The following is a collaboration by Lance Elliott Wallace of New South Essays Blog and Tara Cowan of Tea & Rebellion Blog. We are excited to share a Q&A on Southern life and culture based on questions we have received. Before we jump in, we thought we would give you an idea of our conception of Southern culture. Southern culture is, by its very nature, multicultural. Historically, the South is rich in diversity with heritages including Native American, Spanish, English, Scottish, Irish, African, French, Mexican, and Central and South American, just to name a few! A blending of many cultures and the passage of time has led to certain social trends, habits, and styles that can be identified as distinctly Southern. At the same time, there remain many individual cultures within the South that maintain their own distinctive identities. Self-identification as Southern cuts both ways, sometimes celebrating history and values that are not shared by the subcultures that make up the regional identity. It’s not always pretty, but the complexity provides endless opportunity for exploration and commentary. This is a broad overview to keep in mind as you read!
Q: What are some beautiful places to see outside?
Tara: The South in general has some beautiful national and state parks. The mountains of East Tennessee and North Carolina are gorgeous any time of year. Savannah, Georgia, is renowned for its many city parks. There is a lot of beauty in the Sea Islands of South Carolina and Georgia. To me, the most beautiful place to be in the South is on the Gulf of Mexico; you can’t beat the pristine white sand or the emerald water.
Lance: Absolutely agree, Tara. Our family has vacationed at Santa Rosa Beach on 30A in Florida’s panhandle for nearly 20 years. The white sand and emerald green water are imprinted on my psyche providing the backdrop for some of our best memories. I have hiked the approach to the Appalachian Trail with each of my three boys beginning at Amicalola Falls in north Georgia, and those vistas still come to mind easily. We have also spent time in the mountains of North Carolina. We enjoyed hikes and driving through the high country of North Carolina during several trips with friends. West Jefferson and Blowing Rock are particularly scenic. One of the benefits of living in the Atlanta area is that I don’t have to drive far to get to beautiful beaches or scenic mountain tops. The cities I like best for their beauty are Savannah, Charleston and Asheville.
Q: Where are the best spots for food?
Lance: We have lived in the Atlanta area for 18 years and have enjoyed many wonderful meals in town for special occasions. Upscale dining in Buckhead offers the full range of world class fare while Midtown’s diversity has everything from updated versions of Southern staples like fried chicken and deviled eggs to Asian cuisine from every ethnic origin to fantastic Mexican flavors. As a native Texan, I have to put in a plug for the BBQ brisket in the Hill Country between Austin and San Antonio.
Tara: Yes! The South is famous for BBQ, and I think there is actually a bit of a competition between Texas and Tennessee (where I live)! For traditional Southern cooking, Tennessee is a great place—Nashville and Pigeon Forge particularly, if you are feeling touristy. If you want traditional blended with other influences (like French and Gullah Geechee), I’ve had fun exploring restaurants in Charleston, South Carolina. For seafood, I highly recommend Destin, Florida.
Q: What historic sites should I see?
Tara: There are so many different points of interest. If you are looking for an immersive historical experience, there is Williamsburg, VA, and several other Southern cities that put a premium on history, like Natchez, New Orleans, and Charleston. Biltmore in Asheville, North Carolina, is a must-see. McLeod Plantation Historic Site in South Carolina is a great place for a focus on the lives of an enslaved community and its descendants. I recently visited Shiloh National Military Park—obviously, there is a lot for Civil War buffs to see, but there are also Indian mounds preserved within the park, which is unique, and the park overlooks the Tennessee River and has a really stunning view.
Lance: I lived in Macon, Georgia, for 10 years, and it is often overlooked as a historic destination because of Savannah’s obvious claim to that reputation. In his march from Atlanta to Savannah, Sherman went around Macon, so there are great spots that survived the Civil War. If you do go, plan to spend time at Rose Hill Cemetery, take in the view from the Woodruff House atop Coleman Hill, tour the Hay House and see a show at the historic Grand Opera House. Macon’s architecture is amazing, and seeing the city when the Yoshino Cherry Trees are in bloom in March enhance the city’s charm.
