The South: Where is it? What is it?

"The South: Where is it? What is it?"

From John Shelton Reed's My Tears Spoiled My Aim

So you've moved, or been moved, to the South. Or maybe you're thinking about it. You're wondering: What is this place? What's different about it? Is it different, anymore?

Good questions. Old ones, too. People have been asking them for decades. Some of us even make our livings by asking them, but we still don't agree about the answers. Let's look at what might seem to be a simpler question: Where is the South?

That's easy enough, isn't it? People more or less agree about which parts of the United States are in the South and which aren't. If I gave you a list of states and asked which are "Southern," all in all, chances are you'd agree with some of my students, whose answers are summarized in Figure 1. I don't share their hesitation about Arkansas, and I think too many were ready to put Missouri in the South, but there's not a lot to argue with here.

That tells us something. It tells us that the South is, to begin with, a concept and a shared one. It's an idea that people can talk about, think about, use to orient themselves and each other. People know whether they're in it or not. As a geographer would put it, the South is a "vernacular" region.

Stop and think about that. Why should that be? Why can I write "South" with some assurance that you'll know I mean Richmond and don't mean Phoenix? What is it that the South's boundaries enclose?

Well, for starters, it's not news that the South has been an economically and demographically distinctive place a poor, rural region with a biracial population, reflecting the historic dominance of the plantation system. One thing the South's boundaries have set off is a set of distinctive problems, growing out of that history. Those problems may be less and less obvious, but most are still with us to some extent, and we can still use them to locate the South.

But the South is more than just a collection of unfavorable statistics. It has also been home to several populations, black and white, whose intertwined cultures have set them off from other Americans as well as from each other. Some of us, in fact, have suggested that Southerners ought to be viewed as an American ethnic group, like Italian- or Polish-Americans. If we can use distinctive cultural attributes to find Southerners, then we can say that the South is where they are found.

Southerners are also like immigrant ethnic groups in that they have a sense of group identity based on their shared history and their cultural distinctiveness in the present. If we could get at it, one of the best ways to define the South would be with what Hamilton Horton calls the "Hell, yes!" line: where people begin to answer that way when asked if they're Southerners.

Finally, to the considerable extent that people do have a sense of the South's existence, its distinctiveness, and its boundaries, regional institutions have contributed. Southern businesses, Southern magazines, Southern voluntary associations, colleges, and universities many such have at least aspired to serve the South as a whole. We can map the South by looking at where the influence of such enterprises extends.

All of these are plausible ways to go about answering the question of where the South is. For the most part, they give similar answers, which is reassuring. But it's where they differ (as they sometimes do) that they're most likely to tell us something about what the South has been, and is becoming. Nobody would exclude Mississippi from the South. But is Texas now a Southern state? Is Florida, anymore? How about West Virginia?

Allow me a homely simile. The South is like my favorite pair of blue jeans. It's shrunk some, faded a bit, got a few holes in it. There's always the possibility that it might split at the seams. It doesn't look much like it used to, but it's more comfortable, and there's probably a lot of wear left in it.

The Socioeconomic South

"Let us begin by discussing the weather," wrote U. B. Phillips in 1929. The weather, that distinguished Southern historian asserted, "has been the chief agency in making the South distinctive. It fostered the cultivation of the staple crops, which promoted the plantation system, which brought the importation of Negroes, which not only gave rise to chattel slavery but created a lasting race problem. These led to controversy and regional rivalry for power, which . . . culminated in a stroke for independence." Phillips and the many who have shared his views see almost everything of interest about the South as emanating from this complex of plantation, black population, Civil War thus, ultimately, from the weather.

You may have noticed that it's hot here in the summer, and humid. Some vegetable life loves that. Kudzu, for instance: that rampant, loopy vine needs long, moist summers, and gets them in the South. "Where kudzu grows" (Figure 2) isn't a bad definition of the South (and notice that it doesn't grow in southern Florida or West Texas).

But another plant has been far more consequential for the South. That plant, of course, is cotton. Dixie was "the land of cotton," and Figure 3 shows that in the early years of this century Southerners grew cotton nearly everywhere they could grow it: everywhere with two hundred or more frost-free days, annual precipitation of twenty three inches or more, and soil that wasn't sand.

Certainly cotton culture affected the racial makeup of the South and slowed the growth of Southern cities. Figure 4 shows what the region looked like, demographically, in 1920. Few cities interrupted the countryside. A band of rural counties with substantial black populations (solidly shaded on the map) traced the area of cotton cultivation and plantation agriculture, in a long arc from southeastern Virginia down and across to eastern Texas, with arms north and south along the Mississippi River.

