Write what you know, right? Ok then.
Being a Southerner in a major city has made me acutely aware of what I appreciate about my heritage, and those qualities I loathe about it. When I moved to the DC metro area 5 years ago, folks knew immediately that I wasn’t from around here. I learned quickly that the ease of my smile was welcomed precisely because warmth is an unfamiliar character trait around these parts. Likewise, the first time I visited New York a few years ago, I thanked a man for information and he called me back over to where he was standing to ask where I was from. When I told him I hailed from the great state of Alabama, he said to his comrades, “Told ya she wasn’t from here.” I definitely took that as a compliment.
Moments like these provide great perspective. Because to Yankees, southern hospitality represents a kind of charm and grace that you just don’t get everywhere. We say “please” and “thank you” and “ma’am” because somebody somewhere along the way told us that that’s how decent people treat people decently. And although my Southern sensibilities allow me to trust first, I don’t do so blinded by naiveté. It doesn’t hurt me to give the benefit of the doubt. But I keep my eyes peeled, just in case cats are in the business of mistaking kindness for weakness. My armor has always been my earnestness. And now that I’ve had the chance to experience being Southern from the outside looking in, I’ll shred my usual diplomacy for what my parents called “constructive criticism.” Dear Dixie, I’m only telling you what I see because ultimately, I still love you.
At any rate, what I see most often is a purposeful acceptance of ignorance that flows as mightily as the Mississippi. Sure, there’s some up North too, but Yankee know-nothings are more frequently confronted with the manifestations of their ignorance. It’s more difficult to degrade a person or a group of persons when you have to interact with them on a basic ass level everyday. It’s difficult to assume that all Arab-looking people are terrorists when one has invited you to his family’s home to celebrate a special occasion. It’s more difficult to conclude that all Spanish-speaking people are “Mexican” when you work with a gang of Guatemalans … maybe I shouldn’t say “gang”, but you get my meaning. It’s easy and cowardly to be against something that you don’t already know or understand.
Yet, not understanding and/or not knowing is never the ultimate offense; life is an exercise in learning and practice and refinement. The true crime lies in the South’s prideful incredulity about change and progress. There’s an undercurrent of “this is how we do it down here; this is how we’ve always done it; this is how we’ll always do it.” The former governor of Alabama echoed a similar refrain in 1963. George Wallace stood in the doorway of the University of Alabama blocking the path of progress, both literally and figuratively, for Black Americans and for Southerners. I imagine that Wallace hoped to prevent Black students from integrating the University of Alabama, and White social psyches by proxy. Because it’s difficult to perpetuate the “lazy,” “stupid” narrative about Blacks when they sit right beside you in Chemistry class — when they have the same opportunity as you to succeed just as much as you. As soon as just one of “them” graduates with honors and just one of “y’all” doesn’t, then the superiority card you’ve grown so comfortable toting around, has a hole in it. So does your superiority narrative. And so does everything you’ve always known.
The isms — racism, sexism, gayism, anti-elitism — these are but one aspect of the issue. I mentioned decency earlier, and I believe that’s the common delusion about southern hospitatlity. It’s not unconditional — you get it unless and until who you are is something different from what they (the powers that be, whoever they may be) have determined is “normal,” and therefore acceptable.
Remember when South Carolina wanted to adopt the confederate flag as it’s state flag? No? You’re right, that was a few years back. Remember, then, when the Governor of Virginia thought April would be ideal for a Confederate History Month? Oh and just last May, the Texas Board of Education cited “removing liberal bias” from its textbooks when it approved a measure to rename the Translantic Slave Trade the “Atlantic Triangular Trade.” Because the term “slave” is, you know, too touchy. Too closely associated with an acknowledgement that “the way we do things down here” may absolutely be fucked up.
The intolerance for difference in the South is a tradition, as is the comfort with not knowing and/or caring about what an amorphous “they” do wherever “they” are. The South will undoubtedly go kicking and screaming into the 21st century, and to its own peril, as it lags in virtually every indicator of intellectual, social, and cultural upward mobility. Yeah, there are pockets of progress, but Atlanta simply isn’t synonymous for Georgia, neither is Houston for Texas, nor Charlotte for North Carolina. Moreover, religion plays a huge role in this. It’s no secret that religiosity is higher in the South. Given that we tend to lend as much credibility to mysticism as we do to facts in the South, I’m not saying that religion causes simple-mindedness, but I’m confident that it contributes significantly to it.
If you’ll drift with me once more down memory lane, you’ll remember that Eddie Long and T.D. Jakes sure did lead Black folks to the George W. Bush promised land in 2004 after the latter’s fuck-ups were already quite clear. He supported banning gay marriage though. He wasn’t saying much about the dwindling prospects of middle- and lower middle class Americans, but that’s neither here nor there. At least he would ensure that “the gays” couldn’t marry. Unclouded by the the haze of religious rhetoric, folks might have seen that GDubs’ ideological perspective would also ensure that they couldn’t marry either — because the economy got fucked up while they marched in opposition to a matter that had absolutely no bearing on their own lives. On the contrary, if the gays got married, then Bishop Eddie Long’s wife could stop feeling some kinda way about why her husband’s nails are always shiny, and why he prefers those tight ass shirts, and why his hair is so…like that. He’s in the closet, honey. And his last ditch effort at suppressing the gay was marrying your ass.
I’ve been asked many times if I would ever move back, and the answer has always been no. While the sweet tea is still delicious, the accent minus that twang is still the most charming I’ve ever heard, and my Granny’s yard in April is still the most beautiful I’ll ever see, I can’t go back. I don’t begrudge anyone who has the courage to go back and fix what’s wrong with where we’re from. But, like all addicts, the first step is acknowledging that there is a problem. The challenge and triumph of diversity allows to you to see objectively. You’re able to measure who you are and what you think against something different. And while you may not always capitulate to the other side, at least the experience of meeting someone who looks, speaks, or thinks differently than you has opened you up some. It makes clear that how you do it, and how it’s always been done isn’t the only way to do it, nor is it always the right way.
Accepting that fact makes the South far more hospitable — to me anyway.