Q: What is your favorite Southern tradition?
Lance: Though not nearly as fanatical as I once was, I have a genetic predisposition to enjoy sports. There is nothing better on a fall Saturday than to boil a pot of peanuts and watch college football from noon to midnight, interrupted only by firing up the grill and cooking something delicious. I know they play football all over the country, but in the South, college football is on a pedestal. No matter who you root for, you can find a way to care about any game on TV.
Tara: Grilling and college football—yes, indeed! It’s hard for me to identify exactly what Southern traditions are because I’ve never lived anywhere but the South. But I like the gathering (maybe someday again!), the close-knit families, the extensive Sunday dinners, and the ties to home.
Q: What is the craziest Southern tradition?
Tara: One that I hear people express the most shock over is our funerals. It may be more of a Middle Tennessee thing—I can’t speak to other places in the South. Funerals are a big deal in my area. A lot of what happens strikes me as very Victorian. You need to wear black or at least dark colors to the funeral. You stand in a queue and wait hours if necessary in order to talk with the family beside the casket, where you will be invited to look at the deceased for as long as you wish (and forced to do so if you express a wish not to). The deceased is open for viewing for about two days. The room will be bedecked with flowers people have ordered, which just before the funeral will be taken and set up at the site of the burial. Every person you know brings food until there is literally nowhere to put anything else. At the actual funeral, there is usually a preacher who delivers a message, and several songs will be performed. Funerals can run an hour or two hours long. Then, as if they were the royal family, the family of the deceased is taken to a motorcade where the funeral home employees have discreetly lined up the family vehicles in order of precedence (usually determined by relationship to the deceased). The other mourners fall in behind the hearse and the family if their vehicles have not also been lined up (and usually they have). A policeman (or several) leads the procession, and another usually follows. No matter how distant the cemetery, every person you meet on the road is required by social tradition to pull over on the side of the road. If you are behind a funeral procession, even on a highway, you are not to pass. At the cemetery, a tent is usually constructed over the burial site, where all of the mourners proceed, and you basically have another funeral. Then there is a huge meal. Some of it is amusing and exhausting, of course, but I think most all of it is done out of respect for the grieving family.
Lance: Having recently attended the funeral for my wife’s aunt, a beautiful service despite the pandemic precautions, I agree with Tara that the way Southern families conduct their funerals can be weird for some folks. One of my go-to phrases in conversation is “As they say at Southern funerals, ‘Don’t he look natural.’” Tara’s thoughtful response also reminds me of one of my favorite songs by Southern singer/songwriter Kate Campbell. It’s called “Funeral Food,” and it’s signature line will stick with you: “Pass the chicken, pass the pie. We sure eat good when someone dies.”
I would add that every Southern town has a festival. These border on the sacred in some places and the utterly ridiculous in others. The smaller the town, the weirder their festival. My personal favorite is the Kaolin Festival in Sandersville, Ga. This celebration of white clay mined in the region isn’t a household word in areas of the world bereft of these clay deposits, but this celebration of a substance found in everything from paper coating to toothpaste has a wonderful parade, a Kaolin Queen pageant and the requisite carnival rides out at the fairgrounds. The pandemic has put too many of these festivals on pause. Here’s hoping they can safely return soon.
Q: Why do Southerners sometimes refer to people from the North as “damn Yankees?”
Tara: I do hear that occasionally. It’s unfortunate and not very “Southern” given the emphasis on hospitality and friendliness in the South. The roots of the South using the term derogatorily are historical. Later on, it became a stereotype used when a Northerner did something displeasing to a Southerner, particularly something considered discourteous. Southerners tend to put a premium on social politeness, and there is a perception that Northerners aren’t as concerned with that. So when the stereotype is perceived as coming true, that is the label that gets stamped. Of course, none of this is really thought out by people today and stereotypes are just never fair. But history has a way of handing legacies down to us that tend to be perpetuated—however rude they may be!