This is the Deep South what a geographer would call the "core area" of the region defined by its staple-crop economy. Here some Southern characteristics and phenomena were found in their purest, most concentrated form. Lynchings, for example (Figure 5). Or peculiar, single-issue politics (that issue, as a politician once put it, "spelled n-i-g-g-e-r"), reflected in support for third-party or unpopular major-party presidential candidates (Figure 6). For decades the Deep South shaped Southern culture and politics and, still more, shaped people's image of what the South was all about.

Two out of three Southerners are now urban folk, and most rural Southerners work in industry anyway, but the fossil remains of this old South can still be found as concentrations of poor, rural black Southerners (compare Figure 7, for 1980, to Figure 4). This population, together with poor, rural white Southerners in the Southern highlands, means that most Southern states are still at the bottom of the U.S. per capita income distribution. (Virginia, Texas, and Florida barely involved in plantation agriculture, and with little or no mountain population are exceptions.) This means, in turn, that almost any problem of poor people, or of poor states, can still be used to map the South. Everything from outdoor toilets (Figure 8) to illiteracy (Figure 9) to bad teeth (Figure 10) costs money to put right, and many Southern people and most Southern states still don't have much.

Poverty is bad news, in general, and I certainly don't suggest that we get nostalgic about it, but it has had one or two good points. Burglary rates, for example, are strikingly correlated with states' average incomes presumably not because rich people steal but because they have more to steal and Figure 11 shows that burglary has been less common in all but the richest Southern states. (A policeman once offered me another explanation. Going in other people's windows is a more dangerous occupation in the South, he argued. "You're more likely to meet something lead coming out.")

In any case, now, the shadow of the plantation is giving way to the light of the "Sunbelt." The South may still be on the bottom of the socioeconomic heap, but the difference between top and bottom is smaller than it used to be. (In a few respects, South and non-South have traded places: the Southern birthrate, for instance, historically higher, is now lower than the national average.) Consequently, those who view the South primarily in economic terms are likely to believe that the region is disappearing. "Southern characteristics" that simply revealed that the South was a poor, rural region are more and more confined to pockets of poverty within the region or, more accurately, the statistics increasingly reflect the presence of air-conditioned pockets of affluence, particularly in Texas, Florida, and a few metropolitan areas elsewhere. If we map the South with the same criteria people used even fifty years ago, what we get these days looks more like a Swiss cheese than a coherent region.

The Cultural South

But suppose we don't define the South in economic and demographic terms. What if we somehow identify Southerners, and then define the South as where they come from? We could say, for example, that people who eat grits, listen to country music, follow stockcar racing, support corporal punishment in the schools, hunt possum, go to Baptist churches, and prefer bourbon to scotch (if they drink at all) are likely to be Southerners. It isn't necessary that all or even most Southerners do these things, or that other people not do them; if Southerners just do them more often than other Americans, we can use them to locate the South.

Look at the geographical distribution of Baptists, for example (Figure 12). Early on, members of that faith established their dominance in the Southern back country, in numbers approached only by those of Methodists. As Southerners moved on to the west and south, they took their religion with them. The map shows a good many Baptists in New York, to be sure, but New York has lots of everything. Not many people live in West Texas, but they're likely to be Baptists. In this respect, the mountain South, too, is virtually indistinguishable from the rest of the region.

And when it comes to Southern music, the mountains and the Southwest are right at the heart of things. Figure 13 shows where country music-makers come from: a fertile crescent extending from southwest Virginia through Kentucky and Tennessee to Arkansas, Oklahoma, and Texas. Musically, what is sometimes called the "peripheral" South is in fact the region's core. The Deep South is peripheral to the country-music scene, although it's not a vacuum like New England, and a similar map for traditional black musicians would almost certainly fill some of the gap. Country musicians' origins are reflected in the songs they produce, too: in Figure 14, the size of the states is proportional to the number of times they're mentioned in country-music lyrics. Notice Florida's role as a sort of appendix to the South.

Those Lyrics also suggest a regional propensity for several sorts of violence, and FBI statistics show that this isn't just talk. The South has had a higher homicide rate than the rest of the United States for as long as reliable records have been kept, and the mountains and Southwest share fully in this pattern. Southern violence, however, isn't directed inward. Around the world, societies with high homicide rates tend to have low suicide rates, and the same is true for American states. It very much looks as if there is some sort of trade-off at work. Figure 15 shows where homicide is about as common as suicide one of the few things the South has in common with New York.

