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.