Lance: All true, Tara, but let me take a slightly different approach here. Yes, there is still regional animosity between the former combatants of the “War of Northern Aggression” as it is still known with all seriousness in some quarters of the South. The phrase went mainstream in popular culture after the release in 1955 of the musical comedy “Damn Yankees,” which was adapted from the book “The Year the Yankees Lost the Pennant” by George Abbott and Douglass Wallop. It was adapted into a movie of the same name and released in 1958 starring Tab Hunter, Gwen Verdon and Ray Walston. The basic story is that a longsuffering Washington Senators fan, Joe Boyd, sells his soul to the devil to see his team beat the Yankees. I, for one, do not sit in judgment of the fictional Joe Boyd on that count. In real life, the New York Yankees have won 27 World Series titles since 1903, and they have been a nemesis of the teams I grew up a fan of—first the Texas Rangers and later the Atlanta Braves. It was painful to watch the Braves lose the 1996 World Series to the Yankees after jumping out to a 2-0 series lead, winning both games in New York by a combined score of 16-1. The Braves proceeded to lose the next four giving the Yankees their first title since 1978. Not prone to swearing, that series made me want to utter “damn yankees” more than once.
Q: (Three questions actually follow from this one!) When speaking of a modern Southern comedian, Lance recently wrote in a blog post, “…[H]e does have strong Southern bona fides, a recognizably Southern rhythm and pacing to his storytelling, and an authentic Southern voice that isn’t a caricature.” What do you think makes Southerners unique as storytellers?
Tara: Authenticity is key in good Southern storytelling. There is usually something that strikes a chord or touches us in Southern stories. There is a willingness to settle in and weave an intricate narrative. I think that quality is the legacy of cultural heritages renowned for oral storytelling—Native American, Scottish, Irish, and African, to name a few. Storytelling is a learned and practiced tradition from childhood on in the South.
Lance: Time, place and adversity have shaped Southerners into good storytellers. The late 19th Century was a simpler time, and much of life in the South was agrarian. People had more time and spent it together on the front porch because there was no air conditioning. With the advent of radio and TV and the ubiquity of air conditioning, the culture shifted, but for at least a generation the prevailing form of entertainment was listening to your elders tell stories on the front porch after supper or after Sunday dinner with the family. The stories that held the most resonance were filled with humor and heartache, both of which were in abundance at the turn of the 20th Century in the South. Southern stories have an element of self-deprecation, a respect for ingenuity and distrust of progress and technology. The comedians, writers and storytellers that are known for being Southern have mastered their craft by being good listeners and refining their stories after many retellings as they see the response of their audience. That’s why so many Southern storytellers I have been around, famous or just family, can entertain even when they tell the same story over and over. They blend the familiar with a few twists to keep it interesting. We listen to see if it will be different this time.
Q: What makes Southern storytelling’s rhythm and pacing distinctive?
Tara: There is a certain musical flow to Southern stories, something that draws you in gently but immediately and then flows like a river as it unfolds from there. There is a certain pulling from the past/working toward the future dichotomy that makes it circular. And a distinctive tone to Southern storytelling reflects Southern speech patterns.
Lance: My grandmother had a way of stringing the details of her stories together with the verbal pause “and uh” that gave her stories a rhythm. Like a sermon in the African American church tradition, her stories would start slow and build to a dramatic conclusion, usually humorous. She would often laugh at her own stories. She called it “tickled.” I am “tickled” anytime I get to hear such a story. I agree, Tara, Southern storytelling is musical, whether it’s read or heard. To get a sense of what I mean, pick up a copy of Rick Bragg’s latest book, “Where I Come From” or any of his previous works. Read a few paragraphs out loud, and you’ll hear it immediately.