Regional cultural differences are also reflected in family and sex-role attitudes. These differences have even surfaced in the legal system: Southern states were slow to enact women's suffrage; most never did ratify the Equal Rights Amendment; until recently few had state laws against sex discrimination (Figure 16). Southern women have actually been more likely than other American women to work outside the home (they've needed the money more), but most often they've worked in "women's jobs" as textile operatives or domestic servents, for example. The percentage of women in predominantly male occupations remains lower in the South than elsewhere (Figure 17).

Notice that these characteristics aren't related in any obvious way to the plantation complex. Aspects of culture like diet, religion, sports, music, and family patterns don't simply reflect how people make their livings, or how good a living they make. To a great extent, they're passed on from generation to generation within families. Usually, when families move they carry these patterns with them.

That's why these values and tastes and habits are found in the Appalachians and the Ozarks, and in most of Texas and Oklahoma. Those areas were marginal, at best, to the plantation South, but they were settled by Southerners, and by measures like these they are quite comfortably Southern. Mapping things like this makes it easy to figure out who settled most of Missouri, too, as well as the southern parts of Illinois, Indiana, and Ohio. And many of the same features can be found in scattered enclaves of Southern migrants all around the United States among auto workers in Ypsilanti, for instance, or the children and grandchildren of Okies in Bakersfield.

And we can't expect the demise of the plantation to make these characteristics go away. So if we define the South as a patch of territory somehow different from the rest of the United States because it is inhabited by people who are different from other Americans, we still have a great deal to work with.

Indeed, we have new things to work with all the time. We need to recall that country music came of age only with the phonograph, and NASCAR only with the high-performance stock car. Consider also Figure 18, which locates colleges and universities that publish their own sports magazines. Southern institutions of higher learning have seldom been on the cutting edge of innovation, but they seem to be out front on this one.

Southern Identification

I suggested earlier that we can look at the South, not as just a distinctive economic or cultural area, but as the home of people somehow bound together by ties of loyalty and identification. Clearly, the South has been a "province," in Josiah Royce's sense of that word: "part of a national domain which is, geographically and socially, sufficiently unified to have a true consciousness of its own unity, to feel a pride in its own ideals and customs, and to possess a sense of its distinction from other parts of the country."

Not long ago, the regional patriotism of most white Southerners was based on the shared experience of Confederate independence and defeat. There are still reminders of this past in the South's culture and social life. Figure 19, for example, shows where to find chapters of the Kappa Alpha Order, a college fraternity with an explicitly Confederate heritage.

For many, the word Dixie evokes that same heritage, and Figure 20 shows where people are likely to include that word in the names of their business enterprises. Notice that the Appalachian South, which wasn't wild about Dixie in 1861, still isn't. Now the Southwest, too, has largely abandoned Dixie (turn about: the Confederacy largely abandoned the Southwest, once). Most of Florida would probably be gone as well if there were no Dixie Highway to keep the word in use. Even in the city of Atlanta, Dixie seems to be gone with the wind or at least on the way out. Only in what is left of the old plantation South is Dixie really alive and well.

As a basis for identification, obviously, symbols of the Confederate experience necessarily exclude nearly all black Southerners, as well as many Appalachian whites and migrants to the region who are so recent that they haven't forgotten that they're migrants. Fortunately, however, regional loyalty can be based on other things, among them cultural differences like those we've already examined.

We can ask, in other words, not "where do people display Southern ways?" but "where do people assert the superiority of Southern ways?" Figure 21, for example, shows where people are likely to say that they like to hear Southern accents, prefer Southern food, and believe that Southern women are better looking than other women. (The Gallup Poll hasn't asked these questions lately, so the data are a little old, but I doubt that the patterns would be much different now.) The South defined this way naturally coincides pretty well with the area where one is actually apt to encounter Southern accents, Southern food, and Southern women a bigger region than what remains of the Confederate South, just as the cultural South extends well beyond the domain of the old plantation system.

Regional Institutions

Regional institutions play a part in sustaining the South, as both idea and reality, tying the region together economically and socially and contributing to a sense of distinctiveness and solidarity. Here, too, we find a close analogy to the life of American ethnic groups. Like some of those groups, Southerners have their own social and professional organizations, organs of communication, colleges and universities, and so forth. In fact, they probably have more of them now than they ever did before. When Karl Marx said scornfully of the Confederacy that it wasn't a nation at all, just a battle cry, he was referring to the absence of this sort of institutional apparatus, and until recently the South couldn't afford much in the way of regional institutions.

