Are we really Southern?

Published 8:51 am Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Virginia occupies a strange place in the Union. We are located below the Mason Dixon line, but a sizable portion of our population — particularly in Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads, the economic hubs of Virginia — does not identify as Southern. Both regions are filled with transplants from around the United States and the world, creating a melting pot of cultures and making it difficult to assign the regions a set identity.

Meanwhile, most residents of Southeastern and Western Virginia live in agrarian communities and carry the typical saccharine drawl of the South.

They follow the general patterns of Southern culture: they attend a church on Sundays; they staunchly embrace the significance of their families; they enfold their neighbors in a tight-knit community; they nurture a strong sense of justice in their children; and above all, they cultivate an optimistic outlook on life, looking forward to the good, and supporting one another when faced with the bad.

I was first confronted with the idea that I wasn’t Southern when I went to college in Washington, D.C.

During orientation, when we were forced to play those deplorable “ice-breaker” games in order to become acquainted with one another, I was shocked by the amount of people who told me how much they loved my accent.

I always thought that my accent was tame compared to those of everyone else in Southampton County. But when I really listened to my voice as I spoke and paid attention to the turns of phrase I used, I could hear the song of the South.

Imagine my frustration when not 20 minutes later, when I met someone from South Carolina, and they said, “Oh, Virginia is not the South. You’re so close to North Carolina that you count, though.”

I quickly reminded them that Richmond was the capital of the Confederacy, therefore a part of the geographic region that many use to define the South. I was met with a vague acknowledgment and the conversation petered out.

These comments stayed with me for months. While I had never felt blatantly that I wasn’t Southern, I never really embraced Southern culture.

Last March, a beloved uncle of mine passed away, and I am eternally grateful for the support our community showed my family in the following weeks and months. With this outpouring of love and generosity, my identity as a Southerner cemented itself.

When I described the amount of people who came by to comfort my family, leaving gifts of food and well wishes, a friend of mine from New Jersey said, “That’s one thing I love about Southerners. That kind of thing would never happen in New Jersey.”

This helped me to understand that being Southern is based not in your geographic location or even the accent you speak with, but about exhibiting a love for your community and its history, in genuinely caring for the well-being of your neighbors, and in standing strong with one another in the face of misfortune and hardship.

In that respect I can proudly say that, yes, we really are Southern.

Walter Francis Jr. is an intern for The Tidewater News. Contact him at 562-3187 or