The south as a region has been the scene of some of the greatest atrocities in American culture, that much is true. Much of it was purely economic in nature- the same things that happened here (slavery, religious mania/intolerance, ignorance, discrimination against blacks and others, etc.) happened in the north as well, just earlier and on smaller scales.
The defining features of Southern culture in my mind (as somebody who hasn’t had an ancestor from north of Virginia since long before the Revolution [and that one a Mennonite]) are
In New England you drive through so many little towns that you sometimes don’t know you’ve left one and entered another. I know there are places in NH, ME, etc., that are isolated, but not generally for as long a distance. In 2006 when I drive from my mother’s house in Montgomery AL to my sister’s house in Gulf Shores (a distance of 180 miles approximately) it’s very easy to go 20 or 30 miles between communities of any size whatever. Today with the Internet and cell phones and satellite television and fast cars all readily available to anybody even working class it’s not as insular as it once was, but for most of Southern history these communities were little principalities unto themselves- there were places in Alabama and other southern states, for example, where it took weeks before they received news of Lee’s surrender at Appomattox Courthouse (which did not end the war as is so often stated- the cause was more hopeless than it had been since Vicksburg/Gettysburg, but there were still tens of thousands of armed rebel troops about). There were literally people in England and western Europe who knew about it before down here.
Isolation breeds weirdness. Always.
2- Racial Diversity, Trust and Mistrust
The first slaves were unloaded in the south 1619 and the first mulatto child was born in 1620, by which time there were already several children born of white settlers and native Americans. Because the crops for which the South was perfect (tobacco, rice, indigo and above all cotton) were all very labor intensive and very lucrative the demand for African slaves, cheaper in the long run than indentured servants, was many times that of the North, where far more land was used for family farms than for cash farms/plantations. (While there were far more free white yeoman farmers in the south than there were rich planters, the planters owned more land in many counties than the free white small farmers, and of course far more slaves not just numerically but as a percentage of slaveholders.) The point is that the south had an incomparably higher number of non-whites both numerically and percentagewise than the north (where again, every state practiced slavery into the early 19th century- Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Hamilton, Cotton Mather, etc., were all slaveowners).
As I’ve said many times before there is nothing either simple or uniform about southern race relations and there never has been. Even slavery was a very flexible institution- it changed many times over the 2.5 centuries it was practiced. (The original slaves in Virginia, for example, were treated the same as indentured servants- after so many years they were freed and given land, and there were even marriages between whites and blacks in the 17th century south.) Many things happened to change the relationship between the races: the native born blacks came to outnumber the free-born, the rise in number of the biracial/multiracial population, the move westward which increased the isolation aspects, etc…
The Revolutionary War was a wake-up call to white southerners as many were legitimately stunned to see just how many blacks ran to join the British who promised their freedom, destroying the myth of “they’re content in the fields and have no mind for freedom”. The reports of the last British ships leaving Savannah, Charles Town and lesser harbors read like the reports of the Fall of Saigon as thousands of blacks unable to be relocated by the Brits (who actually kept their promise to the degree that they could) swarmed the wharves, many willingly drowning in their attempt to reach the ships.) The slave rebellions in New York and South Carolina in the 18th century were quickly and bloodily suppressed and didn’t have major repercussions on the life of slaves in other places (in Virginia as late as the post-Revolution there were slaves who walked down the street with muskets to go hunting) but after Saint-Domingue- whoo boy, the one and only successful slave revolt in history (if you can call Haiti a success)- THAT’S when the southerners started literally and figuratively cracking the whip, and when Denmark Vesey and Nat Turner
Sorry, I’m way off point. Let me look back and see what the question was…
Oh yeah, the point is that the races have a much longer history of living together, working together, loving each other, hating each other, and sharing each others lives and troubles than in the rest of the country. They’re inseparably linked, and the whites out of what they viewed as necessity drove the blacks into an underclass lower even than the slaves of Rome and Greece, THEN (very important) adjusted their worldviews and mythologies to justify it, and in so doing created a knack for self-justification of horrors unequalled in the rest of the country (at least until Social Darwinism came into play, but this is too long already).
It’s hot as hell down here. That’s more important than it sounds. Prior to air conditioning it wasn’t uncommon for women of privilege to sleep twelve hours and take four baths a day. Poor whites and blacks never had the luxury of course. Heat makes things slow and reflective, it kills, it grows things that wouldn’t grow anywhere else, it’s brutal and it’s productive and it’s unbearable and it’s lifegiving and causes emotions to rise (proven physiological fact) and ambition to lower (ditto).