But now the Southern Historical Association, the Southern Railway, the Southern Baptist Convention, the Southern Growth Policies Board these and other, similar institutions establish channels of communication and influence within the region, making it more of a social reality than it would be otherwise. At the same time, even the names of organizations like these serve to reinforce the idea that the South exists, that it means something, that it is somehow a fact of nature.

Southern Living magazine, for instance, implies month after month that there is such a thing as Southern living, that it is different and (by plain implication) better. Figure 22 shows where that message falls on fertile ground. Notice that Floridians are relatively uninterested in it. So are Texans, despite heroic efforts by the magazine (including a special Southwestern edition). Here we see plainly a development that regional sociologists were predicting fifty years ago, something maps of regional culture and regional identification only hint at: the bifurcation of the South into a "Southeast" centered on Atlanta and a "Southwest" that is, essentially, greater Texas. (Texas has its own magazines.)

We find something similar when we look at one of the South's regional universities. The University of North Carolina, in Chapel Hill, has long been a center for the study and nurture of Southern culture. It has also helped to educate a regional elite. Figure 23 shows where an appreciable percentage of all college graduates are Chapel Hill alumni. Tar Heels are thick on the ground throughout the southeastern states, but (aside from some brain drain to the New York City suburbs) that's the only place they're thick on the ground. In particular, Chapel Hill has little market penetration west of the Mississippi. (Texas has its own universities.)

So Where Is It?

So where is the South? Well, that depends on which South you're talking about. Some places are Southern by anybody's reckoning, to be sure, but at the edges it's hard to say where the South is because people have different ideas about what it is. And most of those ideas are correct, or at least useful, for some purpose or other.

The South is no longer the locus of a distinctive economic system, exporting raw materials and surplus population to the rest of the United States while generating a variety of social and economic problems for itself. That system's gone, and good riddance. Some of its effects still linger, though, and a few such as a genuinely biracial population will be with us for the foreseeable future.

The South is also set apart by its people and their distinctive ways of doing things. Mass society has made some inroads, but Southerners still do many things differently. Some are even inventing new ways to do things differently. And the persistence of the cultural South doesn't require that Southerners stay poor and rural. Indeed, poor folks can't afford some of its trappings: bass boats and four-wheel-drive vehicles, for instance.

Because its history and its culture are somewhat different from the run of the American mill, the South also exists as an idea an idea, moreover, that people can have feelings about. Many are fond of the South (some even love it); others have been known to view it with disdain. In either case, the South exists in people's heads and in their conversations. From this point of view, the South will exist for as long as people think and talk about it, and as for its boundaries well, the South begins wherever people agree that it does.

Finally, the South is a social system, perhaps more now than ever before. A network of institutions exists to serve it, and an ever increasing number of people have a crass, pecuniary interest in making sure that it continues to exist. Here, the brute facts of distance and diversity conspire to reduce the South to a southeastern core.

Given all these different Souths, obviously, we can't just draw a line on a map and call it the South's border. As Southerners are fond of saying: it depends. But, what the hell, if I had to do it, my candidate would be the line in Figure 24 that shows where "Southern" entries begin to be found in serious numbers in urban telephone directories (the one at 35 percent).

The South below that line makes a lot of sense. It includes the eleven former Confederate States, minus all of Texas but the eastern edge. It also includes Kentucky, which had a wishful star in the Rebel flag, but not Missouri, which did too. A corner of Oklahoma makes it in as well: we get Muskogee.

Figure 24 shows variation within the South that also makes sense.

It follows some of the stress lines we've already looked at. Kentucky and much of Virginia, East Texas and part of Arkansas, most of peninsular Florida all these areas on the edges of the South are less "Southern" than the regional heartland, by this measure as by others we've examined. On the other hand, a Southern sphere of influence takes in Maryland, West Virginia, Oklahoma, much of Texas, and the southern parts of the states from Ohio west to Missouri. Few would include most of these areas in the South proper, but fewer would deny their Southern cultural flavor. This one statistic indicates the presence of the sort of regional in- stitutions I mentioned earlier, as well as the kind of regional enthusiasm that leads an entrepreneur to call a newsstand, say, the Southern Fruit and News. It shows, that is, where the idea of the South is vital, where its social reality extends, or both.

In other words, if you want to know whether you're in the South, you could do worse than to look in the phone book.


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