What does being Southern mean? Local writers weigh in

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The Southern United States as defined by the United States Census Bureau. The "South" and its regions are defined in various ways, however. (Image: Wikipedia)

If you’ve ever had a hissy fit or know someone who has, then you just might be a Southerner.

If you know the difference in attitudes and accents between the Lowcountry and the Upcountry of South Carolina, then you’re probably a Southerner.

If you’ve lived in Winston-Salem for 25 years but were bred and buttered in Philadelphia, you might be wondering how long it will be until you can call yourself a Southerner.

“You have to be here at least 20 years to get all the Northern out of you,” Cheryl Harry said.

Harry is one of three local writers — Joseph Mills and Ed Southern being the other two — who will get together Monday night at the New Winston Museum to talk about “What Does it Mean To Be Southern.”

Each has a unique perspective on the topic.

Mills is a white Northerner who is raising two black Southerners. He’s the author of five books, his most recent being a book of poetry, “This Miraculous Turning,” for Press 53. He teaches humanities and writing at UNC School of the Arts.

Cheryl Harry is a black Southerner from Winston-Salem who wrote “Winston-Salem’s African American Legacy” (Arcadia, 2013). She is director of African American Programming at Old Salem Museum & Gardens.

Although Ed Southern, who is white, grew up in Winston-Salem and still lives here, his wife’s family in Alabama questions whether he’s really a Southerner. Ed Southern is married to Jamie Rogers Southern, assistant director of Bookmarks.

Southern wrote “The Jamestown Adventure” and “Voices of the American Revolution in the Carolina” for John F. Blair Publisher and a book of short stories, “Parlous Angels,” for Press 53. He is executive director of the N.C. Writers’ Network.

After the writers read from their works on Monday, Mike Wakeford, a faculty member at UNCSA, will moderate a panel discussion. The program, which is part of UNCSA’s and the New Winston Museum’s current exhibit, “This School, This City,” will encourage a larger conversation on Southern identity and life in Winston-Salem.

“I grew up in Indiana and Illinois,” Mills said. “The reason I’m on the panel is because it’s on my mind. I’m a born-and-bred Northerner, and I’m raising born-and-bred Southerners.”

“I thought that I would come at it as being an African American in the Twin City — from a fraternal-twin perspective,” Harry said, laughing. “I’m going to talk about some of our social history; the book I put together talks about how the social organizations were formed and how we responded to segregation and some of the effects of segregation.”

Southern is fascinated with how parts of the South are different from each other. “Even though there are commonalities, if you are from New Orleans you experience the South as vastly different than if you are in North Carolina. I can’t imagine two more different places.

“The South is as much an idea as a place, in my way of thinking.”

Harry grew up in a segregated Winston-Salem and remembers when blacks and whites sat in different parts of movie theaters.

“There was a separate YMCA,” she said. “There was a separate library — the East Winston Library. There was the Experiment in Self-Reliance, what I call organizations for collective empowerment, and I’ll talk a little bit about the neighborhoods.”

When she was in 10th grade Harry was among the first students to integrate Winston-Salem schools.

“Atkins was closed and students were bussed everywhere,” Harry said. “I went to Reynolds High School. It was hard (socially, not academically), and it was the first time I ever pretended to be sick to stay out of school.”

When she was young, Harry didn’t think of herself as Southern — until her cousins from Columbus, Ohio, came to visit.

“They followed me around and imitated my accent, and that was the first time I realized that I was Southern.”

But things do change. “I was doing a tour here (in Old Salem) recently,” Harry said. “And this person said, ‘You don’t sound like you’re from here.’”

Her accent may have modulated, but Harry is still Southern.

“I must have grits with my eggs, not hash browns,” she said. “And, of course, the tea must be sweet.”

The language and the accents are among the first things that non-Southerners notice, even within families.

Mills’ said that his children talk differently than he does. “They use more syllables than I do, which is fine, but it can be odd and disconcerting.”

A non-Southern acquaintance of Harry’s recently reported that her mother-in-law had congratulated her on her correct use of “fair-to-middling” and “hootenanny.”

Southern said that the first American settlement in Jamestown generated much of what sounds Southern today.

“The very word ‘plantation’ goes back to Jamestown,” Southern said. “Our accents, the way we talk, a lot of linguistics and dialects of the South can be traced back to Jamestown such as ‘might could.’

“A lot of the moonlight and magnolias mythos of the South can trace its roots back to the initial settling of the James River in Virginia and the Chesapeake Bay.”

The abundant diversity of the South will be part of the conversation Monday night.

“There are interesting moments when my daughter is on her karaoke machine singing ‘Dixie,’” Mills said.

He lives in the Washington Park area with Noelle, 12, Benjamin, 9, and his wife Danielle Tarmey, a sixth-grade teacher at the Arts Based School. To complicate things further, Tarmey is European — half British and half French.

“When we go out, we become the public face of adoption because people can immediately see that we all look different. As a result, we are constantly dealing with and interested in the idea of identity, race and geography.”

Living in the South has grown on them.

“We came in 1998 with the intention of staying for only a couple of years,” Mills said. “We stayed because we love it. We love our jobs. We love our neighborhood. We find ourselves in a community that was unexpected.”

And he apparently finds inspiration.

“The middle section of this book (“This Miraculous Turning”) deals with walking around with my children in Old Salem, not only looking at the graveyards but also the African-American experience.

“When you walk around with your children, it makes you see the world differently, and I think that happens regardless of region, race or identity.”