- Gulf Souths, Gulf Streams, and Their Dispersions: A Geographer’s Take
The spatial nouns brought together in the title of this special issue — “Gulf Souths, Gulf Streams, and their Dispersions” — offer an opportunity to dissect exactly what, and where, and when, we are talking about with respect to this region. I offer these musing as a geographer who was asked to weigh in on this topic without having been informed of the other articles, most of which I expect will come from humanists. Any discord that readers might detect between my and their views on Gulf South regionalism are not at all problematical, but rather revelatory: therein lies the discourse.
Let us start by tabling the “what” question. The sense of littoral movement captured in “gulf streams,” and the worldwide scattering suggested by “dispersions,” imply that the editors view lateral, centripetal, and centrifugal forces as intrinsic to the formation and character of this cultural region (or, rather, sub-region).1 They see the Gulf South as a product of humanity in constant conveyance, a result of dynamism and fluidity more so than static space and hard earth. To put it in geographical terms, “Gulf Streams and their Dispersions” implies that Atlantic ocean currents, pulsating from the tropical Caribbean Sea and looping around the Gulf of Mexico, have enabled humans from near and [End Page 17] afar to penetrate the soft marshy ingresses and egresses bordering this subtropical bight, and settle wherever physical geography offered sufficiently habitable or arable sites which still managed to tap this lucrative trading circuit. To put it in grammatical terms, they view the Gulf South as being defined by verbs as much as nouns. And out of all this action, out of all these coming and goings, emerged a distinct culture, and a distinctive cultural region.
As a geographer, I would agree. I also note that similar statements can be made for most other coasts, usually in direct proportion to the number of residents and the length of their residency.
There is another angle to the “what” question, and that concerns the moniker itself. Having lived for twenty-two years in five communities clustered in the absolute heart of this region (Vicksburg, Picayune, and Waveland in Mississippi, and Baton Rouge and New Orleans in Louisiana), and having studied its geography for an equal amount of time, I can attest that “the Gulf South” is not a term heard frequently in, well, the Gulf South. To be sure, one may find some examples of usage, and many residents — at least those in the undisputed core of wherever this region lies — would answer affirmatively if asked whether they live in “the Gulf South.” But they are less inclined to offer that answer unprompted.
Rather, many would instead couple their coastline with state identify (which, we should remind ourselves, runs deep here) and respond with answers such as the “Alabama Gulf Coast,” “Mississippi Gulf Coast,” “Florida Gulf Coast” or “Florida Panhandle,” and “Texas Coastal Bend,” though it is a bit different in Louisiana, for the fractal and fractured nature of its marshy deltaic apron. Else residents might simply call their region “the Gulf Coast,” particularly if they live within a few miles of salt water. Interestingly, living “south of I-10” has in recent decades become the de facto Rubicon of the region, a commentary of just how thoroughly auto transportation has supplanted coastwise transit.2
What about people living north of I-10, or a few dozen miles inland — places like Tallahassee, Hattiesburg, or Lafayette? Or for that matter, a few hundred miles inland, in Montgomery, Jackson, or Shreveport? Until recently, and depending on the context, denizens of this southern tier might have described themselves as living in the “Deep South.” Americans elsewhere might have also used that term to describe the tide-washed states of the Gulf of Mexico, particularly Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama. But “Deep South” is declining in usage, probably because it carries certain baggage. Mostly a [End Page 18] product of the mid-twentieth century (“Lower South” or “the Southwest” were used in historical times), “Deep South” appeared regularly in news reports during the civil rights era, when the South in...