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Summer 2000, Volume 18.0

Essay

 

David Huttophoto of David Hutto

The Southern Quandary of Being OK but Southern 

 


David Hutto was born and raised in the  south, and he currently teaches at Rowan University in Glassboro, New Jersey.  He has graduate degrees in both English and Russian, with a Ph.D. in rhetoric from Georgia State University.  His latest publication (in addition to
Weber Studies) is a forthcoming essay on visiting Moscow, in Humanities in the South.

 

When I was a boy near Gainesville, Georgia, we used to go to our Baptist church just down the road, a church my grandparents helped to found during some presumably bitter schism from another small Baptist church down the road in the other direction. My grandparents were farmers, and during the summer when the nights were long and warm, occasionally everyone who was present at church on Sunday night (definitely a more serious theological crowd than on Sunday morning) was invited out to my grandparents' house to eat watermelon. I still remember being out in the front yard, under the large pecan tree, eating pieces of watermelon on Sunday evenings. Does eating watermelon under that tree make me southern?

At about the same age, when I would talk to other boys during recess at the all-white school I attended, among the jokes that got told were regular instances of racist jokes directed at African Americans. Although I didn't particularly like those jokes, because of the way I was raised, I don't think I said much about it, either. And when my friends or classmates would make scurrilous remarks using language such as "coons" or "niggers," I think I was more likely to ignore the remark than condemn the racism. Does experiencing those attitudes in school, and my reaction to them, make me southern?

On my grandparent's small truck farm, the major crop was corn, and in addition to feeding the corn to various animals on the farm, they would also grind some of that golden corn into cornmeal, to make a cornbread so good that the very dishes on the table would talk about it for a day afterward. Every day at noon, my grandmother would come in from the field, hang her sun bonnet on a peg, and bake cornbread for dinner, the noon meal. As I got older and began to visit my other grandmother more often, I saw, though I didn't think much about it, that she also made cornbread frequently. Now that I am cast out into adulthood on my own, whenever my brothers and I all show up at my mother's house at the same time, among the foods she prepares is likely to be cornbread. I even bake cornbread myself at home from time to time. It isn't frequent, but I consider it a treat when I make it. Does eating cornbread make me southern?

Whatever particular things in my life that might be called characteristically southern, I always felt that I was southern, or at least from the South, which I believed would make me southern in other people's eyes (and clearly I was thinking of southern as something more than a geographical description). One of my most vivid memories on this topic was a conversation with a friend from high school just after I graduated. We were both intelligent and both felt ambitious in the vague sort of way you can afford to be when you're young. We knew we wanted to go somewhere and do something, and we both agreed that being southern was a definite drawback. For us at the time, the ultimate mark of cultural doom was the fact that we spoke with southern accents. We just had to get rid of them country ways of talkin'. Not long afterward, when I was at school in Ohio, my friend wrote me that we should never vote for any politician who had a southern accent. Though my friend didn't say so directly, I guess his idea, which I agreed with, was that a vote for a politician who talked that awful talk was an clear vote to maintain our feudal backwardness.

Before I tote that idea around front for y'all to get a good look at it, I want to begin with the idea of what being southern means. The word itself is geographical, and yet is Florida, our most southern state, actually a southern state? There is an attitude among residents from other southern states that Florida is OK for a fishing trip, good for a beach, but that it's really some kind of tourist/Disneyland/orange juice-sort of state, not southern at all. If this attitude is correct, then "southern" only appears to be a geographical term. For that matter, is Texas southern? Aren't they too much of a cowboy-burrito kind of culture to be a real southern state, no matter where they are on the map? The question of being southern, then, seems to be not a geographical but a cultural topic. Other than geography, what is southern culture? If a man from Birmingham choreographs his own ballet and hires dancers from the South to dance in it, is that "southern culture"? How many people think the phrase "southern ballet" sounds like an oxymoron? Or even without the word "culture," phrasing this the way we normally would, is that ballet "southern"? Obviously, it is, but is it perceived as southern? I would guess no, or at least not as an immediate instinct. As a cultural adjective, the term "southern" implies certain things; chief among those implied southern characteristics is a rural lifestyle. It has long been the case that the idea of southerness almost obligatorily meant rural. This is apparent when people refer to a southern accent (as southerners often do) as "country" talk; it is apparent with the association of country music (notice the name) with southern culture, and the fact that country music heavily plays up the rural imagery both in lyrics and in video images. Southern as a rural idea is also apparent in the blues, another musical form originating in the south, when the blues, particularly older blues, emphasizes rural images (for instance the metaphor "another mule been kickin' in my stall"). In addition to rural associations, the word "southern" implies traditional things derived from the early Scotch-Irish settlers and the African-Americans who have lived in this area for the last two to three hundred years. From those basic assumptions of southerness there follow certain things that southerners and others who know the South expect to find here: country music, certain types of rock music, particular foods (with some regional variations within the South), race relations indicating a sort of schizophrenic mix of oppression and tolerance, and a tenacious historical memory of selected events, especially those that supposedly show the South as a heroic victim (Civil War mythology is pretty obvious in this regard).

