom's death from natural causes in 1987, the core of the collection, duly defused, went to the Atlanta History Center.)
I set off on this trip wondering if Obama's candidacy was helping to pull people in the South together, freeing them of their histories, or pushing them apart. The "postracial" Obama obviously hopes to alter the traditional narrative of race in this campaign and may in fact be doing so, in certain counties of certain states. But in the South, broadly speaking, the past is still too powerful a frame for him to escape fully. This isn't only about black and white, just as the Civil War was about more than slavery. Back then powerful political players in the South saw Obama's fellow Illinoisan Abraham Lincoln as a threat, and a reason for rebellion. All Lincoln's unifying message brought together was the white poor and the white rich, in opposition to him and the blacks whose freedom he sought.