So you've moved, or been moved, to the South. Or maybe you're thinking about it. You're wondering: What is this place? What's different about it? Is it different, anymore?
Good questions. Old ones, too. People have been asking them for decades. Some of us even make our livings by asking them, but we still don't agree about the answers. Let's look at what might seem to be a simpler question: Where is the South?
That tells us something. It tells us that the South is, to begin with, a concept and a shared one. It's an idea that people can talk about, think about, use to orient themselves and each other. People know whether they're in it or not. As a geographer would put it, the South is a "vernacular" region.
Stop and think about that. Why should that be? Why can I write "South" with some assurance that you'll know I mean Richmond and don't mean Phoenix? What is it that the South's boundaries enclose?
Well, for starters, it's not news that the South has been an economically and demographically distinctive place a poor, rural region with a biracial population, reflecting the historic dominance of the plantation system. One thing the South's boundaries have set off is a set of distinctive problems, growing out of that history. Those problems may be less and less obvious, but most are still with us to some extent, and we can still use them to locate the South.
But the South is more than just a collection of unfavorable statistics. It has also been home to several populations, black and white, whose intertwined cultures have set them off from other Americans as well as from each other. Some of us, in fact, have suggested that Southerners ought to be viewed as an American ethnic group, like Italian- or Polish-Americans. If we can use distinctive cultural attributes to find Southerners, then we can say that the South is where they are found.
Southerners are also like immigrant ethnic groups in that they have a sense of group identity based on their shared history and their cultural distinctiveness in the present. If we could get at it, one of the best ways to define the South would be with what Hamilton Horton calls the "Hell, yes!" line: where people begin to answer that way when asked if they're Southerners.
Finally, to the considerable extent that people do have a sense of the South's existence, its distinctiveness, and its boundaries, regional institutions have contributed. Southern businesses, Southern magazines, Southern voluntary associations, colleges, and universities many such have at least aspired to serve the South as a whole. We can map the South by looking at where the influence of such enterprises extends.
All of these are plausible ways to go about answering the question of where the South is. For the most part, they give similar answers, which is reassuring. But it's where they differ (as they sometimes do) that they're most likely to tell us something about what the South has been, and is becoming. Nobody would exclude Mississippi from the South. But is Texas now a Southern state? Is Florida, anymore? How about West Virginia?
Allow me a homely simile. The South is like my favorite pair of blue jeans. It's shrunk some, faded a bit, got a few holes in it. There's always the possibility that it might split at the seams. It doesn't look much like it used to, but it's more comfortable, and there's probably a lot of wear left in it.
The Socioeconomic South
"Let us begin by discussing the weather," wrote U. B. Phillips in 1929. The weather, that distinguished Southern historian asserted, "has been the chief agency in making the South distinctive. It fostered the cultivation of the staple crops, which promoted the plantation system, which brought the importation of Negroes, which not only gave rise to chattel slavery but created a lasting race problem. These led to controversy and regional rivalry for power, which . . . culminated in a stroke…