Q: Are Southerners caricatured in media such as movies, books, etc.? If so, what makes a Southern voice have an authentic ring?
Lance: Without a doubt. As a fan of Noah Hawley’s “Fargo” television adaptation of the Cohen brothers film, though, I have to admit that any time a region becomes the focus of a story, the opportunity for caricature exists. I see it most when someone without experience or appreciation of the South attempts to tell a Southern story. They paint with too broad a brush. Because I like to listen to accents, no matter where they are from, it’s often the over-done dialect that makes it so egregious. I like it best when writers, storytellers and actors capture the specifics of a Southern place. There is no one accent or way of life down South. If they know us well enough to grasp the nuances, they can avoid caricature and actually tell a story with authenticity. My favorite theme is the underestimated Southerner that turns the stereotype on its head. I know that can be its own cliche, but I am drawn to stories that flip the script. As for authenticity, I think that emerges from directness, lack of pretense, and color. Honesty is often hard to take, but Southerners can speak from their heart with surprising frankness.
Tara: That is a good point, Lance, that when any region becomes a focus there is an opportunity for or danger of caricature. I also see caricature a lot with religious or ethnic minority groups—any group that is numerically smaller in the broader culture. But yes, Southerners are caricatured broadly to the extent that when a character actually feels like a Southerner, it is a welcome surprise. Behaviors are stereotyped (wearing big hair, being backwards, practicing oppressive forms of religion, being prejudiced more than the general population, etc.). I agree that the accents are often the most cringeworthy. A Southern voice (and as an author, I can add any voice) has more authenticity when the character is first presented as a person and only then as a person who may have certain distinctive regional or cultural traits.
Q: What makes Southern society complex and complicated?
Tara: History. The South has a troubled, or one might almost say tortured history. The presence of slavery deep into the nineteenth century, the forced removal of Native Americans, and an almost caste-based social structure have all made the South and its history complicated, to say the least. There is a history of deep prejudice that still gives the region a troubled legacy today. That’s not to say that the whole country, or every country, doesn’t have the same truth. Prejudice exists in the South and everywhere. To deny that would be to paper over the very real, lived experience of many.
Simultaneously, I think the South has been forced to deal with prejudice on a fundamental level in a way that other regions may not have. I recently read a study that found that quantifiable inequality (unemployment, home ownership, education, etc.) was several percentage points less in the South as a region than in the nation as a whole. But that is not the general perception of Southern society.
Adding to the complexity, the South has also historically been riddled with poverty, to the extent that the default “American” in media or popular imagination is not Southern. Not being the default obviously leads to some problematic handling of the region as a whole by the uninitiated. For example, we wouldn’t normally allow for critical caricatures of people struggling with poverty, but the stereotype of all Southerners as prejudiced somehow makes those depictions acceptable, which does real damage.
And yet, the legacy of an aristocratically tiered social structure does still persist. There is a bit of a “haves and have-nots” element to Southern society that adds another dimension to the complexity, all the more so because it isn’t necessarily in a good versus evil way of a Dickens novel. The complexity of Southern society is profoundly difficult to grasp, but I can say for certain that a lot of it goes back to history.
Lance: Well said, Tara. The South’s agrarian history, which is rapidly being erased, contributes to the complexity. Moving from an inequitable and exploitative rural economy to a high tech and services based economy has changed the landscape so quickly, many who control the systems of wealth and influence have leveraged the old prejudices to stoke division and maintain control. Race is just one level of the conflict. Class is another. And with the growing abandonment and diversification of religious practice, there are even more opportunities for cultural clashes. It’s complicated because it feels like whenever there is progress toward unity, there are ugly, violent events that remind us of the past and erase any gains in trust and goodwill. We’re never that far from what the Baptists call “backsliding.” It feels to me like an addict in recovery. We can never get too confident we’re over the old troubles. We have to take it one day at a time, with humility, and try to do better accepting people for who they are as individuals and not for their membership in a larger group identity.
