Earlier today I stumbled upon a debate being held over whether or not Ohio counted as part of the Midwest. While many of the people put forth serious arguments as to what counted as the Midwest, some of which I will summarize below as I make my own comments, it was clear that a few people were just trolling. As someone who was born in a neighboring state (Pennsylvania) and who lived in Ohio for a few months, I have perhaps a slight bias but not a very great one in favor of Ohio. For me, I am more interested in the complexities of identity and how to understand where someone belongs. As someone who has seldom fit on or belonged anywhere I tend to find such questions fascinating for the way that they reveal the issues we have in identity, which I will discuss in general some after discussing the particular case of Ohio and where it belongs.
Geographically, it is fairly obvious that the Midwest is not in the Middle of the country, given that the geographic and population balance of the country exists in the Great Plains states. A regional look at the United States that is worth its salt must realize that assigning states to regions in general is somewhat problematic. An obvious example of this is the state of Oregon, where I happen to live, and which has a very politically liberal identity west of the Cascades which it shares in common with Western Washington and coastal California, and a very conservative but not nearly as populous identity east of the Cascades, which it shares with Eastern Washington, most of Idaho and Utah and rural Nevada and so on. Pennsylvania, where I was born, has a similar divide between two big cities that are particularly leftist in Pittsburgh and Philadelphia and a remainder of the state, where I happen to be from, that is deeply conservative. And the same is true in Florida, where Northern Florida is clearly a southern state and southern Florida belongs more with the Caribbean or Latin America. These kinds of complex identities are not particularly uncommon, because of the stark political divide between town and country and because of the regional divide of demographics that exists within states and not only between them.
Among the arguments for Ohio belonging in the Midwest are the fact that the state generally views itself as part of the Midwest (for what it’s worth), the fact that it was a part of the Old Northwest along with many of the other states which are viewed as part of the Midwest (Michigan, Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin, and Minnesota), the fact that it uses the word “pop” to describe fizzy, carbonated beverages as opposed to cola, soda, or coke, which is a notable linguistic marker between American regions, and even the region’s political and economic history as being part of the rust belt. If Ohio is the most eastern of the Midwestern states, and part of its land was part of the colonial rivalry between Pennsylvania and Connecticut, it demonstrates that regional identity is frequently a matter of continuum more than sharp edges. The southern part of Ohio is not too dissimilar from the Upper South, which is a general tendency among much of the Midwest for the southern parts of the the states having been heavily populated by immigrants from Kentucky and Virginia, giving them a more Southern feel. To a certain extent this blend between different immigrant populations makes Missouri a suitable border state between the “upper South” and the Midwest, if by Midwest we mean some sort of not very New England or Middle Atlantic Northerners, which seems a fair definition to me.
Why does this sort of question matter? It seems pretty easy that regional identity would be something that rival and neighbor states would troll others over. People from Kentucky and Tennessee or Florida and Georgia or Texas and Louisiana or North Carolina and Virginia could very easily rag on each other about which state was southern and which was not, for example. Such competition often exists from neighbors who are close to each other and whose trolling and teasing is itself a sign that there is a mutual recognition that both are rivals but also neighbors. Identity when it comes to regional identity is somewhat complex because it can be decided differently on different grounds, at least when it comes to the borders. Regions can be determined by politics or culture or history or language or religion or geography, and each of these definitions may give a slightly different map as to what regions belong. Each region, moreover, will have its own core where the regional identity is strongest and periphery where one region will start to blend into another. And then of course there is the tricky matter of whether a given area calls itself by the same sorts of things that other people call it. Some regional names or identities may be a source of pride for some and a source of shame for others. To Southerners, for example, Northerners in general and not merely New Englanders or New Yorkers are considered “Yankees,” and to many in Latin America all people from the United States, including people from the Southeastern states, are called Yanquis, much to the chagrin of Southerners.
What makes identity tricky is the fact that it includes a wide variety of factors and meanings. We choose identity for ourselves, but at the same time our identity must be recognized by others, who have different standards than we do. Where an identity has a particularly high degree of status, far more people may claim an identity than is widely recogniced, and an identity that has a negative meaning may be pushed on people who might not want to take it for themselves. Moreover, there are often far more layers of identity than we are willing to tangle with at any given time, where others may look at an identity as being solid and uniform while those who belong to it may see various shades and gradations within that identity because of their greater closeness and knowledge of the region in question. Despite my own general lack of belonging when it comes to many matters of identity, I tend to find a great deal of fascination in the arguments raised in such issues, and I suppose I always will.