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Is Florida Part of the South?

The debate is … complicated

An alligator Getty Images/Ringer illustration

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.

The laziest notion about Florida is that different parts of the state have nothing in common with one another. This is false. Every part of Florida loves the beach and nearly all of us are very, very sorry for giving the world Pitbull.

But it’s true that there are many different Floridas. One oft-repeated fact is that there are parts of the state’s panhandle as close to Chicago as they are to the southern tip of the state. This does not do nearly enough to describe how big and unattached the state feels. This is a place where you can go to the city that produced Lynyrd Skynyrd, then drive for five hours and end up in the city where DJ Khaled got his start. Somehow these two places are run by the same state legislature. This state was the setting for Moonlight and also for Vernon, Florida, an Errol Morris documentary that set out to document a town obsessed with cutting off their own limbs for insurance money. It’s a complicated state—politically, culturally, and otherwise. It’s a state where, as Eric Andre once said, everyone looks like Guy Fieri but acts like George Zimmerman. There is a reason there’s a heated debate over whether Florida is the South: It’s because there’s a heated debate over what Florida is.

Let’s start from the top: In 1513, Ponce de León became the first European in Florida. Historians have discredited the widely shared belief that he was looking for the Fountain of Youth on his journey, but this legend foreshadowed the two things Florida would go on to do best: craft investment in a bunch of bullshit and build a place for tourists to go.

For a few hundred years after Europe’s arrival, Florida was unabashedly Southern. It was, after all, mostly alligators and rattlesnakes. There was a time, believe it or not, when Tampa was filled with things other than dockside bars offering two-for-one pitchers. Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings’s The Yearling, one of the most famous books about early Florida, is mostly about wildlife and bear hunting and calling your mom “Ma.” It refers to Ocala—a small town between Orlando and Gainesville—as the “the big city.” The era in which Florida was clearly the South lined up nicely with the few hundred years when no one outside the state cared about Florida. In 1930, Florida was 31st among states in population and the smallest state in the South, far behind Alabama, Kentucky, and Mississippi.

Then everything changed. World War II bases brought a population boom to the state. This created a massive influx of non-Floridians into the state. The Midwesterners followed I-75 down to West Florida and the East Coasters took 95 down to South and Central Florida. This changed Florida forever. Or, more specifically, it made parts of Florida decidedly not the South. And that’s where the debate begins.

In 2014, officials in South Florida passed a resolution proposing that South Florida and North Florida break off into two separate states. The catalyzing issue, according to South Miami’s mayor, was that the legislators in the capital of Tallahassee weren’t doing enough to combat global warming. But for anyone familiar with Florida’s vastly different regions, the only surprise here is that there aren’t calls to break up the state every day. If you want to know how different North Florida is from the southern part of the state, look at this map of Waffle House franchises, which shows a concentration of Waffle Houses all through the southeast United States—until you get to Gainesville.

I am from Orlando, about two hours south of the end of those Waffle Houses. I left Florida at age 23 but return often. I went to college in Miami and have been to every place of consequence in Florida. Think of me for these purposes as Anthony Bourdain—except traveling in only Florida and eating at only Panera.

In order to find out whether Florida is the South, you have to examine every part of the state and every part of what makes the South the South. (The joke around Central Florida is that in the state, you get more Southern the farther north you go.)

The easiest way to decipher Southernness is music. But Florida makes even this difficult. The definition of “Florida music” complicates everything, since the state seems to pick and choose who to embrace with no easily discernible rubric. The acts that do not have much of a Southern influence are not even thought of as Floridians at all. Tom Petty is from Gainesville; Jim Morrison is from Brevard County and lived in Tallahassee. Both of them are more closely aligned with Los Angeles. Pitbull, decidedly un-Southern, is literally Mr. Worldwide, so he’s not Florida’s problem. (Uh, right?) Jimmy Buffett, on the other hand, who is not from Florida but rather the very Southern Mississippi, has been claimed as a native son because he plies the state with beachy nonsense music and packed chain restaurants called “Margaritaville.” We know that North Florida is a breeding ground for Southern rock; in addition to Skynyrd, Jacksonville also produced the Allman Brothers Band and famed hard-rock band Molly Hatchet. The city would later produce Limp Bizkit, which may not further our discussion in any way, but is definitely a bad band.

But what about the southern part of the state? I asked around the Ringer office about whether Miami rap and Florida rap are considered Southern rap. Rick Ross, for instance, qualifies as Southern. I was informed that Miami rap is undoubtedly Southern. Uncle Luke—who came to fame with 2 Live Crew—is credited with pioneering Southern rap in this piece written by … uh, Uncle Luke himself. The Guardian argued two years ago that Miami started Southern rap.

Author Roni Sarig, in his book Third Coast: Outkast, Timbaland, and How Hip-Hop Became a Southern Thing, credits these Miami acts as hugely important to Southern rap. More broadly, he argues that, in the 1980s and 1990s, even Northern Florida was influential by producing some of the bass music that shaped the genre—from Orlando’s DJ Magic Mike to the Quad City DJs from Jacksonville. Yes, Miami rap is Southern rap; all of Florida rap is Southern rap.

