Thursday, August 2, 2007

Going South - In search of Southern culture

Albemarle Life Editor

The Daily Advance, Elizabeth City, NC

Sunday, July 22, 2007

(article also in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution @issue opinion section - July 22, 2007)

There are few things that have perplexed me so much as Southern culture. As a child growing up between Los Angeles and Little Rock, Ark., I was pretty aware of my family's roots, but hadn't fully understood what it meant, if anything, to be Southern.

As I grew older I became increasingly aware of the negative connotations of my Southern heritage when I was enrolled into Little Rock Central High School in the middle of my sophomore year.

It was then that I learned of my grandfather's role as a proponent of segregation during the 1957 integration of Little Rock Central High School. He was on the school board and was an ally of the oft-reviled Gov. Orval Faubus' attempt to keep public schools segregated.

As I prepared to enter the school after years of living on the West Coast, my mother explained the history to me, concerned that I might find animosity thrown my way because of my grandfather. I got just the opposite.

Older teachers who remembered my grandfather praised his role. They would quietly pull me aside and offer me props for being his grandson.

I became increasingly uncomfortable over my grandfather's legacy. I was never exposed to racism on this level and definitely did not share the views that white Southerners held during the 1950s.

I began to develop distaste for what I saw as Southern culture at its worst. I was ready to throw the baby out with the bathwater and leave this Southern home behind me, for good.

But that would have been shortsighted of me, to be certain. Because, as I would learn over the years, Southern culture is a rich tableau that is drawn from many sources, pulled together to weave not only regional peculiarities, but a sort of odd nationalism that can only be found within the boundaries of Southern states.

North Carolina journalist and writer C. J. Cash wrote that the South is "not quite a nation but the next thing to it." It is a place intertwined with its history, for better and worse, and constantly struggling to establish its place in an ever-changing world.

Over the years I ran from the South, swearing I would never live within its borders again. I was, by my own admission, a Southern expatriate. But things change and, now of course, I live in North Carolina; a place where my father's people first arrived, next to Virginia, where my mother's people settled before moving west to settle Mississippi and Arkansas.

Through the years I have pondered what it means to be Southern and what is Southern culture. I love the food found throughout the varied regions of the South. And the music, be it blues or mountain music, takes me to the different landscapes found throughout the region, leaving with me a sense of place that I can't exactly put my finger on, but cherish just the same.

Many friends who hail from outside the South have asked me what the deal is with the South and Southerners. From the notion of Southern hospitality, to religious conservatism, to fried food or our variety of Southern drawls, people seem bemused by Southernness.

"I don't know," I answer them. "I guess you just have to be Southern to appreciate it." Yet, for myself, I needed have more understanding of what it is I appreciate.

On my search I decided to turn to two scholars whose life work is dedicated to studying all things Southern. I put some questions to them, and while I feel like I know a little more about the South, I'm not sure I can answer what it means to be Southern any more than I could pin down Southern culture in a paragraph.

"There is not a single Southern culture, ever," says Harry Watson, Ph.D., director of The Southern Studies Center at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. "There's black culture, white culture, mountain culture, NASCAR culture, country club culture and so on."

Watson says that, according to the preface in the "Encyclopedia of Southern Culture," Southern culture is defined as any place where Southern culture exists. It's a pretty broad definition, but then so is Southern culture.

For example, in Arkansas, along the Mississippi Delta town of Helena, the blues was born. Across the way in Memphis, a blues-hybrid we call rock and roll emerged while down in the Bayou country of New Orleans, Jazz made itself a household name. And all of those music forms, given to us through black Southern culture, carry with it so much history and subsequent culture that it's hard to lump the whole thing in one neat definition.

"I think it's just as convenient to say that Southern culture is a culture that is practiced by people who call themselves Southerners," says Watson.

Tara Powell, Ph.D. is an assistant professor of English and Southern Studies at the University of South Carolina. While growing up here, in Elizabeth City, Powell says she was attached to her Southern heritage in such a way that she wanted to intimately understand as much of it as possible.

That set her on a course of academic study years ago, focusing, in part, on one question: What does it mean to be Southern?

"It's a lot more complicated than I hoped it was," says Powell. "It's no longer necessarily tied in the way it used to be: whether you had family in the Confederacy."

Ah, the Confederacy. The South has the distinction of seceding from the union of states and establishing its own government, throwing itself into the Civil War.

A few diehard Southerners refer to that as the "War of Northern aggression" because Union troops fired the first shots at Fort Sumter, S.C. Southern states, however, had been threatening to pull out for some time.

The South's bid for independence was lost, of course, and a great deal changed during the subsequent period of Reconstruction and martial law throughout the Southern states.

It was that dark history of the South that gave birth to a sort of melancholy known in the literary world as "Southern Gothic." Proponents of that style of literature are numerous, led by the likes of William Faulkner and Flannery O'Connor.

Powell points out that Southern Gothic literature was based largely on a "love, hate relationship" with the South. And that is something I can identify with, hands down. It's part guilt, part love of one's land and part desire to examine where it is we come from and where we are going as a people.

The South's history of slavery and the racially motivated brutalism during the last half of the 19th century, into the 20th century, made it difficult for me to accept the South as anything other than a place I didn't want to be. It was that dark side of this Southern question that largely kept me at bay.

Powell says in her classrooms she finds the legacy of the South's past is something her students — most of whom are Southerners — don't want to broach.

"White students might have some guilt or shame," Powell says. "Sometimes their families were transplanted here in the 1950s and they say 'what do we have to do with this history?' Black students have a range of reasons why they don't want to talk about the South's history."

But Powell makes an interesting point about the South's dark past. From that suffering, she says, comes "a lot of richness."

"I don't defend the negative past but there is a lot of wealth there to mine in terms of figuring out how to be human and humane."

That wealth can be found, in part, through a unique mixture of personalities and ideas that seem to permeate in and out of not only Southern, but also popular culture.

Rupert Vance, once a sociologist at UNC, noted that the South is unique because, in many ways, it has not been assimilated into the mass culture that surrounds it. It has, in many ways, maintained a unique personality.

But, as Powell observes, even that personality is changing. Whether it's immigration and the introduction of new cultures, or economics, with the steady disappearance of tobacco culture, many of the unique qualities of the South are changing.

"The South is no longer as distinct as it once was," says Powell. "I think it would be a long time before I would have any sense the South would be just like everywhere else, though. Still, the foods we eat, the way we interact and the way the climate affects the way we live, those things change."

And even the oft-celebrated genre of Southern literature is changing, reflecting an evolving Southern culture. Powell says many Southern writers are looking at the South in ways other than its history. The Southern experience is now being viewed through Southern Jewish eyes, Asian eyes and even Hispanic eyes.

"Being more than white males exploring their guilt over class and racial history of the South," she says.

So does all that pin down Southern culture? Not exactly. I haven't even touched Coca Cola, Pepsi, the barbecue wars, rednecks or "Gone with the Wind."

And it's just as well because, as a colleague pointed out, this subject might well require a book. In the meantime, I'll take my 'cue with spicy, tomato-based sauce and dry slaw and I'll choose delta over Chicago blues just about any day. And I do prefer Coke to Pepsi.