Musings on Southern Culture

William Beveridge (centre) Deep South, USA, 1943
By Library of the London School of Economics and Political Science [No restrictions], via Wikimedia Commons
Every place has a culture.  Mannerisms, customs, traditions, and ways of doing things all vary between nations, states, regions, families, and towns.   The variety of cultures across the world is fascinating in all its diversity.

The same holds true in our country.  The culture of New York is not the same as California, which is not the same as the South.  It was one of the first things I noticed when moving down here.  Its not so different as to be another country, but sometimes feels as such.  People are more religious, more conservative, and generally in less of a hurry than where I’m from.   Their priorities are different.  The inhabitants of the Mississippi Delta are big on SEC football, barbecue, and hunting, but not so much on dancing or doing much of anything on Sunday.  It took time to get used it all.

Then there is the whole Southern Hospitality thing.  I wrote about it before.   There is a format one is supposed to follow when talking in public.  You stop and chat asking how the other person’s family is doing and how they are doing.  If some one is in need to help, you offer assistance.  People make eye contact and smile.  No one simply asks “how you are doing?” and walks on by.  More over there are some things one does not discuss in public.  The list includes politics, religion, or anything upsetting.  There is a lot of theatricality in the way people interact.  Above all, one does not simply give one’s honest opinion on anything.  Politeness is not just a nice touch its a way of life.

Probably no culture in America causes more confusion than Southern culture.  Just google “Southern Hospitality” to see what I mean.  Most people elsewhere consider the standard way of interacting in the Deep South to be full of hypocrisy.  Southerners in turn consider everyone else – especially Northerners such as myself – to be rude.   As far as I’m concerned Southern Hospitality is genuine in the sense that people really do consider its dictates to be the way someone is supposed to interact with others in public.   Its nice really.  Everyone feels so welcoming.  Unfortunately several people, and some experience, has told me those feelings are more complex.  Here in lies the real difficulty and what makes getting along so hard with people down here.  Some times people really are hiding their true feelings.  You see it when you’re the last to know when a new shop opens up or when people invite everyone but you to a party.  Personally I actually like being ignored.  If you don’t like me so be it.  Only the genuine and honest may apply to be friends with me.  However its easy to see why some people feel mislead or betrayed.

Then there is the ubiquity of Southern culture.  As the name implies, Southern culture is the culture of the region.  Everyone here shares its values to one degree or another.  And part of that culture are family, church, SEC football, and often the Republican party.  Its hard to reject any of those and still be considered a part of the culture.  So when outsiders come who question the primacy of what people hold dear around here, it doesn’t go over well.  Hence why transplants to Cleveland tend to stick together and not mingle with the natives.  The locals don’t seem to be entirely at ease with us outsiders.

Part of the problem may come from one essential fact about the Deep South: its shrinking.  Certainly not all parts of the region have always been identical.  Yet in the past few decades, parts of the South have changed dramatically.  One can see it in the big cities such as Atlanta, Charlotte and New Orleans.   People moving down from the North have altered the character of those areas.  The change is reflected in the way people speak and interact, but also in the politics.  Its not too long ago that the idea of a state such as North Carolina voting for a black president (as it did in 2008 and nearly did so in 2012) was unthinkable. Even here in Mississippi things feel different.  The Delta is changing with the influx of TFA corps members, the opening of the Grammy Museum, and other developments around Cleveland.   Some new (or relatively new) establishments – Hey Joe’s, Delta Meat Market, Delta Dairy – have changed the character of the town a bit.  Its hard to put my finger on it, but things don’t feel exactly the same as they did two years ago.

It helps to keep in mind how the South fits into the rest of the country.  Its always been the poorest part of America along with Appalachia.  There are a lot of negative stereotypes about the people who live here.  Being from the South or even sounding so, can be a real handicap in other parts of the country for those reasons.  Its not hard to see why Southerners would be defensive about their culture given its uniqueness and retreat in recent years.

Unfortunately my experience of the South is limited to Mississippi and a few other areas.  Most of my time here is spent around Cleveland.  I’ve been to Atlanta, Vicksburg, Memphis, Jackson, and Northeast Alabama.  Its hardly enough to truly understand this part of the country.  However I’ve seen enough to get a sense of how things are.   Its not quite as cut and dry as outsiders imagine.  Most people seem genuinely friendly.  Yet there are always bad apples, people who prove the stereotypes correct.  So its important to be patient and listen to people.  You can’t understand a place without living there.  By the same token one cannot understand a people without talking to them.  Therefore its important to keep an open mind and be willing to experience new things.

Article by Mike

Mike is the Head of Discovery Services for the Delta State University Library. He has lived in Cleveland since May 2013.

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