Q: How is the South and Southern culture changing?
Tara: I think the concept of Southernness may be developing into something that reflects more of the diversity that we have talked about. I feel like there was a time when identification with Southern culture was more common among middle- and upper-class people of European ancestry. But it seems like that perception is broadening today to acknowledge and include the culture and contributions of more and more of those who live in the South. I haven’t researched in this area, so I base this on the fact that I hear people identify as Southern who might not have done so in the past and see Southern magazines exploring the Southernness and contributions to the South of people who may first identify as something other than Southern. This is definitely a great question for Lance!
Lance: This is the very question at the root of New South Essays. I’ve mentioned some of it above. We’re becoming more urban, technology dependent and diverse. Small towns are drying up because people are moving to where the jobs are, and population loss in rural areas is palpable. Family is still important, but jobs are taking people farther and farther away from their roots. We’re experiencing a mix of stubborn pride and pervasive shame over a past that we once reflected on and talked about often. Now, everything about Southern is being reinterpreted. I find particularly interesting the work that The Bitter Southerner and The Oxford American are doing in that regard. I hope one of the messages people take away from my blog is that it’s OK to be Southern and talk about it openly and honestly. It helps to be humble and self deferential with a healthy dose of humor, which I see as growing in the New South.
Q: What is the best thing about the South?
Tara: For me it is the hospitality. Southern history is, of course, fraught and complicated, and, like anywhere else, it still isn’t a perfect place. But at its best today, there is a kindness to Southern culture, a sort of “welcome home” feeling that can and should be extended to all.
The best way to explain would be through a visit to Mrs. Wilkes Dining Room in Savannah, Georgia. There are ten or eleven people seated at a big table that is reminiscent of a Sunday dinner. You pass about a dozen dishes back and forth between you, making conversation all the while like you’re family. People line up and wait for hours for this experience with total strangers. Both times I’ve been, people from different regions or countries want to know all of the details of Southern life, and of course the Southerners are happy to oblige. This leads to trading stories about our homes and the different ways cultures do things. The last time I went, at our table were: my sister and me, a couple from Canada with their two children, an Indian American couple from Manhattan, and a couple from Alabama. All were such lovely people, and if we had met in any other setting, we might never have been acquainted with one another well enough to have known that. But when we left, we all talked about the connection we had felt. I still remember what all of their faces looked like, and for that moment, we were family. It’s a transforming experience, connecting with total strangers just because you can really feel harmony and peace around you. I really think the world would be a kinder place if everyone could experience that type of distinctly Southern setting, because you get to see the goodness in people, and you remember that and carry it with you. Southern hospitality mixing with Southern cooking is just one of the greatest things in the world.
Lance: I can’t argue with that, Tara! We’ve covered most of what I truly enjoy already, but I would be remiss if I didn’t devote some space here to Southern writers. I hope you will check out Tara’s books that weave history and relationships in a way that expose relatable truths. My favorite Southern writer of all time is Clyde Edgerton. I find the work of Larry Brown gritty and real. I’ve always enjoyed Rick Bragg, as I mentioned, and William Faulkner’s well-documented contributions inspired me to take up writing in the first place. You don’t have to be a Southerner to appreciate great Southern literature, and as it diversifies, its impact only grows.
Tara Cowan the author of the Torn Asunder Series, including Southern Rain, Northern Fire, and Charleston Tides. She writes fiction set mostly in the South and loves all things history, travel, and culture. An attorney, Tara lives in Middle Tennessee and is busy writing her next novel.
A former newspaper reporter and editor, Lance Elliott Wallace chronicles life in the New South from his home in the Atlanta suburb of Lilburn. He is a Fort Worth, Texas, native who has lived in Central Florida, Alabama and Georgia, gaining a fascination with contemporary Southern culture along the way.
Note: This post is running simultaneously on New South Essays Blog (link above). Check out Lance’s great blog for more on Southern life!