- Bloody defeat/poverty
The South was so completely crushed at the end of the Civil War that it totally recarved the regional identity. Not a house was without it’s dead (same was true in many parts of the north as well of course, but not the next part) and it accomplished absolutely nothing and the economy and land was ruined. The cotton market bottomed out after the war- the cotton sold to northern factories for $1+ per pound in 1860 sold for $0.15/pound and kept falling (especially after the Suez Canal when English mills said “pffft!” to the south- we have India and Egypt right here and they belong to us, we don’t need America". This meant that after four years of unimaginable terror and bloodshed southerners (black and white) were working twice/three times as hard for a fraction of the gain.
Just as Germany did in the 1920s, this made them reflect. We’re utterly crushed. But we’re good people. We’re hardworking and God fearing- why are we so destroyed? A martyrdom set in- we’re suffering and we’re persecuted, so we must be righteous.
And of course it just did wonders for race relations. Suddenly a people who comprised a double-digit percentage of the population everywhere in the south and the majority population in many areas and who you had been taught your entire life were congenitally inferior to you were now your neighbors and for a few years they were the judges in your court, representatives in Congress, etc. (the Reconstruction “taunting”) which sort of dispelled that inferiority myth- when Hayes was handed the election in exchange for Reconstruction’s end, the South decided to make that inferiority square peg fit into the round holes of their mythos, and it worked only too well. We said blacks were inferior by nature and by God- we’re gonna see to it that our observations match our beliefs.
- Plutocracy & Demagoguery
ALWAYS the case down here. The policy makers usually come from the tiny fraction that owns the huge fraction, and since their interests are at total opposition to their constituents they had to talk a good game and resort to sleight of hand demagoguery that was a work of art. "This aint’ about insurance companies bein’ out of hand and lobbyists… all that mess is too complicated— it’s about DO YOU LOVE THE LORD? DO YOU WANT THE COLOREDS (oh what? they got the vote now… shit…) DO YOU WANT THE QUEERS TO BE HAVING WHAT YOU GOT? No! You’re better’n them. Elect me and I’m gonna help ya see to it…
We’re a lot closer to the earth. Not as much as we once were as the southern landscape changes from unpainted I-houses and dogtrots to strip malls and chain stores and kids in upperscale schools dress like Paris Hilton and Ashton Kutcher (we’ve always been pop culture junkies down here, incidentally- also early adaptors to communication technology- when radios were marketed in the early 1920s southerners and even Appalachian farmers who’d been isolated forever were one of the biggest markets) though they still have the Baptist baggage, which reminds me-
There’s New Orleans and all regions of the South have their Catholic churches and Jews (there are more Jews in the south than many realize- Reform Judaism was a movement begun in Charleston, for example) but the vast majority of the region is Protestant. And on the subject again of reshaping the mythos, Protestantism was generally a lot better for that than the standardized worship in cathedrals- "let’s tinker with this just a tad— there we go, who says KJV can lend itself to justify racism for whites, justify learning to accept your lot for blacks, and self-determinism all around).
Sorry, I can’t remember where I was going with this, but the point is the south is different for a lot of different reasons. And those reasons are organic and manmade in nature but interwoven into the culture. And due to mass media the South is losing a LOT of its personality and flavor and that’s a good thing and a terrible thing, rather like when a barking mad relative that you have both wonderful and nightmarish memories of is dying (I’m told). I don’t miss the days when John Patterson could say “Martin Luther Coon” on broadcast speeches and mobs formed to kill freedom riders, but I do miss the innate courtesy and sense of community that’s also passing. (When I was a kid you knew the name of every family in every house you passed when you drove to school- you knew how much money they had, if their sister had an illegitimate baby, who fooled around, etc.- it could be terrible, but today most people I know don’t know their next door neighbors, which is also bad.)
I think it’s just flat out stupid for anybody to believe one region of the nation is just intrinsically more stupid than others (?!). Ignorance— well, I’ll grant, there’s a lot of that, but I daresay you can find as much provincialism in a Philadelphia, PA highrise as you can in a Philadelphia, MS trailer park. But more than anything else it’s the bloodsoaked, hot, deprived and wonderfully diverse self-justifying-of-psychological-necessity cultures that merged as one to make us.