Searching for the South
By Timothy Wayne Thornton
Some people do it with grits. Some people do it with tea. Iced tea. Sweet iced tea.
Those are the ways a lot of people draw a line around the South. If your tea is sweet, you must be drinking it in Dixie. If you're eating grits with your eggs, you must be breakfasting below the Mason-Dixon Line.
But even deep into the geographic South, restaurants are likely to offer you a choice of tea.
And you can get grits up North if you know where to go.
John Shelton Reed knows where a person can get grits in Boston. He has grits in a Chinese restaurant whenever he goes to Washington, D.C. He's seen two McDonalds that served grits. One of them was in Chicago.
If the grits and tea tests aren't valid, where is the South?
That's what Reed, an eminent Southernologist, wants to know. As an author, editor, professor and director of the Institute for Research in Social Sciences at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Reed has spent decades examining and defining the South. As a chronicler of Southern attributes and attitudes, he needs to know where the region begins and ends.
The South is sometimes defined by the boundaries of the Confederate States of America. Florida was one of the 11 confederates, but there are good reasons to exclude the Sunshine State from a list of Southern states. Most residents of Florida were born somewhere else. Attached by cultural and familial links to Saginaw, Mich., Central America and other ancestral homes, many Floridians have little in common with each other, much less with the South.
West Virginia, on the other hand, was not a Confederate state. Yet the U.S. Census Bureau includes West Virginia in its version of the South.
Of course, it also includes Delaware.
Reed's Southern Focus Poll tried to settle the Southern question by asking people if they live in the South. An overwhelming majority of Virginians, Tennesseeans, Kentuckians, Texans, Georgians and Carolinians (North and South) said they do. So did a solid majority of people living in Oklahoma, Mississippi, Louisiana, Arkansas and Alabama. Nine in 10 Floridians know their state is in the South geographically, but only 51 percent of them said they are Southerners.
The percentage of self-styled Southerners in Utah (11 percent) and Indiana (10 percent) was higher than the Southerner count in the nation's capital (7 percent), which is probably just fine with most Southerners.
Only 45 percent of West Virginians, 40 percent of Marylanders and 14 percent of the people polled in Delaware say they live in the South, no matter what the Census Bureau says.
"Clearly," Reed said, "some parts of Texas aren't Southern and some parts of Maryland are whatever you mean by that."
But it does mean something. As Reed said, "If you want to map certain things it turns out that again and again they kind of pile up in the bottom right hand corner" of the U.S. map. "Region is one of those differences that makes a difference."
But there are differences within differences, too. Reed grew up in East Tennessee, a long way from Tara. In Kingsport, he said, "We didn't have any cotton. We didn't have any Spanish moss."
Reed didn't get interested in the South until he went to college in Boston. That was in the 1960s.
"Here I was from East Tennessee and people were asking me all these questions about what was going on in Mississippi," Reed said. "I didn't know. Hell, I'd never been to Mississippi. Plainly people in Massachusetts don't make that distinction."
Some people wonder if there still is a distinction between the South and the rest of the country.
"I've been at this business 30 years," Reed said, "and one of the things we always talk about is 'Is the South still around?' People will disagree about that. I come down on the side that Yes, it does. It's not what it was even 30 years ago much less 100 years ago or 150 years ago. But it's still not the same as everywhere else. We keep inventing new ways to be different."
Kudzu has been around for little more than a century, but it's hard to think of the South without it. Football was once a New England sport. Now it's a Southern pseudo-religion.
While it seems that the nation is become more homogenized, with a McDonalds and a Wal-Mart at every exit on every interstate, Reed isn't worried that the South will be blended blandly into the American salad bowl.
"A lot of these symbols of homogenization came out of the South," he said.
Wal-Mart, Holiday Inn, Coca-Cola, even NASCAR and wrestling have gone nationwide. So have blues, jazz and country music.
Young non-Southerners, Reed said, are even starting to say "y'all."
When a white Southern-born friend of mine who has been known to say "y'all" and "ain't" in the same sentence spent some time in New York City, New Yorkers wanted to know why he talked so black.
"An awful lot of this that we think of as Southern culture is shared across racial lines," Reed said. "Black and white Southerners have a good deal more in common with each other than they've got with New Yorkers. I should say white New Yorkers because black New Yorkers are two generations removed from South Carolina."
Now that he's found the South's basic outline, Reed wants to fine-tune the boundaries. "Our next step," he said, "is to look inside individual states like Texas, break the data down by county, and say, for example, where between Beaumont and El Paso people stop telling you that you are in the South."
This seems to me a most un-Southern thing to do. Instead of trying to define the region down to the milepost with polling data and calculators, the Southern approach would be to discuss it. Sipping mint juleps or iced tea; sitting on a porch or around a wood stove, Southerners can masticate an issue as if it were a plug of tobacco.
Despite his statistician's drive for precision, Reed understands this. At least, I think that's what he meant when he said, "Southerners like to do it on the screened-in porch."
Copyright © The Southerner 2000.