As someone who reads a lot about migrations and whose life has had a fair amount of migratory nature about it, I think it is worthwhile to explore the question of whether or not I am a southerner. Throughout the course of my life, there is no question that in the eyes of many people I have been viewed as such by others. My own personal identity in that regard has been rather complicated by my own personal background as well as my own strong degree of ambivalence about the South and my experiences growing up in the rural south as a child, but there is no question that wherever I have traveled since growing up in the South, I have been viewed by others as Southerner regardless of my own thoughts or opinions on the matter. And if I have seldom appreciated being considered a southerner, at the same time it is something that I can certainly readily understand, even if my own self-concept is far more nuanced and complex. So let us explore this question, with as much nuance as possible given the constraints of space and time here to do so.
I was born in Western Pennsylvania, not far from Pittsburgh, to a mother who had been born and mostly raised in the South and a father who was a farmer and a bus driver in a rural school district that is part of the Piedmont area of Northern Appalachia. The rural area in which my father’s family is from is widely considered (and not entirely inaccurately) to be part of the “Alabama” between Pittsburgh and Philadelphia and my own father’s family was strongly conservative, highly suspicious of government, and engaged in behavior that included high amounts of drinking, aggression, as well as the possession of stills. My father had spent time in West Virginia and Texas seeking his education and so there was no question about him being able to get along with Southerners even if he did not want to reside there permanently. At the age of three my mother left my father and took my brother and I with her, and I grew up with my mother and her parents in rural Central Florida. My uncle, who had been born and raised (mostly) in the South as well, lived there for a while until buying his own house, and he had a much less complicated view of himself as a Southern man who as a young man had participated in various Confederate flag-waving, “coon hunting” expeditions that expressed a strong degree of solidarity with his peers. As a northern-born child myself whose accent was Pittsburghese with a slight hint of my maternal grandmother’s Ontario dialect, I certainly did not seem like a Southerner to my own peers, and my fondness for excessive reading was also similarly out of place among those I grew up with. By the time I moved to Tampa as a teenager, though, I was certainly viewed as a southerner, if a relatively tolerant one in my dealings with others in the racially mixed area where my family moved to and among a similarly diverse group of high school students with whom I attended school.
Nevertheless, it was in my experiences outside of the South where my upbringing in the rural south tended to mark me as a Southerner to others I happened to be around with. Whether it was in Los Angeles, where some others would play “Dueling Banjos” from “Deliverance” as a way of expressing who they thought me to be, or other places I have traveled or resided, I have typically been seen as a Floridian and therefore as a Southerner, regardless of how complex a pattern of migrations my life has had. In Southern California I met the Florida requirement for the school of Engineering’s desire to have students from all over the US and other countries, in Cincinnati I was seen as a Southerner when I lived there, not too different from the border southerners that were around that area, and in the Pacific Northwest as well others have judged me to be a Southerner as well, if a somewhat eccentric one. It has indeed even been the subject of conversation with some people that I am not viewed at all as a Northerner despite having been born there, even though I do not talk like a Southerner, for which I have always been grateful. Despite a complete absence of fondness for the Confederacy and a high degree of ambivalence about the South given that I did not exactly fit in there very well, not that I am the sort of person who will fit in anywhere, it should be noted, other people have tended to view me as a straightforward case of a migrating southerner. Admittedly, my fondness for country music, my love of Southern food (and sweet tea, lots of sweet tea), and my right wing political views are not particularly unusual for southerners and do not hurt with the identification.
As far as the question of whether I count as a Southerner or not, that is a much more complex statement. For myself, I think of myself as an Appalachian first, a border Southerner who was born in the border North. My upbringing in the South was through a family that had spent at least three or four generations having lived in the border North or the border South in areas like New Jersey, Maryland, and South Florida, before my mother’s family in particular had put its roots down in the 1960’s in rural Central Florida, where I grew up. By Southern standards, these are hardly deep southern roots. Yet to those who are not from the South, it is not surprising that I would be seen as a southerner, if a somewhat odd one, since the places I have lived outside of the rural South have generally been places with a high degree of transience and mobility where people’s roots are not often very deep anyway. Los Angeles is a typical place of rootless and ambitious souls, and the same could be said of Oregon as well, and when I lived in Cincinnati it was among other students in religious education who tended to be uprooted from their own background as well, at least for a while. I happen to think my own regional identity and upbringing is sufficiently complicated that I am by no means a straightforward Southerner, but all the same I am not offended when others assume me to be so based on their knowledge of my travels.