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Rethinking the Boundaries of the South

From: Southern Cultures
Volume 16, Number 4, Winter 2010
pp. 72-88 | 10.1353/scu.2010.0002

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John Shelton Reed's work in the 1970s and afterward demonstrated the decline in the prevalence of "Dixie" in business names across the South. Although D.C.'s "Dixie Theater"—here, ca. 1920—might suggest there once had been a case for conceptually situating the nation's capitol in the South, Reed's work over fifty years later determined a region comprising Oklahoma, Kentucky, and the eleven states of the Old Confederacy. Many sociologists—and the U.S. Census—continue to locate D.C. in the South. Photograph courtesy of the Collections of the Library of Congress.

Some states just don't feel all that southern anymore. Take Virginia as an example. Virginia is the birthplace of Robert E. Lee and the capital of the Confederacy. Two hundred years ago there was little doubt that Virginia was not only southern but, arguably, the core of the region. Today, however, many inhabitants of the Old Dominion state seem more like they belong in the Northeast than in the South. In Northern Virginia, where residents are more likely to be career government bureaucrats than members of industries that have long driven the southern economy, attachment to the South seems to be declining. Similar stories can be written about the decline of southern identity in North Carolina's Research Triangle and Florida's burgeoning I-4 corridor. In substantial portions of these states, sushigrade tuna and low-fat mocha lattes are taking their place beside barbecue and sweet tea. Demographically, these peripheral South states have experienced an influx of Latinos and a decline in the proportion of native southerners. These demographic shifts have resulted in political outcomes different from the majority of the (solid Republican) South, including support for then-Democratic candidate Barack Obama in 2008.

Contrast these three states with places like Oklahoma and Kentucky. Neither was part of the Confederacy, yet both possess cultural characteristics that look a lot like the other states in the traditional South. Toby Keith, perhaps the best-known country musician today, hails from Oklahoma and wears his southern identity like a badge of honor, releasing an album titled Shock'n Y'all and frequently appearing in his music videos alongside a Confederate flag. Political scientists Gary Copeland, Rebecca Cruise, and Ronald Keith Gaddie agree that Oklahoma is increasingly southern, citing the growth in the Republican Party and the Christian Right as prime examples of Oklahoma's regional identity. They argue that "Oklahoma—then an Indian territory—was not a state at the time of the Civil War, but many of the events and cultural factors that structure Oklahoma politics are distinctly southern."

A similar story can be written about Kentucky. Classic country singer Tom T. Hall, who once sang about "old dogs, children, and watermelon wine," is from Kentucky, and his songs have a distinctly southern flair. Similarly, few things are more southern than two staples of Kentucky culture—Jim Beam bourbon whiskey and Colonel Harland Sanders's original recipe. Recent political events in these states, with John McCain and Sarah Palin dominating the 2008 presidential elections in both, follow historical patterns and thus feel traditionally "southern." Of course, these limited examples do not unequivocally demonstrate that a state is or is not southern, but that these singers, cultural trends, and political outcomes are indicative of threads of southernness that run through these peripheral South states.

A Brief History of Southernness

As we grapple with where the South is today, we turn to a long and distinguished research tradition for help. This line of inquiry rests on two key assumptions. Following distinguished sociologist John Shelton Reed and others, we believe that there is a southern "otherness." Although the South was once closer to the mainstream of the country, it began to diverge by the middle of the seventeenth century, and today, the South differs demographically, economically, politically, and, most important for our purposes, culturally.

Second, we believe you can learn a lot about the South by examining signs of the region's unique cultural experiences. C. Vann Woodward went "in search for southern identity" in the 1950s and found it by examining the historical and cultural experiences of southerners. Chief among these...

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