Where Exactly Is the South?

By Matt Shipman


Cary, North Carolina

Robert E. Lee was either a gentleman warrior or a cruel slaveholder, depending on whom you ask, but everyone seems to agree that Lee was a Southerner. Prior to the Civil War, Lee lived in northern Virginia with his family and their slaves. The grounds of their home, Arlington plantation — just across the Potomac from Washington, D.C. — would go on to become Arlington National Cemetery. 

Yet just over 100 miles south, people will tell you that northern Virginia isn’t really the South.

“The South starts in Richmond” is a phrase I heard so often growing up in southern Virginia I almost believed it myself.

I now know it’s not quite that simple.

When I moved to North Carolina, more than a decade ago, I was surprised to learn that the whole state of Virginia was not really part of the South, either. The commonwealth’s un-Southernness had apparently spread from the Washington suburbs to encompass everything from Martinsville to Norfolk.

This came as something of a shock. I didn’t see how people could say that about an area still openly grappling with the scars of its past. When I was a kid, we celebrated Lee-Jackson-King Day, lumping Lee and Stonewall Jackson in with civil-rights icon Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. And while Lee-Jackson-King Day may now be a thing of the past (King no longer has to share his holiday with two slaveholders), such uncomfortable juxtapositions are still found throughout Virginia.

The most visible example may be Richmond’s Monument Avenue, where a statue honoring native son Arthur Ashe — the first black man to win the men’s singles title at Wimbledon — is located just down the road from statues celebrating the achievements of Robert E. Lee (again), Stonewall Jackson, J.E.B. Stuart, and Jefferson Davis.

Nonetheless, folks in North Carolina were happy to welcome me to the South, since I hadn’t really grown up there. I could, I was told, get real barbecue in North Carolina, although I soon discovered that the barbecue one finds in eastern North Carolina is indistinguishable from what I used to eat in my hometown.

Unfortunately — and it pains me to share this with my fellow North Carolinians — it turns out that the Tarheel State isn’t really part of the South either.

I’ve met many folks over the years who insist that North Carolina is actually Mid-Atlantic, not Southern. There are also (amazingly) a lot of folks who will tell you that South Carolina is not part of the South, and Georgia’s not a sure thing either.

As far as I can tell, the natives of every Southern state think the state immediately north of them on the map is not far enough south to be part of the South. There are, of course, exceptions. Most folks seem to agree that the farther south you go in Florida, the farther you get from the South.

The other exceptions are for Louisiana, Alabama, and Mississippi. No one contests their Southernness (for good and ill), perhaps because if you go due south of those states you’ll find yourself in the ocean.

So what gives? How did the South come to be defined on a basis that changes the farther south you go? In other words, where exactly is the South?

This is clearly a divisive topic. Writers have used everything from sweet tea and chicken biscuits to rivers and religion as metrics for mapping the contours of the South.

There may not be a consensus about what counts as the South, but that doesn’t mean we can’t have a conversation about what the South is (and isn’t).

For one thing, you can’t talk about the South without talking about slavery. You just can’t. The “peculiar institution” was the foundation of the South’s economy and culture before the Civil War. Slavery was, in fact, the reason the Civil War was fought, regardless of whatever half-baked arguments you’ve heard to the contrary. The legacy of slavery ripples across the South still.

Yet even a passing familiarity with U.S. history reveals that racial prejudice and injustice have never been limited to states below the Mason-Dixon line. For instance, Delaware was a slave state that didn’t vote to ratify the 13th Amendment until 1901, but few would consider Delaware a Southern state. So it doesn’t make sense to define the South solely on the basis of having been a slave state.

By the same token, warm weather can’t be the unifying factor of Southern life. Balmy southern California certainly is not the South, and the mountains of North Carolina and Tennessee get their fair share of snow.

Can food define the borders of the South? Doubtful. As a region, we can’t even agree on what constitutes good cornbread. And while most folks in the South will say they like barbecue, there is heated disagreement about what “good barbecue” means.

Definitions of the South tend to be intensely personal. I can certainly describe my South. It tastes like fried chicken and hushpuppies. It’s the heavy warmth of a humid summer night, the buzzing of cicadas, and getting up in the predawn darkness to go fishing. It’s jazz and bluegrass, gospel and blues; butter beans, grits, and Brunswick stew.

It’s the awareness the South’s founding fathers held human beings as property, and being reminded of it every time you see a park or a school or a town named Jefferson, Marshall, or Marion. It’s the angry disappointment of seeing a Confederate battle flag flying beside a highway or remembering some folks still celebrate Confederate Memorial Day. It’s the sight of abandoned farmhouses being swallowed up by vines as generations leave home for better opportunities elsewhere.

Your South may not seem much like mine. It may be college football and azaleas, Flannery O’Connor and moonshine. We’re both probably right.

Still, it seems every version of the South has an obsession with the past, a predilection for fried foods, and a conviction that its way of making barbecue is superior. Those may be some of the threads that hold the South’s patchwork quilt together.

But the more I think about it, the more I believe the South might best be described as the place where the residents argue that they are Southerners.

On the other hand, maybe that sweet-tea map was on to something.