What Defines the South?

Update: After I scheduled the post yesterday, Karen Cox (@SassyProf) and several others had a lively exchange on Twitter about the topic, especially the place of sweet tea and cornbread. You can find the exchanges in our Twitter streams.

I’m teaching the Old South course this semester. This is my second time teaching the course, and I determined to make some changes this time around.

One of the changes that I made was to spend the first full class period discussing the question: Is there a South? For historiographical foundation, students were supposed to read two articles by C. Vann Woodward (who, as I informed them, was their academic great-great-grandfather): “The Irony of Southern History” (1953) and “Look Away, Look Away” (1993).

The discussion ranged widely in some expected and unexpected ways. Students were fairly certain that there is a distinct southern culture, centered on football, language, and fashion. They also seemed to agree that a geographical South existed. It consists of Arkansas, Tennessee, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana. Some wanted to include the Florida panhandle, southern Missouri, southwestern Virginia, parts of Kentucky and Maryland, and West Virginia.

The two most interesting parts of the class discussion centered on two issues. One was a debate about whether a “redneck” was the equivalent of a southerner and, similarly, whether being “country” was the same as being southern. The students mentioned three different types of “redneckiness” (a term I’m going to trademark): cowboy (hats, boots, belt buckles, etc.); farmer (overalls, dip can in the pocket, experience in agricultural work); and hunters (camouflage, hunting animals for sport).

The second was what students didn’t mention as contributing to a distinct South. Gender and religion were not discussed at all. Climate was only briefly discussed after I brought it up. Aside from brief mentions of racism and slavery, no one mentioned the black experience as contributing to a distinct South. Part of the reason, I think, is because I think there just an assumption that of course that’s part of what makes the South distinct. I also think (and told the students so) that Americans in general, and white southerners in particular, define the South from a white perspective without considering that there is also a black South and a biracial South (and even a multiracial/ethnic South).

I finished by showing TV and music video clips illustrating different types of southern identities and constructs. The clips included The Andy Griffith Show, Jeff Foxworthy’s “You Might Be a Redneck” routine, Here Comes Honey Boo Boo, BUCKWILD, The Dukes of Hazzard, Big Boi (feat. Ludicrous and T.I.), “In the A,” and Souljah Boy, “Turn My Swag On.”

My hope is that as we go back and look at the development of the South from the precolonial period through the Reconstruction period, students will be able to see connections between the region’s past and modern southern identities.

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10 Replies to “What Defines the South?”

  1. It’s a really interesting question. My only experience with it was in graduate school (in Baltimore), where my colleagues and I would get into heated debates about whether Baltimore and Maryland were Northern or Southern. Those of us from above the Mason-Dixon line swore it was Southern, while those who had come from further south swore with equal vigor that it was Northern.

    Which is a long-winded way of saying that I’m intrigued that any of your students included Maryland in the South.

  2. I would think Duck Dynasty would probably add to your video collection… Also, I’m taking a group to Miss Mary Bobo’s Boarding House and Jack Daniel’s Distillery next Friday. I’m more interested in the students seeing distillation, but I also like them to get a healthy dose of southern food and talk to the hostesses about the history of the town. We have one spot open, if you are interested in tagging along. Any discussion you could contribute would be valuable, particularly with the emphasis on Southern culture.

  3. First, anyone who uses The Andy Griffith Show in class is ok in my book. Second, we have this same discussion in Expansion. Is there a West? If yes, then what is it? To me, the South and the West are the two regions that have been given some sort of special distinction.

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