On Southernness

I’m Southern and proud to be so. That used to not be the case, as I would try hard to suppress the “y’alls” drawn out a little too far, and often chiming in when conversations about how “messed up the South is” came about. “They’re all so backwards! Everyone is stupid! They all marry each other anyway!” I would nod quickly and emphatically, to assure the people who now made up my New York life that I was not like this, I was different! I escaped all that and, like Eliza Doolittle or the Wayans brothers turning into ill -made-up white girls, I had shed that skin and become something else. Something more sophisticated and savvy, something that fooled folks into thinking that I was something completely different, when it was so obvious what lay below the surface.

Over the years, I have begun to gather more pride in my Southernness – Southernness, being like any other identity that one must define for one’s self, before someone else feels the entitlement to do it for you. I was ignorant to so much of what makes being Southern a source of pride and as each new bit of knowledge leaked out, I became more interested in the aspects of the culture that shaped me and also in the aspects of that culture that go unnoticed. The South has a tragic and incredible history and is most famously known for its violent and racist history of Jim Crow and slavery, things that most kids growing up there have embedded deep in their consciousness. The South is forever indebted to a history that is shameful and that still affects the present. There will always be folks who want to project their ideas about something onto it or you.  But the South, while guilty of many unforgivable offenses, is also a microcosm that reflects race relations, ignorance, and privilege that exist at large in our country. For every time I hear someone in New York tell me how bad the racism in South is, I hear them turn around and talk about the “damn Puerto Ricans” in their damn neighborhood. A guilty party, yes, but also a larger mirror of the rest of the guilty party that is our country.

To me, being Southern means a lot of things, and Confederate flags, Representative Bobby Franklin, and the Bible Belt are not part of them. Being Southern is a source of pride as much as it is a source of great sadness. But being Southern, as represented in the world, is to be a mid-50s to 60s white male, highly self-righteous, and often disrespectful and dismissive of women, LBGTs, people of color, and religious ideologies that are not their to be claimed as their own. Being Southern as represented to the world is to be prideful in your ignorance, to shame with religion, to distrust education and intelligence and to above all, to represent the collective problems of America in one extreme grouping of states. Representative Franklin, Jim Crow, White Power Chapter groups, and religious politicians gone buck-wild are part of the South, as is a long, twisted history of oppression, civil rights violations, segregation, homophobia, religious persecution, OWMS (old white man syndrome), etc. These things are the concrete cornerstones on what makes up the South’s long and difficult history. Being Southern does not mean your identity is represented in these “values,” but it does mean there is a responsibility to expose them and fight against them.

When I speak of Southern pride, I speak of a culture that is not one, but of a thousand: our food is African-American, our rivers and streets are Native American, our religion is Greek Orthodox and Judaism, our architecture is French, our cities were built with the backs of African-American, Minorcan, Turkish, Pakistini, and Chinese immigrants. I speak of Julian Bond, Sidney Lanier, Elijah Muhammad, Howard Zinn, Alice Walker, Martin Luther King, and Jimmy Carter. I speak of my own hometown, Savannah, that was originally founded and run by a Yamacraw chief and a British debtor, both who lobbied heavily together against slavery and for better legal rights of the surrounding southern tribes. I speak of people who have helped the South take small baby steps towards the betterment of people who were treated as sub-human. I do not think of Margaret Mitchell. I do not think of Gone With The Wind. There is too much that is worth knowing besides the glamorized antebellum aesthetic and cheap southern frills like Paula Deen and her phony accent (readers, we do not talk like that). There is so much that is in the blood of being Southern and it is murky and it is light.

Bobby Franklin (R- GA) has been representing the South in the news as of lately, with his rhetoric of rape victims as “accusers,” miscarriages as potential murder cases and Supreme Court decisions not affecting the state of Georgia. Many other politicians like him seem bent on tarnishing the already not-so-polished reputation of Southerners. To give you a little background, Franklin is originally from Cumming, GA, which holds one of the fastest growing KKK chapters in America. He graduated from Covenant College in Lookout Mountain, Ga., where he received a degree in Biblical Studies and Business Administration. Lookout Mountain is another highly religious town where the melding of religion and chapters of the KKK intertwine and where “hate crime “ statistics are at a whopping zero. Make of this what you will. Extreme is a polite word. Asshat would be my personal term. Ignorance, I feel, best defines the situation. This extreme behavior often overrides the good that comes with Southern culture, in the name of someone’s idea of normalcy. In the same vein of people arguing about how they  “miss their America and want their America back,” so goes the phrasing of “The good ole South, the South will rise again.” Oh, really. Whose South are you talking about?

