In the Southeastern United States, there is a cottage industry focused on Southern Culture Studies. This is partly an academic enterprise, with much attention to southern culture in history and humanities departments of southern colleges and universities, and with academic conferences and programs focused on southern culture generally, or southern foodways or folkways. There is also a popular component, with much regional interest in southern culture expressed in various festivals celebrating aspects of it or with tourist sites like Stone Mountain near Atlanta.
What is Southern Culture?
What’s usually meant by “Southern Culture” is a set of cultural elements seen as typical of or typifying (not quite the same thing) the South or part of it, rather than the total set of important elements characterizing life in the South in the fullest anthropological sense of “culture.” The sorts of elements most often emphasized are food, language, and a variety of dispositions or character traits.
As I’ve written before, food is particularly meaningful to people (see “Sushi and Globalization”). Like music, the meaning of food is generally without linguistic content, but it nonetheless can carry significant emotional weight and is invested with identity. Food is vital to life, and the foods we grow up with can be associated with home, family, region, and one’s culture in a variety of ways. Interest in Southern food can be general, emphasizing foods common and thought to be quintessentially southern throughout the region (cornbread, collards, black eye peas, sweet tea, fried chicken, or just about anything else fried), or it can emphasize southern regional diversity in foodways (fried mullet in the Pensacola area of the Central Gulf Coast, tamale pie in central Mississippi, vinegar barbecue sauces in central and northern Georgia and other regional barbecue traditions, Cajun and creole cooking in Louisiana, etc.).
Much academic analysis of southern culture focuses on language, especially the study of southern regional dialects and accents. Distinct dialects, and even more so accents, are also one of the most clear markers of southern culture to the lay public. (When I was a child, whenever we would visit relatives in upstate New York, northern relatives would always want my sister and I to "say something southern" or to say "y'all." I'd ask them in turn to say "yous guys.")
To many, southern culture means “Southern hospitality,” friendly attitudes, and a laid-back approach to life. Some would also include notions of noble and chivalrous masculinity, gentility, or other dispositions and character traits.
All of these things are, to varying extents, part of southern culture. Much of this is worthy of celebration. (Personally, I’m wary of any sort of glorification of masculinity, and the glorification of an old-style white upper class of southern gentility turns my stomach. Southern food is wonderful – as occasional food – but I worry about the many southerners who eat large amounts of the salty, fatty fare.)
“Southern culture” also evokes or brings to mind various symbols of the South. The most controversial of these is the Confederate flag, a.k.a. the Confederate Battle Flag or the Stars and Bars, but a variety of monuments, especially Civil War monuments, throughout the South are also often associated with “Southern Culture” and capable of generating controversy (see two earlier posts: "Race and Public Monuments in Pensacola, Florida" and "Sometimes a Statue is just a Statue.") (Interestingly, the many monuments throughout the region to Martin Luther King, Jr., a man of the South if there ever was one, seem to be much less associated with southern culture, and for clearer reasons much less controversial.)
These things, food, language, socially patterned dispositions, and symbols, are important (if not always clearly good), and they do define the South in certain ways, but as I indicated above, they are only one subset of the patterning of social life in the region. An anthropological perspective on cultural ecology, economy, and social interaction indicates other important features (of at least cultural historical importance) of the South as well.
Cultural Ecology and Economy
In terms of cultural ecology and economy, plantation agriculture dominated and in part (if never wholly) defined the region both before and for a long time after the American Civil War. This was particularly the case through the “cotton belt” stretching across South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, part of Louisiana, and into East Texas, where after Indian removal and after Eli Whitney’s cotton gin made large scale cotton production feasible, this region of the South was largely colonized by new plantations that transformed the social and natural landscape. Long after the abolition of slavery, this sub-region of the south had both the largest black populations and more of the worst abuses of racism.
The South has also been characterized by a contradictory system of racial classification and interaction, emphasizing both racial intermixture and absolute distinction and division.
Many anthropological and sociological analyses of race have emphasized that in North America, racial classification (at least with regard to black and whites) is characterized by hypodescent, sometimes called the “One Drop Rule,” whereby anyone with any known ancestry in one category (in this case “black” – the category historically constructed as inferior in racist logic) is classified as belonging to that category – even if they majority of their ancestry were from the other category. This is in contrast to racial classification systems in other parts of the Americas, e.g. the Caribbean, where race is not thought of in so starkly binary terms, where there is a gradation of categories in between black and white or African and European ends of a continuum.
What has been less noted is that throughout the 19th century and well into the 20th century, much of the South had a hybrid system which combined the recognition of racial intermixture as with Caribbean race classification and the recognition of absolute and stark division as with North American hypodescent generally. For example, in addition to the categories “black” and “white,” some were categorized as “quadroons” or “octoroons.” Such classifications indicated both racial (and sexual) intermixture, but also emphasized a clear divide. An octoroon was 7/8 white, but it was the 1/8 black ancestry that named the category and marked it as a subset of “black.”
In practice, southern racism has also often had a distinctive intimate quality to it. An older relative of mine who was dear to my heart as I grew up had a very close friend who was a black woman, but at the same time, this relative was in many ways quite racist, having no qualms with making racist generalizations and occasionally using flagrantly racist language. She was typical in this regard. As I grew up in the South, I heard many white racists defend their racism through a lens of intimacy – “We know they’re inferior, because we know them so well,” (usually phrased in contrast to those “damn Yankees” who didn’t know any better). The pattern of interracial friendship with specific individuals alongside a feeling of stark separation between general categories, or even explicit racism, has also been typical in the South.
Race and Class
Historically, race has been intertwined with class in complex ways in the South (as is true most anywhere in the Americas). In the South, there was historically an underclass of poor whites (mostly poor white farmers until well into the 20th century) who saw themselves as having at least a limited stake in the racial system. (This hadn’t always been the case – a number of excellent analyses have spoken of solidarity across race lines by subaltern whites and blacks in the early colonial south, but by the 19th century at least, white racial solidarity could often trump the class antagonism between poor and wealthy whites.) This stake in the racial system was partly about identity, about being part of a superior racial group even if poor, but it was also partly about economics. Slavery and later Jim Crow laws, by prohibiting free action, including economic action, of blacks, shored up the economic positions, even if they were still weak, of poor and working class southern whites.
Many southern whites would understandably like to forget about things like the long history of plantations as ecological and social systems in the South, and the dynamics of race, racism, class, and Jim Crow, and to simply move on. For many southern blacks (for whom such things are not ancient history, but things they experienced, or at least things experienced by their parents and/or grandparents), these are also part of southern culture (not in place of southern food, dialects, or laid-back attitudes, but alongside those things), and for many, who also want to “move on,” moving on entails remembering this less positive side of southern culture and history and dealing with the lasting material legacy of it.