I’ve lived in a lot of states, ten to be exact, all over the East Coast and Mid-West. But a majority of that time has been spent in what can technically be defined as the South. That is the 16 states that the U.S. Census Bureau defines as the Southern United States. Culturally southern is a different matter though, and even then I mostly identify with my southern roots, no matter how tenuous. That’s why I find myself defending the south pretty often, from good friends and even my partner. I understand the reasons why the south gets a lot of ill will thrown at it, and a lot of it is its own fault, but there are many other qualities that make it a great place to call home, maybe even the best place in the country.
It’s often said that southerners are the nicest people in the country, and I think that’s mostly true. Or better said, we’re more civil. We may think that you’re a complete ass, but we won’t necessarily say that to your face. We say it with a smile and perhaps a hint of southern sarcasm and a glint in the eye. That’s a southern attitude at its worst! On good days visitors are welcomed with incredible kindness by residents who are eager to show off their slice of the region. I remember when I first moved back to the south in high school. I was awkward and felt out of place. I had no friends and it was frankly really hard at first. But almost immediately both my family and I made not just good friends, but lifelong friends. My best friends are all from the south and I consider the mother of my best friend to be my de facto parent. While kids will generally make it work when they move, the same can’t be said for their families and I remember plenty of moves where we didn’t receive nearly as nice a welcome. But never in the south. In the south we were made to feel like family almost immediately.
Our Melodious Speech
I first decided to write this post when I caught myself answering a question with a slight accent. I don’t have a classic southern drawl, instead I have what I call a Virginia lilt. Certain words and sounds get the southern treatment, and there is copious use of the word y’all. But I won’t be mistaken for an extra in Deliverance anytime soon. Still, it is one of our most notable trademarks, but one that hurts us the most. Most countries have regional divisions, one making fun of the other. And oddly enough many are fractured along north-south lines. Industrial versus agrarian, perceived levels of intelligence attributed to both. Stereotypes exist for a reason and much of the ill will attributed to the south may have indeed been warranted, but times change. People change, entire regions change and the south of 2014 is not the south of 1914 and it’s time for these regional prejudices to go the way of the dodo. So when you hear a southern accent, be careful what you think of that person, I guarantee your perceptions won’t be accurate.
Beauty and History
I personally think that the south is one of the most interesting regions of the United States. Reaching from Maryland to Florida, Texas to the Carolinas, there is a little bit of everything to be found. The major cities are a draw, no doubt there, but some of my favorite small cities in America are found in the south. Lexington, Virginia tops the list, a quiet town north of Roanoke, it’s home to both VMI and Washington and Lee University and perhaps more bookstores and coffee shops per capita than any other in the country. It’s a lovely little place to visit and enjoy a slower pace of life. The south is also about natural beauty of course, including the best beaches in the country and some of the most amazing mountains you’ll find anywhere in the world. The famous Appalachian Trail starts in Georgia, before winding its way north and ending in Maine. As a high school student I spent a fair amount of time on the AT where it runs along with the Blue Ridge Parkway, one of the best drives in the country. American history also got its start in the south; Jamestown was the first American colony and our most important founding fathers were all southerners, most notably Washington, Jefferson, Tyler, Madison and Monroe.
Finally, I love the south because it really is the only part of the country that has regional pride. Sure, lots of folks are proud of their city and state, but there isn’t a movement for regional pride as exists in the south. New England exists as an entity, but I don’t see “Proud to be a New Englander” bumper stickers around and I highly doubt many songs have been written expressing the joys of living in the Northeast. But in the south pride abounds. Granted, it’s been augmented by the sense that other people around the country don’t like us very much, but that’s as good a reason as any I guess. It’s nice that even a quasi-southerner like myself can be accepted with open arms, because that’s just the way it is. In comparison, my grandparents lived in Maine, the latest in a line that goes back three centuries. They constantly referred to their nearest neighbors as “the new people,” for the sole reason that they were only 1st generation Mainers. Never mind they lived there for 50 years, they were still “new.” The same bizarre occurrence simply doesn’t exist in the south, especially now that so many people are moving to cities like Atlanta, Nashville and Charlotte from all over the country and even the world. These new people aren’t treated as outcasts, they’re welcomed warmly and taught the ways of college sports and properly executed BBQ. They WANT the new people to feel like they belong, to feel like they themselves are southern.
New South Isn’t The Old South
Which leads to my next point. The south portrayed in movies and TV is not the south of 2014. Sure, pockets of a more old-fashioned way of life can be found, but cities in Tennessee, Georgia, North Carolina and certainly Florida are amongst the fastest growing cities in the United States. Why? Access to good jobs, lower real estate and a general high quality of living. Cities in the south routinely top the lists for Best Locations to Retire, and my own home city in southwestern Virginia is undergoing a renaissance of sorts; a fact that still boggles my mind. All of this means that the South has and is continuing to change. Its more urbane, metropolitan and culturally sensitive, while retaining the great qualities that drew people there in the first place. So don’t cast aspersions until you have visited and seen for yourself what we mean by the New South.
So you see, there are a lot of reasons to be proud of the south, and I didn’t even go into our legendary food, the kind of nibbles that define American cuisine around the world. The fact that I wrote this is also emblematic of how great the south can be too. I’m not a real southerner, just a sort of southerner. I’ve lived in Virginia, sure, but most true southerners wouldn’t count Maryland as part of their tribe and yet here I am. I feel as if I am. I feel connected to the south in a way that I don’t connect with any other part of the country, though I’ve lived in many. The south has done this, they have made me feel welcome, housed me, educated me, fed me and made sure I was doing ok. The south has made me the person I am today and for that I am eternally grateful.