Saturday, 4 January 2014

It was always so hot, and everyone was so polite, and everything was all surface but underneath it was like a bomb waiting to go off.

Today I will attempt to answer the question: What is the South?

From Southern Studies 101 to Southern Studies 601, from Mississippi to North Carolina, I have talked to a lot of people about what "the South" really means. We draw lines between different countries, but defining a region is more complicated.

In the UK, we pretty much understand where England ends and where Scotland and Wales begin. But I've found that people get more argumentative when it comes to placing counties within a region. For instance, when I was at UEA, I heard people argue that Norfolk was part of the North, the South, the Midlands, the East and the Southeast. (Can't we agree on "East Anglia?") Defining, say, the South of England, would be entirely subject to context and individual perspectives. It's exactly the same in the US, except they like to talk about it a lot more.

During my first semester at Ole Miss, someone asked if it was my first time in the US.

"No," I told him, "I lived in North Carolina for a year."

He replied, "Oh, so this is your first time in the South!"

What? Is North Carolina a Yankee state now? My North Carolinian fiance grinds his teeth at the very suggestion he is not a real southerner.

There are some states that most people willingly agree are part of the American South (such as Alabama and Mississippi), and others that are more up for debate (such as Texas or Kentucky). For some people, the Deep South is somehow "more southern" than the culture found in the Carolinas. So who's in, and who's out? Who is at the center and who is on the fringe? How do you define a region, and what does it all mean in the end?

Here are some different definitions of what some consider to be "the South":

Geographical Definition

"The relationship between the Mason and Dixon needs some fixin'." 
- LL Cool J. 

(Who could do with enrolling in Southern Studies 101. Brad Paisley should come too.)

As you can see from the map on the right, the US Census defines the South as encompassing the following states: Maryland, West Virginia, Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana, Oklahoma and Texas.

What a big party! And it really does screw with you when you're trying to use statistics to back up a point about rural culture and big cities such as Dallas and Tallahassee keep getting in the way. Moving on...

Historical Definition

"Advance the flag of Dixie! Hurrah! Hurrah!
In Dixie's land we take our stand, and live or die for Dixie!" 
- Confederate States of America War Song. Also Kevin Spacey, briefly.

The South is still defined today by its role in the 19th century: secession from the Union (on the part of - in order - South Carolina, Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Texas, Virginia, Arkansas, North Carolina, Tennessee), support of slavery, formation of the Confederacy and subsequently the Civil War. To tell the whole truth, despite the fact that I am a Southern Studies student, I am no Civil War buff. Eventually I will sit down and watch the entire Ken Burns TV series.

But for now I will just say that I was honestly surprised by how much the Civil War still has a ghostly presence within the South. Also known as "the war between the states" and "the war of Northern aggression", it did after all end as long ago as 1865. Yet it is referenced far, far more than I can recall World War II being brought up during all my years in Britain, and that was only my grandparents' generation. I can remember being a young girl and hearing soldier stories from my grandfather, evacuee stories from my grandmother - but I never digested it as a source of personal pride or personal history. The Confederacy still is a part of southern "tradition" for some families and individuals, which manifests in a number of ways: joining a group like the Daughters of the Confederacy, celebrating Robert E. Lee Day, flying the Confederate Flag, etc.

 Cultural Definition

 "The old game, I suspect, is beginning to play out in the Bible Belt." - H.L. Mencken. 


It occurs to me that "the South" is not always a recognizable term to those who do not call the United States home. Which leads to a somewhat awkward situation when I try to explain what I'm getting a Master's in. Southern America... You mean like Brazil? No, just no. At least you'll be close to you boyfriend in California, right? Hmm... How near is it to New York/Washington D.C./Chicago/Los Angeles? It's not. I can sort of work with you if you know where Florida is though.

You get the idea.

But what people DO know is that some parts of America are very, very religious. Occasionally someone will ask, "Is Mississippi in the Bible Belt?" Yes, yes, YES. Now we are getting somewhere! The Bible Belt refers to the southeastern (and sometimes southcentral, and occasionally midwestern) states of the US, and points to the proportion of evangelical Protestants, as well as the importance of religious/church culture in general. Sometimes you hear the phrase "the Buckle of the Bible Belt", as in most extreme, but it is apparently a multi-buckling belt as many places have been labeled this, based on the presence mega-churches, percentage of Baptists, or perhaps Pat Robertson appreciation.

My department at the University of Mississippi is called the Center for the Study of Southern Culture. It's exactly what it says on the tin: we study culture. What is culture, aside from religion? In academic gobbledeegook, we are an interdisciplinary bunch who study topics such as literature and literary theory, history, sociology, anthropology, documentary, ethnography, communications, globalization, politics and economics. Each discipline gives us a small idea of southern identity, even as it may obscure other ideas. Culture is not always clear-cut and harmonious. It is complicated, in flux, evading conclusions.

I can give you southern tropes with which to communicate ideas about the South, but as I've said, these are mere dots of the puzzle. Southern people say "y'all." Faulkner, Welty and O'Connor wrote southern literature. Let Us Now Praise Famous Men documents southern life. Charlotte, North Carolina, is the headquarters of Bank of America and is part of the global South. The South is so vast, so varied, so complex, that even after years of study - and for some, a lifetime of experience - there is always more to learn.

 Personal Definition

“I quickly realized there is no such thing as the South; there are just hundreds of souths." - Wiley Cash.

If I had to pin down the main reason why I love to study culture, I would say its fluidity.

Most people know I am far from a black-and-white person. I believe in moral relativism, I am agnostic, I see the world in terms of multiplicity. I am also not an ambivalent person. I find our world contradictory, unjust sometimes, unfathomable and yet meaningful - never boring, never not worth thinking about. I get lost in the details of life, people and places. I know I can never fully answer a question like, "What is the South?" and yet I will try for the rest of my life.

To end this post, I have a challenge for you.

Whether you have lived in the South all your life, moved there for college or a job, married a southerner, taken a trip to Atlanta, watched Gone With The Wind one time, or never heard of it until this post, I want you to take a moment to think about this.

Set a timer for 1-2 minutes. Without stopping, write down everything that comes to mind about the South.

I'll end here with what I came up with, and I hope some of you will share your thoughts too.

The South is...
Sweet tea, long porches, slow talking and soft accents, nice manners, racism, women who want to get married young, excellent universities, storytelling, conflict, sweet potato mash with marshmallows, humidity, buzzing cicadas at night, football and basketball, blue skies, mountains, banjos, MLK, honey, peaches, patriotism, guns and cars, rednecks, cotton and mills, grits, Elvis Presley.