A Closer Look
Understanding the South on a 10-day tour.
Posted July 2004
“Anyone born north of Birmingham is a Yankee!” That simple definition comes from a woman born herself in Montgomery, Ala., safely south of the line. There are plenty of Virginians — among others — who would dispute that statement, but the question of who is a Southerner and what on earth that means is still heatedly debated on both sides of the Mason-Dixon line. Is there such a thing as “Southern Culture?” What does “Southerner” denote? Is it a question of warm weather or genteel manners or contested history?
Three U.Va. undergraduates and I set out last July to explore the American South for answers. With support from grants from the Echols Scholars Program and the Center for Undergraduate Excellence, Mollie Sledd, Devon Knudsen, Catherine Neale and I traveled the South for 10 days — down the Atlantic seaboard, through rural Georgia and the Gulf Coast to the Mississippi River and finally back through the Yazoo River Delta and up to the Appalachian Mountains. In addition to the woman who defined Yankees so broadly, we talked with local residents and tourists, took lessons from local tour guides and even received an off-the-cuff lecture from a Civil War historian and re-enactor in Mississippi. Through it all, we tried to form an understanding of the South based on our own experiences rather than literary or cultural stereotypes.
We first stopped in Charleston, where in a sentiment that was repeated throughout much of the South, a tour guide told us, “You can’t explain the South; you just have to be raised that way.” The issue of roots, where someone is from, plays an enormous role in creating and defining Southern identity.
In Savannah, as dusk fell and Spanish-moss-draped oaks became shadows, we were looking for Mercer House, made famous in “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil,” but soon found ourselves stuck in a rainstorm. We took shelter under an awning, then realized we had found the gallery of Jack Lee, whose photograph, “Girl with Birds,” graces the original cover of “Midnight.” As the streets turned to streams and the tourists ran for their hotels, we huddled under the not-so-watertight canopy discussing Lee’s black-and-white photographs that capture the mystique of the Carolina Low Country and Savannah’s ageless architecture. The next morning we headed down Highway 17 toward “wire-grass Georgia” on our way to Pensacola and the bayous and lowlands of the Gulf Coast.
A stopover in what’s been called “the Cajun-Mediterranean insane asylum that is New Orleans” is a requirement of any journey through the region, especially with an English major on board who has studied the short stories of Kate Chopin and other local authors. I had the chance to revisit some old haunts just outside the Quarter, especially Congo Square and the House of the Rising Sun, where I had studied Vodun and its popular façade, Voodoo.
Leaving New Orleans and heading north, we followed the Mississippi to Natchez, where we stopped by the riverside docks for conversation with some locals who were quite proud of their drinking establishment. The Under the Hill Bar, just off the wharf, is the oldest business in Natchez; it serves locals and visitors alike and is a fine place to toast a sunset.
As our journey ended — after visits to Oxford, Tupelo, Kingsport and Roanoke — I was struck by the great diversity in the South, a region that defies efforts to categorize it. The people and places of the former Confederacy continue to work out a complex arrangement of values and community. I don’t think it’s fair or useful to label the South; it is, however, fascinating to call it home.