Welcome to The South Week at The Ringer. For the next several days, we’re celebrating — and reporting on — the richness of the region. You’ll find stories from all over the map, exploring topics such as the enduring legacy of Confederate monuments in Richmond and Montgomery, the evolution of Charleston barbecue, and the intersection of faith and football in Lubbock. We’re also ranking the best Southern rap albums, imagining the André 3000 mixtape we all deserve, and arguing about what even constitutes the South anymore. In the words of two great Southerners, nothin’ is for sure, nothin’ is for certain, nothin’ lasts forever.
What makes a state Southern? Is it geographic location alone, or does qualifying as unequivocally Southern require something beyond convenient placement on the map? According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the South is composed of Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Tennessee, Kentucky, West Virginia, Maryland, the District of Columbia, Delaware, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia—and Florida. But ask a group of Southerners whether that last one belongs in the mix, and you’re likely not going to hear a resounding yes. Toss Maryland up for debate, and the prospects of a warm welcome will be fairly grim.
Because we love to argue here at The Ringer, our resident Southerners weighed in on the dubious regional lineup. Here’s who we’re voting off the island (er, region):
As a Southerner from a definite Southern state that is very Southern, I like Oklahoma from afar, as a friend. But only as that kind of “friend” whose existence you acknowledge with a wave or a nod when you pass them on the street. Heeeyyy you, you might say, before bringing up that one thing from that one conversation you had once. How are Russell Westbrook and Paul George getting along? They’re the kind of friend you’re … mostly fine with. In my defense, the state’s unofficial slogan is “Oklahoma is OK!” which, despite the exclamation point, doesn’t really invite you to feel or think or remember much of anything about it. If I had to pick one thing that I take exception to, that makes it Not Southern, I’d have to point to its refusal to really be anything.
It’s not great, it’s not awful, just “OK.” It’s the Plains, but it’s also the Southwest, and a notch on the Bible Belt. If by “Southern” we’re talking about states that culturally and geographically supported the Confederacy during the Civil War, Oklahoma was largely Indian Territory at the time. But here’s the thing: There’s literally zero difference between Kansas and Oklahoma, and you wouldn’t say Kansas is the South. Oklahoma isn’t either. It’s the prairie.
—Micah Peters, Louisiana
I’m not sure when exactly this state firmly in the Midwest tried to elbow its way into the South. Maybe it was when Nelly started calling everybody “dirty” years after Goodie Mob had claimed the term in Atlanta. Maybe it was when the University of Missouri inexplicably switched conferences, simultaneously destroying the regional accuracy of the Southeastern Conference and the mathematical accuracy of the Big 12. It’s clear that a state which claims Kansas City as one of its most prominent locales is confused about its place in the world. But, sorry Missourians, that’s not the South’s problem. Y’all may have planned a 200-foot roadside cross, but do you have a highway sign that warns, “GO TO CHURCH or the Devil will get you!”? If your state is not threatening people with eternal damnation for not following the tenets of Christian dogma, it’s not truly Southern. Embrace your status as an emblem of the Heartland—y’all run America now—and stop trying to step on our turf.
—Victor Luckerson, Alabama
Kentucky, when looking down from the North, is very Southern. That’s what you call shaping a calendar year around a 1.25-mile horse race; it’s also the term for sporting bowties and seersucker suits even without it being the Derby: Southern. There’s the fried chicken, the Confederate statues, the hospitality, the bigotry, an unmistakable twang, and a most iconic meal made of of gravy, toast, and meat layered upon fried, fattier meat.
But Kentucky is not the South.
Tilt your viewpoint—maybe look from Alabama, or Georgia, or South Carolina—and the Commonwealth becomes Midwestern. The symbolism of blue and red (Cats and Cards) holds a more vicious divide in basketball than in politics; the state has sided Democratic on occasion even after the two parties flipped, and more than half the population resides up north, close to Ohio and Indiana, in the metro areas of Louisville, Lexington, and Northern Kentucky. Roughly 50 percent of self-proclaimed Southerners in a FiveThirtyEight poll voted the Bluegrass a member of the South; 50 percent did not.
That’s Kentucky, though, the middle child influenced by the seven states it touches, indisputably Midwestern, Southern, or Appalachian. Geographically (two states from a Great Lake, two states from the Gulf), its disposition is the fitting metaphor for all that the Commonwealth is, really—where the North meets the South. Every line in the state’s history has been toed, barefoot, for better or worse, trading in Southern ideals for Northern ones and vice versa. Even the ultimate Is Your State the South? reference guide, the Civil War, can’t give a satisfactory answer. Kentucky was a “neutral” border state that later sided with the Union, but was also a slave state (which is to say, not all that neutral after all). Abraham Lincoln was born in the Bluegrass; so was Confederate President Jefferson Davis. Even the Mason-Dixon, an admittedly out-of-date divide, runs southeast to northwest through the state, splitting it diagonally like a lunch-meat sandwich.
Kentucky is the middle ground, an adaptation of its Midwestern, Southern, and mountaineer counterparts, lovers of horse-racing, basketball, and history. Any Kentuckian would be glad to talk about it with you, just pour a couple of bourbon and Cokes—yes, Coke is the term here, for everything—though really, we suggest it with just a splash of water.
—Haley O’Shaughnessy, Kentucky
Texas used to be part of the South. When the Civil War broke out, the state had been in the U.S. for fewer than 20 years, and it was relatively empty and unpopulated. Houston and Dallas had been founded within the last 25 years. Most of the population lived in East Texas, close to the border with Louisiana and Arkansas, and made their living in the cotton trade. There were so many connections between Texas and the Old South that which side it would choose was never in question.
But things are a little different 150 years later. Houston and Dallas are two of the biggest cities in the U.S., and a sizable percentage of the people who live there are first-, second-, or third-generation Texans. Most Texans self-identify as Texans first, not Southerners. Texas is big enough that it makes sense to do that. El Paso is closer to California than it is to Louisiana. And if you look at the way the state is growing and becoming more diverse, especially in the increasingly progressive big cities, it’s also positioned to align itself more with California than Georgia. You could drop Austin and the Central Texas metro area into Northern California and hardly tell the difference.
Texas A&M recently joined the SEC, which makes sense because it is located in the East of the state and has a conservative culture, but you will never see the University of Texas doing that. UT, and whichever other schools get lucky enough to join it in the next batch of conference realignment, is much more likely to join a Pac-16. The South is Texas’s past. The West is its future.
—Jonathan Tjarks, Texas
This will sound blasphemous when you read it because the state that I’m about to say isn’t the South is potentially THE M-O-S-T MOST SOUTH state of all (and also it’s not even a state; it's a city), but still a technicality is a technicality, so: Atlanta is not the South. It’s the East Coast. Sorry. Pimp C was the first one to really talk about this. He did so in an interview with Ozone Magazine a decade ago. I remember it because everyone made a great big deal about when it happened. His quote: “Atlanta is not the south, goddamnit. When you go to Atlanta, what does your clock say? ... Atlanta is East Coast time." Now, OK, I will admit that this opens up some odd new categorizations. For example, if a time zone shared with, say, Houston, is all that’s needed to be the South, then Chicago is the South, as is Winnipeg, Canada. And also, I will admit that Pimp C eventually apologized for saying Atlanta wasn't the South (“Atlanta is and has always been the dirty mthfkn South!!!!!” he wrote on his Myspace page), but it hurt my feelings when Tjarks said that Texas wasn't the South so, I mean, if we're being all the way honest, I just wanted to hurt someone else’s feelings in return. That’s just the way the game goes sometimes.
—Shea Serrano, Texas