Today in GEOG 320: What Makes the South “the South?”

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This was the 5th result when I googled “the South.” (via a listicle-type article on ’19 Reasons why Southern Florida really isn’t “the South.”‘)

This morning in my GEOG 320 class, I introduced and discussed the concept of vernacular regions. That is, large-scale places that tend to be united by an idea rather than political borders (e.g. state lines) or physical borders (e.g. rivers). Because this class meets in Eastern Tennessee (a vernacular region usually defined by the Cumberland Plateau on the West and the NC border on the East) and many students are from this area, we split up into groups and decided to make brainstormed lists of what makes the South “the South.” The responses came from individuals from various points within the South as well as people who never lived in the South until college. The associations all had positive and negative connotations, depending on who you’d ask.

We only had time to get a small sample of each group’s list, but here are a good handful of things that make the south “The South” to get the conversation going.

  • The Mason-Dixon Line
    This formulates “the South” in the classic, antebellum sense, as the British astronomers Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon drew this to settle a border dispute between the Pennsylvania and Maryland colonies in the 18th century. Unsurprisingly, this meaning of this arbitrary line have changed over the years. Most Marylanders, including one member of our class, do not consider themselves Southerners. The same goes for DC, though it does have a big Southern cultural imprint on it.
  • Football & the SEC in General
    More than one group led the conversation with Football. There are few aspects of Southern cultural life that don’t tie into the gridiron in some way. Obviously, this isn’t unique to the South, as many cities outside of the vernacular region (Columbus, OH for example) take great pride in football and their cities transform on any given Sunday (or Saturday…or in some cases, Thursdays now).
  • The “Bible Belt”
    One student mentioned that she worked at an ice cream parlor in Pigeon Forge for some time. They would usually play the local classic rock station in the background, and more than once on Sunday afternoons, an older person would come to the counter and call it “inappropriate” to be playing music (at least something so secular) on the Lord’s day. This was one of many ways that living within “the Bible Belt” (a typically derogatory term) affects people here on that micro level. Again, this is not unique to The South, though stereotypically it’s more present here.
  • Regional Pride
    An abstract idea that’s hardly unique to the South, but it’s something that Southerners of all stripes and throughout the political spectrum have in droves. This often connects with Football.
  • Cooking
    This is a huge one, especially now that Southern cuisine is so popular that it’s even popping up internationally in places like London and Paris. I loved asking people for examples of this, because we heard several fun stories from those who’ve worked in the service industry. Here are some sub-topics within the foods that make the South “the South:”

    • Sugar and Fats
    • “Meat & 3”
    • Cornbread
    • Mac & Cheese
    • BBQ
    • Soup Beans
    • Fried Chicken
    • Shrimp Boils
    • Sweet Tea
    • Biscuits and Gravy
    • French-Influenced/Creole Food (this came from a student who grew up in Southern Mississippi, where Creole culture and Cajun food is much more prominent, closer to the Gulf).
    • “Comfort food” meaning larger people (Texas, we’re looking at you).
  • Clothing
    We didn’t get into this one quite as much, but one student did bring up Chacos and Camouflage, which are both worn all over the world but seem to have a pretty big role in Southern fashion.
  • Upbringing / Economy / Farming
    Although the South has become a major industrial manufacturing center over the past few decades, ideas about “the South” still revolve around the bucolic small-town, rural agrarian community. Farming still plays a big role in Southern legend, and it also feeds into the idea of…
  • Southern Hospitality vs. the “Fast” North
    Life in the South is, by all accounts, slow, and that’s the way many people like it. Cities like New York and DC have people zipping everywhere, but in the South people tend to take it easy. This is, of course, changing with many Southern cities growing at a fast rate, largely due to people migrating in from these smaller towns, as well as big Northern cities. Many of the middle-class people moving down from the North become known as…
  • Nashville (and Atlanta) Hipsters
    This is always a funny conversation. Both of these cities, on either side of us in Knoxville (not to say there aren’t plenty of hipsters here, too) are blowing up and with it come people priced out of Bohemian lifestyles in more expensive cities. Cities like Nashville, Atlanta, Savannah, New Orleans, and more have become cradles of new life for artists from all over the U.S.
  • Less of a Melting Pot / More Racism
    Racism is the unfortunate reality of anywhere less diverse (and even many diverse places as well). But since the South has been slower to diversify than other more urbanized regions, the stereotype of the racist Southerner has persisted. Also, the region’s history of institutionalized racism doesn’t help, but like everything, it’s changing.
  • Conservative
    The past few elections have seen a shift in classically “Red” Southern states like Virginia and North Carolina. This time around, there’s a good chance that Georgia and South Carolina may even go blue, given the growth of Atlanta, Savannah, and Charleston with more progressive population sets. That being said, “the South” is still a largely right-wing and conservative vernacular region, voting for more hard-line candidates and more influenced by the Baptist Church (see: the “Bible Belt.”)
  • Tourism / Guest Workers
    With the summer tourist season, the region attracts tons of guest workers from all over the world here on temporary visa programs, including Russia and Mongolia. One student actually mentioned how many French workers (some here illegally) are in Lexington working on Horse farms there. I had no clue.
  • Country Music / Bluegrass
    Though I did mention Dolly Parton as a symbol of Americana abroad, this one didn’t come up until a student stopped by on her way out of class and added it, since it was on her group’s list and they didn’t get down to it. This is a BIG one, as the music of “the South” has absolutely changed the world. Country Music’s industry is centered on Nashville (though country stars come from everywhere), and Bluegrass music (largely the province of rural Appalachia, much of which “the South” claims) has seen a major upsurge in popularity over the past decade.

It’s fun teaching cultural geography in the South because conversations like this can both teach many concepts in the subject, but can also go on for days. I’m sure that we left out plenty, too.

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