In Search of Southern Culture

From an article by journalist and conflicted Southerner Robert Kelly-Goss of Albemarle, NC:

North Carolina journalist and writer C. J. Cash wrote that the South is “not quite a nation but the next thing to it.”

Through the years I have pondered what it means to be Southern and what is Southern culture. I love the food found throughout the varied regions of the South. And the music, be it blues or mountain music, takes me to the different landscapes found throughout the region, leaving with me a sense of place that I can’t exactly put my finger on, but cherish just the same.

“There is not a single Southern culture, ever,” says Harry Watson, Ph.D., director of The Southern Studies Center at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. “There’s black culture, white culture, mountain culture, NASCAR culture, country club culture and so on.”

Rupert Vance, once a sociologist at UNC, noted that the South is unique because, in many ways, it has not been assimilated into the mass culture that surrounds it.

Amen to that last idea. I love being from a place that really makes me from somewhere.

Unlike the author, I have never felt conflicted about my Southern-ness because of feeling my cultural identity connects me to the historical racism of the South. I was raised by nonracist parents, went to racially mixed schools, have worked in racially mixed environments and know that the South is just not the psycho-social nightmare for minorities that some people think it is. Yes, good ol’ geographical isolation did confer ignorance here, and that legacy is still with us. But my encounters with overt racism (admittedly, as a middle-class white person) are limited to three incidents in childhood (one directed at me), one ignorant co-worker, and once seeing a piece-of-shit old pickup with a David Duke bumpersticker (and a dragging muffler scraping the road). I felt like that guy was a great ad for Duke’s fans and followers. That’s in more than 30 years here.

When I moved to North Carolina from Florida at age nine, I did observe more racism. And my peers and I were growing older and crueler (more prone to make fun and create social circles), and, at my new NC school that had a lot of black students, there were just more black kids around for white kids to interact with. When I came to NC I did see more racism, but black people also moved off a pedestal of distant and patronizing parent-taught tolerance and became real people I played with at recess and ate lunch with. By high school interracial dating was common, and even had a bit of cachet during the Michael Jackson era. If I had never moved to the South, I would probably have encountered fewer incidents of racism. And I would also have had a lifetime of fewer friendships and business relationships with African-American people.

I know there’s bad things here in South, but there are bad things everywhere humans are, and everywhere life is. And its not like black people are aliens here. They’re Southerners too, and share my cultural food traditions of mac and cheese, collards, fried chicken and candied yams.

“There’s black culture, white culture, mountain culture, NASCAR culture, country club culture and so on.” Yes. And we all drink sweet tea and eat the same thing at family reunions. [Well, I wouldn’t, for despite living all but 6 months of my life below the Mason-Dixon line, most of my family is in Pennsylvania. My dad, however, is from Maryland, a state that’s actually below the line, as my father, another naturalized Southerner (he makes a mean mess of collards), will quickly point out to you.]

Southern culture to me is expressed in three main things: dialect, food and music. All of which I deeply love.

Article via Dew on the Kudzu, via the Albemarle Daily Advance; the article also appeared in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution @issue opinion section, July 22, 2007.

13 responses to “In Search of Southern Culture

  1. I wouldn’t say that I’m conflicted. I am, however, in search of a deeper understanding of this phenomenon we call Southern-ness. At any rate, glad my piece could give you some food for thought. Best to you. Robert Kelly-Goss

  2. Formerly conflicted? :0) Thanks for a thought-provoking article.

  3. As an official Southerner, what’s your opinion of Texas? Southern or Southwest? I grew up largely in West Texas, and I’ve always considered myself a denizen of the Southwest, but Houston is like another country…it must be the South.

  4. While there’s probably no U.S. culture more similar to Southern culture than Texas culture, I figure Texas is it’s own thing. If being Southern is three things (music, dialect, food), Texas does have a similar-sounding dialect, but the music and the food are different, I think, both influenced by Mexican culture. But Houston’s awfully close to Louisiana, and I figure there’s a lot of cultural “bleed,” you know? Where exactly does one become Southern and not Southwestern? I doubt it’s at the state line. I guess Texas is what happens when rednecks hang out with Mexicans.

    And in a similar vein, where does Arkansas fit into all this? If it’s not a Southern state, what is it? I mean, Johnny Cash is from there and everything. So is my friend Annie, who considers herself a Southerner, and says “y’all.” It’s Arkansas that’s a mystery to me.

