An interesting question came up in the first week of the Chattanooga trio’s time in Morgantown: Is West Virginia a Southern state or not?
Yup—the issue of regional and cultural identity is apparently right on up there with concerns of church and political preferences here. That in and of itself seems to settle the question already, but let me elaborate.
I was enjoying college town specials—12-inch pizzas magically become $5 on Wednesdays—and talking to new friends. A few of the young women in the group attended West Virginia University, my current place of study, and one was surprised to hear that another graduate student and I were from Georgia and Tennessee.
She referred to that as "the South."
I was perplexed. Weren’t we still in the South? She hesitated and gave me a politely disagreeing look—an often-seen demonstration of Southern manners when a controversial topic of conversation surfaces.
For full disclosure, this young woman is from southern West Virginia, her first name is two words—the second being "Jo"—and she was sipping a Budweiser Lime-A-Rita and speaking with a detectable drawl.
Just for giggles, though, let’s explore this idea of West Virginia as displaced in its statehood identity.
I have always assumed the Mountain State was included in the family of Southern states—a border state, to be sure, but within the family. It’s always grouped into the swath of Appalachia America—hillbilly Appalachia, to be exact.
There are the more superficial signifiers, such as the pervasive camouflage apparel and the religious proclamations that "Christ is the only choice" decorating local churches.
West Virginia syncs up with other Southern states in national rankings, including high poverty levels, poor health and the lowest percentage of state residents who are college graduates.
There is also the indulgent and odd, but strangely wonderful, food tradition of pepperoni rolls. More on that soon.
Exhibit D: The 2009 documentary titled "The Wild and Wonderful Whites of West Virginia."
The film profiles the White family, formerly headed by patriarch Donald Ray White, who, before being shot in the chest with a 12-gauge by a fellow Boone County resident, was a moderately famous mountain dancer.
The recent documentary plays out like a train wreck of a continuingly crumbling family with members in and out of rehab, jail and backwoods brawls—but with enough time to provide asides that explain certain tenants of Boone County life.
What’s the local mating call? The simple rattle and shake of a prescription pill bottle.
And let’s not forget that snake handling—a practice actually begun just up the road from Chattanooga in Cleveland, when George Went Hensley looked to pair serpents with salvation in the Church of God in 1910—is 100 percent legal in West Virginia. Most states in which snake handling was frequent have expressly outlawed the custom.
There is, of course, the issue of the Mountain State’s formation and brief allegiance with the Union during the Civil War. West Virginia officially became a state in 1863 after a two-year-long process in which the Restored Government of Virginia—the West Virginians of the Wheeling Convention—sought to divorce their counties from the richer Confederates of Virginia proper.
I’m inclined to characterize this less as a move to unify with the abolition-oriented North and more an action motivated by economic disparity between the two Virginias, as well as a clear exercise of states' rights as defined by the Confederate State of America.
Sounds very much in the spirit of Southern succession and an easy tie-in, were the history retold in the oral tradition.
But perhaps I should bring it down to the basics and the American temple of mass consumption: Walmart.
Sure, I patronize Walmart. We all do. The company reported $67.35 billion in U.S. division profits for the second quarter of 2012.
We also, however, by general national consensus seem to have designated Walmart as a safe zone for when an individual has unilaterally given up on being a real person.
Not wearing actual pieces of clothing? No problem. Haven’t bathed recently or ever? Not an issue. Intent on derailing the local educational system through poor parenting? No worries. Falling beyond the pale in terms of general composure? Completely acceptable.
Walking into the Walmart in Morgantown for the first time was like being transported back to Tennessee. Not only was the store’s layout identical, the shoppers mirrored the same range of togetherness to slovenliness, the same level of obesity, and the same frequency of ‘Merica apparel and leggings standing in for pants.
The icing on the cake appeared in a bumper sticker I spotted in the parking lot that read, "God, Guns, Country." The red Chevrolet Cavalier was also decorated with additional stickers, including one of the comic book character Calvin urinating on Obamacare.
Ah, yes—a few very familiar tenants of Southern states: the right to religion, the right to bear arms, the right to vote red and the right to love one's country. Perhaps in West Virginia, it’s a rougher strain than the brand displayed in the genteel pages of Southern Living, but it’s Southern, nonetheless.
As a disclaimer, I do not intend to level the charge that gun ownership, obesity, disrespect for Barack Obama, poverty, lack of education, family dysfunction or adherence to dangerous religious practices are exclusively Southern. Those societal and cultural issues pervade all 50 states in one form or another.
What I am interested in addressing is Miss Southern West Virginia’s suggestion that the state was not "the South" first by attending to the humorous similarities that clearly exist and second by preliminarily considering the larger, persistent question of Southern identity.
There is no realistic way to broach the uncertainty in a single column, except to say that on top of the comedy, there is no other region in the U.S. so assured and yet so puzzled over its own definition.
So, wild and wonderful West Virginia—South or not South?
South, by God.
Because Charlie Barley Behringer could not simply disappear from Nooga.com, Mountain to Mountain will follow her and her mother's adventures, dispatch-style, in Morgantown as they tackle graduate school, first-year teaching and living in West by-God Virginia.