For far too long, too many people have held a stereotypical view of the South and the people who are native to it. Outsiders have long tended to view the South and everyone in it as being a homogeneous, monolithic entity. They refer to the problem of the South, the accent of the South, the economy of the South, etc., as though there were only one South.
That view simply shows ignorance relative to the real South. And the error of that view is readily apparent to anyone who lives in and travels about the South for any length of time.
To illustrate, let’s briefly look at several prominent features of the South: the economy, the music, and the accents.
The economy of the South has never been totally dependent on a single product or industry, although outsiders have long thought of cotton when they thought of the Southern economy. From the very beginning, colonists, no matter where they settled, sought eventually to diversify their economy, and the mainstays have changed over time.
It’s true that in some places cotton was king. But even in those places other products played important roles in the economy. For a long time, the primary industries in many areas were the three T’s: timber, tobacco, and textiles.
Timber, especially along the Atlantic Coastal Plain, provided not only lumber (and the sawmills that cut it up) but also turpentine and other naval stores, cross-ties for railroads, and pulpwood for paper, to name only a few products. (That’s how North Carolinians got the nickname “Tarheels.”) In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, harvesting the big trees of the Appalachian highlands were big business.
Tobacco has been a major crop since the days of Sir Walter Raleigh. Even today, despite surgeon generals’ warnings and other bad publicity, tobacco still brings in huge profits. North Carolina ($1 billion a year) and Kentucky (about half that) are the leading tobacco producers, but most of the other Southern states also grow significant amounts of the weed. It was the last cash crop to be mechanized.
Textiles used to be primarily a New England industry that demanded increasing amounts of Southern cotton. It was New England ship builders and ship owners and captains who made the slave trade possible and encouraged the South to expand its cotton production and, by extension, slavery. But cheaper labor was available in the South after the war, and entrepreneurs opened mills in the South, where, after all, the cotton that fed the mills was grown. The mill village built by William Gregg at Graniteville, S.C., suddenly expanded to numerous mill towns built by those entrepreneurs, providing everything the mill workers needed, from homes to schools to churches to medical care and stores. Life for the “lintheads” who worked in the mills revolved around the mill and the mill town. Investment in that industry by entrepreneurs grew from $22.8 million in 1880 to $132.4 million in 1900.
But the three T’s are not the South’s economy. It has many economies. Some areas are transportation hubs. Others developed as wholesale centers. Still others revolved around chemicals. Or mining. Or tomatoes. And dozens of other forms of industry, commerce, and agriculture.
But there’s more to the South than the various economic factors that power its multiple economies. There’s its tunes, its music. Again, there is no single type of “Southern music.” Various areas of the South birthed various kinds of music. New Orleans jazz and Cajun music. Memphis blues. Bluegrass. The country-western music of Nashville. The sounds of the Appalachian highlands. Gospel. Negro spirituals. Honky-tonk. Ragtime. Sacred harp. And the tastes of different Southerners vary not only from region to region in the South but also from person to person within each region.
And then there’s the favorite topic of Northern derision: the “Southern accent.” Perhaps in no other area do outsiders show their ignorance of the South than in the area of accent. And movies and television have probably done more to foster this erroneous view than any other single factor.
Contrary to popular conception, there is no “Southern accent.” There are many different Southern accents. There’s the Low Country accent of South Carolina and Georgia (with some Gullah influence thrown in to further confuse the Yankees). There’s the Spanish influence of Florida, Louisiana, and Texas. And Louisiana also mixes in the French connection and the Cajun. Throughout the Southeast is the Native American influence. You also have the Appalachian highlands accent. And even within any one of those areas just mentioned, one can detect even more, smaller distinctions in that dominant accent.
“Fake news” is a phrase that has a relatively recent origin, but “fake Southern accent” has been around a long time. It’s an oft-heard accusation around my house, especially whenever we’re watching television. We can spot a Northerner who’s trying to sound “Southern” and doing a bad job of it in the first sentence out of his mouth. If the setting is supposed to be the Tennessee mountains, any true Southerner is going to know that the actor shouldn’t use a Low Country accent (“dahling,” “dollahs,” “guttah,” etc.). That’s a dead giveaway that the actor didn’t do his homework in researching the role.
There is no one South; there are many Souths. (And we haven’t even mentioned politics or culinary arts yet!) So don’t show your ignorance of the southeastern part of our great nation by pretending differently. And above all else, don’t base your knowledge of the South on episodes of The Beverly Hillbillies, Andy Griffith, The Dukes of Hazzard, or In the Heat of the Night!