  5. Texas was settled by Virginians and was a part of the Confederacy. While it has its own unique cultural offerings – so does Louisiana – it is Southern by definition. So is Arkansas. Arkansas was settled by Virginians and North Carolinains moving west. Culturally and historically it too is quite Southern, more so than Texas, if you ask an Arkansan. It was the third state to cecede from the Union.

  6. Dang, Robert, thank you. Like most professional writers (I think), I kind of like being corrected — and heaven knows it happens a lot. Obviously, I also enjoy shooting my mouth off. How are you defining “Southern” — as having been part of the Confederacy?

    And do you have an opinion on Oklahoma?

  7. Reading my piece you’ll note that Harry Watson states, and I paraphrase, “Southern culture is anywhere you find Southerners.” I found some in the middle Turkey once. A couple of nice folks who actually knew my family. For 15 minutes all of the niceties and courtesies and properness of “polite Southern culture” took place overlooking a valley known as the second oldest site of known civilization. The Southern states are geographically and culturally defined and Texas and Arkansas are clearly included in that consideration. OK is considered Southern culturally but has not legacy where the old definition is concerned since it wasn’t a state. Arkansas, as you suggest through Johnny Cash, has a foothold in Southern tradition, being second only to Clarksdale, Miss. where the blues are concerned. Helena, Ark., home of the King Biscuit Blues Festival is the place where blues began to make it into popular culture. At any rate, I hope you didn’t think I was trying to correct you. Just enjoying the e-conversation. Best, Robert

  8. Robert, I welcome all the suggestions you made concerning what states are and aren’t part of the South as historically and culturally defined. I didn’t think you were correcting me any more than I deserved. Blogs are wonderful, but they lack the presence of editors, and are IMO not so much sloppy as casual — and right here in the comments section I got a great education.

    I’m just beginning my own journey as a self-defined and self-proclaimed Southerner, albeit a naturalized one, and I think you’ve got me off to a great start.

    Thanks again for the article.

  9. PS to the Dictionary Nerd: I am hardly an “official Southerner.” For the record, the phrase I currently feel best suits me in “naturalized Southerner.” I was born in Pennsylvania and whisked briefly through Texas to South Florida, where I spent the next eight years of my life. At age nine I came to North Carolina, where I have, with great contentment, made my home for three decades.

    Only this month at age 38 did I feel 30 years of Southern-ness catching up with me at last, deciding me finally to give up all pretense of being “from” anywhere else and declare my soul and my speech patterns for the South at last.

    My parents aren’t from here. My family has no history here, and one racist assassin ancestor does not make up for that. I had only part of my childhood here. A lot of history and cultural information are not and will never be mine. As far as I am concerned, I have only one argument for being considered a Southerner: That if I’m not from here, I’m not from anywhere.

  10. You’re a Southerner. I knew a man from Saigon who moved to the South in his 20s. He speaks with a hybrid Vietnamese/Southern accent. Very interesting. He’s Southern. However, there are plenty of Southerners that would deny you that. They are diehard, generational Southerners who still hold a resentment toward the nothern states and refer to the Civil War as the War of Northern Agression, or just “THE WAR.” I was riding in a car in S. Carolina with family and friends and an older woman mentioned that a house we passed was just purchased by so and so and it was built before “THE WAR.” Feeling evil I spoke and asked her, “what war was that?” My wife elbowed me, reminding me I knew damn well what war. The older woman turned and looked at me with disdain and said, “Why the war of Northern agression, of course. What other war is there?” And she was serious.

  11. LOL at your story. I think I’m the real thing, too. Aside from the 30 years I spent here, there’s the little matter of The Accent, and the time I said “Good night, y’all” recently to some people and they had no idea what I had just said to them — “Goodnaht-chall.” Goodnahtchall?

    I’ve heard hybrid accents here too, including WNC/Cambodian and WNC/German. My own is probably WNC/Northeast/Florida; I don’t call paper bags sacks and a carbonated drink is a soda, not a coke.

    And yes, there are plenty of Southerners that would indeed deny me my self-proclaimed Southernity, and I really do feel guilty calling myself a Southerner after “only” 30 years when I know people who have been here for generations. But I suppose it’s the kind of decision made in the heart, really. It’s not like there’s a blood test.

  12. Well, I suspect you’d best start referring to that drink as a coke then. When I was boy in the 70s and we’d go to a restaurant, the waitress would ask, “What do you want to drink, hon?”
    “Coke, please.”
    “What kinda coke you want?”
    “What kind do you have?”
    “We have Coca Cola, Dr. Pepper and 7-UP.”

  13. Robert, I promise to work on it!

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