Hurtin' Words

Debating Family Problems in the Twentieth-Century South

By Ted Ownby

352 pp., 6.125 x 9.25, 11 halftones, notes, bibl., index

  • Paperback ISBN: 978-1-4696-4700-5
    Published: December 2018
  • Hardcover ISBN: 978-1-4696-4699-2
    Published: December 2018
  • E-book EPUB ISBN: 978-1-4696-4701-2
    Published: October 2018
  • E-book PDF ISBN: 979-8-8908-5530-5
    Published: October 2018

New Directions in Southern Studies

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When Tammy Wynette sang "D-I-V-O-R-C-E," she famously said she "spelled out the hurtin' words" to spare her child the pain of family breakup. In this innovative work, Ted Ownby considers how a wide range of writers, thinkers, activists, and others defined family problems in the twentieth-century American South. Ownby shows that it was common for both African Americans and whites to discuss family life in terms of crisis, but they reached very different conclusions about causes and solutions. In the civil rights period, many embraced an ideal of Christian brotherhood as a way of transcending divisions. Opponents of civil rights denounced "brotherhoodism" as a movement that undercut parental and religious authority. Others, especially in the African American community, rejected the idea of family crisis altogether, working to redefine family adaptability as a source of strength. Rather than attempting to define the experience of an archetypal "southern family," Ownby looks broadly at contexts such as political and religious debates about divorce and family values, southern rock music, autobiographies, and more to reveal how people in the South used the concept of the family as a proxy for imagining a better future or happier past.

About the Author

Ted Ownby is professor of history and Southern Studies and director of the Center for the Study of Southern Culture at the University of Mississippi.
For more information about Ted Ownby, visit the Author Page.


“Ownby illuminates the changing ideas and debates about southern families…a deeply researched book that will be of interest to scholars of southern history, cultural history, African American history, and gender and sexuality.” – The Journal of Southern History

"Coming from one of the most brilliant and thoughtful analysts of the American South, Ted Ownby's Hurtin' Words is indispensable for understanding the many ways that southerners defined the problems of family life and why those definitions mattered so much."--Marjorie J. Spruill, author of Divided We Stand

"An always-interesting and often-fascinating look into the way the family was written and talked about in the twentieth-century South. Ownby offers a remarkably fresh way to think about family and region, race and gender."--Richard King, University of Nottingham