In the rest of the country, particularly in the Northeastern United States and among some in the West, the South is not particularly respected. The people who live in the Southeastern U.S. are seen as uneducated, averse to progress, and racist.
I would venture to guess that the non-Southerners who hold to this view have, for the most part, not spent much time in the South. One only has to visit the Southern states to see that, while there are elements of the society that fit the stereotype (and there are Southerners who proudly wear some or all of the labels I described above), there’s more to the South than you think. I’ll make a few comments based on our most recent trip, which took us through Virginia, Tennessee, Georgia (briefly), Alabama, and Mississippi.
First of all, the South is more diverse than people realize. Aside from the fact that that the various Southern states are quite a bit different from each other, and that the metropolitan areas within each state are quite different from the rural areas (think about general conceptions of Louisiana vs pre-Katrina conceptions of New Orleans), there’s quite a range of economic classes, political viewpoints, religious beliefs, and – of course – race. Americans tend to think of the South as black and white, and equate that to black Southerners = poor and white Southerners = wealthy. However, that’s a rather inaccurate, 19th century point of view. There are plenty of white people in the South living in poverty, and a good number of blacks who have become educated and economically successful. There are also growing numbers of Latinos throughout the South. I haven’t seen a lot of evidence of large Asian or Middle Eastern populations in the South, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t pockets that I just haven’t visited.
While the Southern states statistically have tended to be among the lowest in the U.S. in terms of literacy rates, test scores, etc., there are solid opportunities for academic advancement. As we drove through the South, we visited or otherwise interacted with people affiliated with Virginia Tech, University of Tennessee, Loyola University New Orleans, University of Southern Mississippi, and Vanderbilt. There’s a lot of interesting teaching and research going on at these universities, and for the most part the students being educated here are Southerners.
Flowing out of academics, there is also a lot of science and industry in the South. The South has been a favorite region for NASA, due to its generally favorable weather conditions and available land. While we were driving through, we passed three major NASA spots: the Stennis Space Center at the intersection of I-59 and I-10 in Mississippi, and the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama – both of which are open for visitors – and the Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans . We also passed a massive Mercedes-Benz plant in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, which goes to show that not all German automobiles are manufactured in Germany.
The South’s ties to the military are well known. Many of the men and women in our Armed Forces are Southerners who joined up because of the opportunities that may not have been available to them otherwise. In addition, the Southern culture encourages a brand of patriotism that is particularly strong there, which is that to fight and die for your country is the most honorable thing anyone can do. The South ends up with a disproportionate number of military bases, active and retired military personnel, and ultimately families affected by war casualties. Check out some interesting articles on this topic at the Institute for Southern Studies website. I mentioned in another post that when we were in Hattiesburg, we were just down the road from Camp Shelby, which is the largest National Guard training base in the United States. On one of our construction days, they were obviously doing some kind of flight training, because there were all kinds of military aircraft blowing by us as we worked.
The South also has a rich cultural heritage. While the food may contribute to some undesirable personal and public health problems (hmm… heart disease… obesity… diabetes…), my goodness is it yummy. Dave and I took advantage of our proximity to REAL Southern cooking while we were there, digging into BBQ pork ribs, roasted chicken, pulled pork sandwiches, various kinds of fried seafood, fried green tomatoes, potato salad, baked beans, Hardee’s Thickburgers, and LOTS of sweet tea. It’s all really bad for you, and it’s a vegetarian’s nightmare (even the potato salad has pork products in it), but it’s delicious. And beverages… mmm, Jack Daniels. Not to mention a few microbrews that Dave was able to check out in our visits to the Keg & Barrel in Hattiesburg.
And let’s not forget the music. I won’t talk much about country & western music (if you know me, you know I can’t abide it), but this is a whole genre of music invented in the South. New Orleans is a mecca for Jazz, particularly that distinctive subgenre known as Dixieland. While we were in Nashville, we had the privilege of seeing a couple of excellent Bluegrass bands, Uncle Earl and The Greencards (thanks for the hookup, Joyce!). There’s a lot of musical talent in the South – check it out if you’re visiting.
With all that said, however, the biggest draw to the South is its natural beauty. While the weather is nothing like Southern California’s eternal springtime, the seasons in the South are lovely. Granted that the summer is hot and sticky, but the other three seasons are mild and quite enjoyable. Springtime is the most touted season, for a good reason. While the rest of us up north are still thawing out, the blossoms and greenery in the South are inviting the world to return outside. There are a plethora of national and state parks, not to mention waterways, rolling hills, and all sorts of trails. If we ever return to Hattiesburg, we’ll be sure to camp at Paul B. Johnson State Park, where you can rent a cabin or a tent site right on the lake. (Check out our photos from when we went to see our friends who were staying there during the build week.)
To quote one of our most famous Southerners, Forrest Gump, “That’s all I have to say about that.” I encourage everyone to visit the South sometime. The highways are impressively well maintained, and the Southern states are enjoyable to drive through. If you think you’ll miss home, you shouldn’t worry – they have the same chain restaurants that everyone else has (McDonald’s, Sonic, Applebee’s, Subway, etc) – not to mention all of the special stuff I already described.
Even my favorite New Englander has changed his mind about the South. As we drove East from Nashville through the middle of Tennessee, Dave commented, “You know, the South has a lot more going for it than people give it credit for.”