In the spirit of full disclosure let me begin by revealing myself as a Yankee. I moved from Maine to North Caroline 15 years ago. We lived in Charlotte for most of those years but five years ago we moved to a Georgia college town that I never want to leave. I admit that I arrived with a whole slew of ideas about Southerners. But over the years, I’ve quickly learned that most of what I thought was pretty much wrong. Like many stereotypes, the ones of the South sting and they often perpetuate damaging ideas and images.
The South is racist.
I’m jumping right into the big one. When I first thought about moving South, I imagined the KKK riding horses through the downtowns. I’ll grant it was unreasonable fear since the South does have an inordinate number of hate groups. Being part of a biracial family made me acutely aware that living among those who actively promoted hate against my husband could be dangerous. I won’t lie. We did face a few racist moments. My husband has been told to go back to Mexico once. A coworker called him a racial slur. He is stopped more than I am for traffic violations. But these same things happen to us when we visit the North.
Racism exists everywhere. Pretending it only exists in the South lets a lot of white Northerners off the hook when it comes to taking responsibility for their own privilege. For me, being in the South opened a whole new window onto diversity. I considered myself nonracist but being in the South made me do some painful self-examination. I carried a lot of assumptions about race that I never had to confront until I actually lived among people of color. Being in Maine, one of the whitest states in the Union insulated me from real conversations about racial experience in this country. Living among people whose very ancestors came to this country enslaved, people who fought on the front lines of the Civil Rights movement, people who came to this country crossing dangerous desserts, people whose religion marked them as other, propelled me into deeper conversations about race then I’d ever had before. And a big chunk of the white people I’ve met also have had these moments. Race is a constant here in the South and that’s a good thing.
Southerners are white.
Directly related to the racist stereotype is the assumption that the majority of Southerners are white. I’ve had friends say to me, “I don’t know why African Americans would even want to live in the South.” Funny thing is that a lot of African Americans do live here. The South holds eight of the top cities with African American populations. In fact, African Americans are moving back South in great numbers.
But it’s not just a black/white scenario. Having come from Maine, I was pleasantly surprised to discover a multicultural world in Charlotte. Some of it was likely that I lived in a world class city (we do have those in the South) but I find that there’s a lot of diversity in the town I live in currently. I have friends from all over the world. I can dine on cuisine from Africa one night and Indian the next. We have a tienda just a couple of blocks from my house. With several major universities, the South brings in people from all over the world. In addition, immigration patterns make the Hispanic population one of the fastest growing minority groups.
All Southerners are ignorant.
What’s in an accent? Apparently quite a bit if my experience holds true. Coming from rural Maine, I possessed the distinctive Mainah accent mimicked in shows like “Murder She Wrote.” When I moved to New York for a time, my new friends delighted in making me say things like “car” pronounced “cah” by me. I quickly recognized the condensation in their snickers. No one believed I loved Russian literature or had read classic American literature. My accent marked me as ignorant and uneducated. This happens to Southerners as well. I’ve witnessed Northerners chuckling over someone’s “quaint” accent or even mocking them with exaggerated drawls. Studies have shown that people do find the Southern accent ignorant. But it’s just an accent and funnily enough I don’t encounter it as often as you might think. Oh sure there are people with strong drawls, but that doesn’t always mean they’re uneducated or ignorant.
And if you’re tempted to say “Well that’s just the accent” don’t forget the South has an impressive number of good public universities: University of Georgia, University of North Carolina, Ole Miss. And the number of smaller colleges and community colleges impresses me all the time. Some of the greatest writers in American history come from the South: Alice Walker, Flannery O’Connor, William Faulkner, Mark Twain, Ralph Ellison. Any night of the week, I can find a lecture or reading to attend. I’ve not suffered from intellectual engagement.
More Radical Reads: Living Inside the Contradictions: Whiteness and Racism
The South is filled “Hillbillies” and “rednecks.”
I used to laugh at Saturday Night Live’s Appalachian Emergency Room but I’ve come to see it differently over time. There’s an inherent classism in mocking poor white people especially poor white Southern people. In a time where racial hatred is stoked by political candidates, it’s become a dangerous sport. I’d argue that it does structural power good to keep poor people divided, and I see that often in liberal rhetoric against “rednecks.” The reality of poor white Southerners is harsh and cruel. Mocking them does little to advance a liberal agenda that might actually make life better for these people. What this kind of mockery does is instead push away potential allies.
Yes there is a white culture that embraces NASCAR and country music. But that culture exists everywhere. I didn’t find it odd to encounter people who hunt and fish because my family hunts and fishes. I grew up listening to Johnny Cash and riding in the back of pickup trucks. In Maine. But like many people I’ve met in Maine, dismissing these people as ignorant or conservative, is not always a correct assumption. I’ve met plenty of wild bearded Southern men who were just as liberal as I.
