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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Going Back to Mayo

The Mayo Water Tower, March 2010.

The Mayo Water Tower at sunset, March 2010.

Sometime in March of 2010,  I was involved with a wildlife filming expedition (of sorts) to Northwestern Florida when my group wound up riding through a small town called Mayo. Initially, we found the town’s name quirky enough and its water tower iconic-seeming-enough to earn a drive through the small central district. I wasn’t able to spend as much time getting to know Mayo as I would have liked. A lot of our filming happened elsewhere in the thinly-populated Lafayette County, which I somewhat ignorantly referred to as “the abyss between Tallahassee and Gainesville” to northern friends. Pragmatically, though, there is something almost ghostly about that area. Mayo’s population has hovered precariously around 1,000 for most of the 21st century, yet it’s still the county’s administrative seat. Our business there was filming some county council meetings, speaking with some regional citizens who had lost property during widespread wildfires that had ravaged Northern Florida earlier in the decade.

Students from American University interview a Lafayette County resident about his experiences with wildfire on his property while filmmaker Wolfgang Obst looks on.

Students from American University interview a Lafayette County resident about his experiences with wildfire on his property while filmmaker Wolfgang Obst looks on.

Before too long, I got bored with the proceedings and decided to wander outside to stretch my legs. It wasn’t my project; I was only there because I wanted to catch another glimpse of this quiet little town before wrapping our filming week and heading back to DC. My restlessness led me to a softball tournament happening in the fields outside of the high school, which quickly became a highlight of the entire trip. I have no idea when I would have time to write a paper about it, but there has to be some ground to the types of activities that provide the most “authentic” (dirty word, I know) experience of a place. I would place “softball tournament” right up there with “local dive bar performance” as the best barometer of what constitutes the quotidian in any locality. People are there in equal parts because they want to be and because they have some type of civic or familial duty to be.

Mayo, FL - March 2010

Mayo, FL – March 2010

The timbre of the crowd watching softball (including myself, I gladly paid the $4 entry fee) seemed to lean toward the former. The early-evening temperature was perfect and the Florida Panhandle accents abounded (keep in mind this was still a novelty to me at the time; I wouldn’t move to Tennessee for another three years yet). Needless to say, that tiny town in what felt like the middle of nowhere off the Suwanee River left a disproportionate impression on me. I left a couple days later to go see a music festival in St. Augustine, and I couldn’t get Mayo out of my head for some reason. I had a standing offer to return to Lafayette County that weekend for what our group’s regional liaison Sharon referred to as “the biggest redneck barbecue of the entire year,” but I couldn’t manage it. In fact, a few days later I flew back up to DC and resumed my life, wondering if I would ever have the chance to pass through Mayo again.

Main Street, Mayo, FL - March 2010

Main Street, Mayo, FL – March 2010

A few weeks ago, against some range of odds, it happened. My friend Sean and I were on a road trip between Tallahassee and Gainesville, and decided to take the rural route 27 rather than the markedly less scenic and only marginally faster freeway-to-freeway route. The only real advantage to doing that would have been a photo-op with that iconic Cafe Risque “We Bare All” billboard. We made the right choice in taking 27. One thing I had forgotten was that Mayo is almost exactly in between the two cities. There did not seem to be a clear majority of Seminoles or Gators gear on license plate frames or poorly-fitting t-shirts. The equilibrium felt (here’s that word again) ghost-like. In fact, the town felt largely the same, though it was a welcome relief seeing it in full daylight.

March 19, 2015. Pardon my misplaced enthusiasm.

March 19, 2015. Pardon my misplaced enthusiasm.

My friend and I stopped at Meme’s cafe (pronounced Mimi’s) right in the center of town for some lunch and to recharge. Meme’s is located in the space where Sonny C’s Barbecue Chicken stood five years ago (you can see the sign in the photo of Main Street above). We were distracted with a sign that read “ya’ll come back” to exiting customers; were the proprietors of this diner trying extra hard to seem Southern? It wouldn’t shock me to find out that Mayo has pockets of retirees or non-Natives who wanted a quieter, less expensive life than places like New York, Miami, or Atlanta could have offered. We also wandered into the one prominent supermarket in town (actually directly to the right of where I’m standing in that picture above) and discovered how heavily Latin-American the market was. It came as a surprise, considering how off-the-beaten-path the town seemed, despite exploding Mexican and other Central-American populations throughout the “New South.” Only approximately 16% of census respondents categorized themselves as Latino of any race as of 2000, though one could assume that’s risen substantially since then.

The porch of the Old Lafayette County Courthouse (1888), now a  Bed and Breakfast. The current Lafayette County Courthouse (built in 1908) can be seen off on the right side of the frame. March 19, 2015.

The porch of the Old Lafayette County Courthouse (1888), now a Bed and Breakfast. The current Lafayette County Courthouse (built in 1908) can be seen off on the right side of the frame. March 19, 2015.

It’s easy to get condescendingly wistful when you pass through places like Mayo. It has more warmth than a succession of one stoplight towns in Northwestern Texas, and it has more noteworthy architecture than plenty of towns twice its size. But, as I discovered this time around, Mayo didn’t really need my pity. Unlike so many tiny towns in the United States, it doesn’t appear to be much worse off than it was five years ago. Actually, if you look at that photo of downtown from March 2010 again, you may notice an abandoned pair of buildings – one red, one tan. This is what they looked like a few weeks ago:

Tumbleweed's Smokehouse, March 19, 2015

Tumbleweed’s Smokehouse, March 19, 2015

Nothing against Meme, but I wandered into the restaurant on the left out of curiosity before we left for Gainesville. The scent of roasting BBQ smacked me in the nose and I think I may actually have said “wow” right within earshot of the proprietor. It made sense, considering how the actual smokehouse sat right next door to the dining room; most of the time you see smokers sitting fairly far afield from where the customers actually eat it. Not a bad approach for the latest agents in the always-changing BBQ situation in Mayo. I wish we had chosen to eat there. There’s always a next time, though.

I know some of you may be getting sick of how much love I give Florida on this site, but it’s hard for me to resist. I know it’s inaccurate because I’ve spent a disproportionate amount of time there, but I feel like I’ve found more cool small towns in the Sunshine State than the other 49 combined. The lesson here is, no matter how you may feel about a state, you will very rarely regret taking that rural route if you have the time.

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