None of this applies to Flo Rida, who is disqualified from being a part of Southern rap because he is not a part of rap.

Florida’s music undoubtedly comes from a famous group of diverse artists. Gloria Estefan is a Florida legend and exists outside of this debate. The Orlando groups—the Backstreet Boys, N’Sync, and Matchbox Twenty—don’t sound like they’re from a specific region; they are just mostly bad. This is the problem if you’re arguing Florida is Southern; how do you reconcile that with all the non-Southern elements in play?

It is nearly impossible to say whether Florida’s culture is definitively Southern, since it’s impossible to nail down what, exactly, Florida’s culture is. “Florida food” could be the delicious Cuban food found at Versailles in Miami or the alligator tail at Saltwater Cowboys in the swamps of St. Augustine. Or, more likely, Florida food is a chicken sandwich at a random cafeteria outside the Hall of Presidents at Disney.

The only thing that seems to unify Florida culturally aside from the weather and the shared vision that no one should pay state income tax is the celebration of rogues and some of the, er, shadier people in life. This is a notably Southern trait. It’s the reason that Billy Corben’s great 2006 documentary Cocaine Cowboys, which focuses mainly on the Miami drug trade that came up through South America, is wildly popular throughout the state. Another of Corben’s documentaries deals with descendants of bootleggers on the west coast of Florida who ran drugs through the Everglades. Corben’s work and the fanfare around it call back to the Southern tradition of celebrating bootleggers. Tom Wolfe famously dubbed Junior Johnson, a 1950s North Carolina bootlegger turned stock-car driver, “The Last American Hero.” If most of current-day Florida rewatched old Miami Vice episodes, we’d probably be rooting for the bad guys the whole episode.

Carl Hiaasen is perhaps the most notable chronicler of Florida in the modern era. (Lauren Groff is the best Floridian writing at the moment, but she does not write strictly Florida things.) Hiaasen has made a career of fashioning gallows humor from Florida crime; his best point is that it’s so rampant that no one noticed that the 9/11 hijackers were here for months taking flying lessons, obviously planning something. Crime in Florida is often laughed at, and understandably so. There is no shortage of examples that illustrate Floridian lawbreakers’ penchant for the unusual: the pantsless guy who hijacked a luggage vehicle, the guy who abused the 911 service to get Kool-Aid and weed, the dude who brought meth to the ICU. If there’s one thing that unifies Florida, it’s that there’s little moralizing on these things. When Notre Dame and the University of Miami had a heated college football rivalry in the 1980s, it was famously dubbed Catholics vs. Convicts. Thirty years later, the convicts are more proud of the moniker than the Catholics; it’s still a rallying cry around Miami. This is the state of Scarface. Hell, listen to Rick Ross rap about nearly anything or Jimmy Buffett’s unofficial anthem of an aging Florida dad—A Pirate Looks at 40—an ode to being an outlaw and a petty drug dealer. Everyone in Florida likes to fashion themselves as some sort of drunk pirate. It’s a good thing, then, that you can drink at gun ranges.

Of course, there are other things that are super Southern; about 75 percent of Florida bar fights occur after a Gators fan sees someone with a (backward, always) Florida State hat and words are exchanged; there’s nothing more Southern than devotion to college football. There’s also a Southern love of NASCAR. But, again, these are only pockets of the state. Drive three hours south of Daytona, the racing capital of America, and you’re more likely to find a cool bar tuned into a soccer game than a race. Sports, like most things in Florida, cannot be easily defined or categorized because they mean too many things to too many people.

Now, politically it gets tricky. Southern does not mean Republican, but the American South has voted Republican in the presidential election since the 1960s. Florida and Virginia are the only Southern states to go Democrat in three elections since 1996. On the other hand, the state went for Trump last November and currently boasts a governor, Rick Scott, who is far-right and was elected on his business acumen despite being accused of running “the largest Medicare fraud” in history—something Politifact says is mostly true. There are pockets of the state that are as far-right as you can get, but you can also drive about 10 minutes and find some of the biggest liberal hangouts in the country.

So: Is Florida the South?

It is, obviously, the southernmost state, and its geographic features are especially Southern; it’s a state of lakes and rivers of grass. There are swamps and snakes the moment you get out of major cities. There are also alligators and bears everywhere, to the point that near everyone has a story about almost getting attacked by one or the other (or both!). Southerners—more than 60 percent, according to FiveThirtyEight—also believe it to be the South.

But here’s the issue with that sort of poll: The nearly 40 percent of who do not think Florida is the South feel strongly about this. The Floridians who do not think of Florida as the South do not even entertain the possibility that it might be. If you stick only in the cities, you will see almost nothing Southern about the state. If you want to argue Florida is the South, there’s a case. After all, there are zero non-Southern elements in the southern parts of the state, and there are a lot of southern elements in the northern part of the state. But the thing about the South is, in the same way you can’t be a little bit pregnant, you can’t be a little bit Southern.

There are enough non-Southern elements to keep Florida from being strictly the South. Florida has no defined culture, it has too many foods, and there are enough people who don’t want to be the South that it likely is not the South. But again, Florida can’t agree on anything. Well, except for Pitbull.