“The good ole South” is a culture that is bled through with the very presence that so many politicians are trying to drive further into poverty and desperately silenced powerlessness. The good ole South is a place where if you look a step deeper than the obvious, is a culture that is so much more than the representation of holy rollers and bleached blonde hair – a place that despite its deep historical faults and the continuing present ones, is one that I am intertwined with – something I never expected to happen. I think James Baldwin might have said it best, as written below, of what happens when you try to explain the love you have for a place that has so much baggage, so much history and so much pain. Whether it is yours personally or one that emanates culturally like a desperate echo, it is something that can be loved and can be criticized all in the same breath.

I love America more than any other country in this world, and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually.” ““ James Baldwin




9 thoughts on “On Southernness”

  1. As somebody who currently lives in the south (Georgia) but isn’t from The South (although I did grow up in one of the southernmost cities in the U.S.) I often say that Americans should spend at least a few years living in the south.

    When you have to live your life here, you have to learn to see beyond the caricature. I think it makes you sharper and more aware of the mix of good and bad that exists in every region of the U.S.

  2. Exactly.

    As a North Carolina expat, this article expresses nearly everything that I feel about my complicated relationship with my Southern roots.

    I’ll add that now that I live abroad, I’m making a more concentrated effort to show to my friends the less-explored things that make Southern culture richer than our reputation for racism and religious zealotry: shrimp n’ grits, sweet tea and cornbread; shake-you-to-your-core gospel music; the writings of Clyde Edgerton or of (honorary Carolinian) Carl Sandburg; the timelessness of Nnenna Freelon and Patsy Cline; the splendor that is Tar Heel basketball! I know this is all so romanticized, but for so long I ignored my Southernness and prided myself on my “neutral” American accent and “modern” indie music tastes. Now I just hope I can make up for it and reclaim (with a critical eye, of course) that which I eschewed for so long.

    On another note, I’m happy to report that I’m teaching my North African S.O. to adopt the use of “y’all” and “I’m fixin’ to”.

  3. Oh I love that you wrote this. I get so upset at all the Southern stereotypes put upon us. So many people look down on Southerners, then turn around and do the same thing they accuse our states of doing! I lived up north for a while and witnessed this hypocrisy, my first taste of the Southern bias. It’s made me fight more to have people see past the Southern stereotypes.
    The worst part is when people from the South carry those stereotypes and and say yes, this is what the South is about.

  4. Thank you for writing this. I’m not truly a southern girl, but my mom’s family has deep southern roots and I never know how I’m supposed to feel about that because romanticizing the south always carries the risk of romanticizing its failures.

  5. Born and raised Georgian here – I hail from Athens. Great article. When I lived overseas I was disheartened at just how much of a cliche reputation the South has. I was constantly asked about the KKK, the Civil War, and why my accent wasn’t more pronounced. Nobody ever wanted to know about Martin Luther King, the poetry of Sidney Lanier or the Creek Indians that named just about everything in my environment. It’s sad.

    Though I do have to point out that I have relatives who talk exactly like Paula Deen, y’all.

  6. Lovely article. I was born and raised in Birmingham, and definitely took a long time to come to terms with my roots.

    When I lived in California, I heard all about how racist and backwards the south is, but I found the same amount of crap there- it was just hidden better. That came to be one of the things I can appreciate about the south- all the good and the bad is close to the surface.

  7. Thanks so much for this! I grew up in the South and lived there until I was 18, when I moved away for college. Similarly to the author, I used to pretend I wasn’t southern when I was in college because I thought people would think that I was stupid, uneducated, and/or racist, and I already felt insecure about being at an elite private school. I would feel so proud when people would be surprised that I was from the south because I didn’t have much of an accent (and oh, how I worked on not having an accent)! Now I’m happy that I grew up in the south because it is a part of who I am. And these days I quite enjoy calling my fellow academics & lefties out on their kneejerk anti-southern prejudices rather than remaining silent.

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