All Southern food is fried or covered in gravy.
Hush puppies were hands down one the best food discoveries since moving South along with biscuits and fried green tomatoes. But there are other Southern delicacies to be offered. Seafood is huge in the South from New Orleans Gumbo to Gullah low-country dishes like the crab. As a vegetarian, I dine on fine vegetables dishes prepared without a bit of pork fat. Southern food ranges from fried to whole food. And it’s all pretty delicious.
What I love about Southern food is the range from new chefs like Hugh Acheson who reinvents while paying close attention to tradition of Southern foods and the old style BBQ joints that use recipes passed down from great grandparents and beyond. In addition, Southern food has history. Michael Twitty writes about this at Afroculinaria which explores food in the American African Diaspora. His work traces back Southern dishes to their slave roots and works with others to rewrite the history of African influence on Southern food. Food is a big thing here in the South. It’s in the history and in the social fabric of life. People love to eat and it’s a wonderful thing to discover.
The Civil War is the only history Southerners care about.
A college friend had a bumper sticker that said “You lost the Civil War, get over it.” Like many Northerners I assumed that the South obsessed over the Civil War. This wasn’t a hard thing to see when looking at books like Gone With the Wind. Over the course of time I have met some Southerners who do seem to be pretty stuck on the Civil War but I’ve also discovered there are other histories that matter just as much if not more. It began when I first taught a Civil Right’s literature unit in my high school class. Many of my students had grandparents who were on the front lines of the movement. In fact, Charlotte, North Carolina held many of the now famous sit-ins at drug store food counters.
While not all the history is pleasant, it is a history that must be remembered and ultimately one for which we need to atone. I’ve been struck as I never was in the North by the pall of slavery hanging over the landscape. The first time I drove by a cotton field in the middle of July felt like a slap. Hearing slave cabins on a historical plantation called “servant’s quarters” made me see the importance of not literally white washing history. After doing some work marking slave graves which are often unmarked, I learned that a lot of people were working hard to ensure that slave lives be remembered. The Slave Dwelling Project is one such organization working to preserve both the physical slave quarters but also the stories attached to these dwellings. The history of the South is also about struggle and victory as seen in the Martin Luther King Jr. Center and the Civil Rights Museum both located in Atlanta, Georgia. When I walk through Atlanta and see a giant mural of Martin Luther King, Jr. I’m reminded that the fight continues.
Everyone in the South is Christian.
There are a lot of churches in the South. Just take a quick peek through the yellow pages and you’ll find hundreds of listings. The first question many people ask upon meeting you is, “Do you have a church family?” Thus when we began to home-school I feared finding secular social outlets. At first all my searches brought up Christian groups. Lots of them. But finally I found a secular group and then another one. In all the secular groups, we’ve since joined, we’ve meet Neopagans, Druids, New Agers, Southern Baptists, Buddhists, Unitarians Universalists, and Atheists. We had friends now who are Muslim and Jewish. We’ve visited a beautiful Hindu Temple in Lilburn, Georgia and a mosque in Charlotte, NC.
More Radical Reads: “There’s No Place Like Home:” Why I Refuse To Leave the South
The South is Not Progressive.
This might seem a bad way to end in the light of recent anti-LGBT laws passed in North Carolina and proposed in Kentucky. Even with Georgia’s Governor Deal boycotting a similar law in Georgia, the reason seemed clearly influenced by economic reasons as opposed to genuine interest in human rights. In fact, the South seems bent on stomping on the rights of women and LGBT people. It can be discouraging for those of us who are progressive, especially when the rest of the country suggests just walling us off.
And while I could point to how other states have done similar things (California’s Proposition 8 for example), I’ll instead hold up the example of some local groups in my town pushing forth a progressive agenda. When I moved here, I had ceased being the activist I’d been as a college student. I’ll admit to feeling cynical and discouraged. One day while doing some work at a café, I overheard a group setting up the platform for a young man running for mayor. It was an exciting platform that aimed to help those living in poverty as well as pushing for minority rights across the board. I joined the campaign. He didn’t win but he did inspire a group now called Athens for Everyone that works alongside other groups to put pressure on local government for things like Sunday bus lines and a living wage. I’ve marched with this group beside members of the NACCAP in protest of police violence. They were worked with the Latin American coalition to hold memorial services for missing students in Mexico. In addition, Athens is the home of Freedom University which fights for undocumented students to get the education they deserve. Freedom U does more than offer courses to these students; it empowers them to fight back against discriminatory laws.
But what else would you expect from the land that came up with the ultimate inclusionary pronoun? I hope ya’ll have some new ideas about the Southern states.