This question of what exactly is southern is not just something an academic might play with. Among the million or so babble rooms on the Internet, there is a chat group called Bubba-L, where devotees of southern something-or-other trade opinions. To tell the truth, I suspect that the boys working down at the auto parts store and the girls from the Saturn plant are not on the Bubba-L chat room in the evenings, since someone on the chat line made a joke using the Latin plurals "bubbi and bubbae," and that ain't very southern in my opinion. But among those who do inhabit cyber-bubba-world, one of the topics has to do with defining southerness. A test of southern identity from Bubba-L illustrated what I'm talking about, declaring that you can't be a good southerner unless you (1) know the value and meaning of a "yankee dime", (2) have barbequed a goat, (3) have had your head checked for ticks, (4) have at least three different pecan pie recipes. Although I fail on all counts (I never even heard of barbequeing a goat in the South), this short test consists of knowing some of the language, eating certain foods, and engaging in activities associated with a rural lifestyle. In other words, this little test embodies some of the underlying ideas of what is believed to be the basis of southern culture. In addition to the Bubba-L chat group, the Internet revolution has piggybacked southern culture into world-wide access in other ways. In the new genre of e-mail joke lists, as I was preparing this presentation, I received an email list (from someone who did not know I was doing this) with still another test of southerness. One of the originators of the test added the statement "One Yankee in my office only mustered a 2 or 3, whereas the natives typically score around 20+." (I took the test and got 11 correct.) Among the questions are references to modern entertainments: "What was the number and color of Richard Petty's cars?"; "Where did Herschel Walker play college football?"; and "Who was Andy Taylor's love interest?" There was also a heapin' helpin' of questions clearly derived from rural life: "After boiling peanuts for an hour, what have you?"; "What is a scuppernong?"; "What do you call the offspring of a mule?"

If we have tests of knowledge, even as jokes, to find out who is southern, then it is clear that many people feel southerness is not determined just by geography, and even the Encyclopedia of Southern Culture says, "The Encyclopedia's definition of `the South' is a cultural one" (xv). So if being southern is a cultural idea, and if that cultural idea is very much based on rural life and on Scotch-Irish and African-American cultures, how do southerners feel about being southern? I would suggest that the attitudes my friend and I held after high school, which I think were really ambivalent more than completely negative, are attitudes that are not rare for southerners. For my friend and I the accent was the visible marker of our questionable regional origin, and I maintain that that same concern about dialect is alive and well even in the enlightened age we live in. An entry in the Encyclopedia of Southern Culture says of this: "For better or for worse, the way that southerners use the language is often noticed first by non-southerners and draws the most comment from them" (761). I can offer two bits of evidence for southern sensitivity to this fact. I teach freshman writing classes in which I try to educate my students to be more tolerant of dialect variations in the English language. I use my own experience and dialect as illustrations, and sometimes a student from the South will follow my lead and talk about their own background. During those talks, I have more than once heard a student say something like "My mama has a real bad accent." Why is the adjective "bad" used to mean "distinctively noticeable" describing the accent? It's that attitude that I once held myself, that sounding like you're from the South is clearly not a good idea. It isn't only insecure young people who feel this way. A few months ago on National Public Radio there was a reference to a language school in Los Angeles that helped Spanish speakers to decrease or lose their Spanish accent in English. It was mentioned that the school would also help to get rid of other undesireable ways of speaking, and a southern accent was specifically mentioned. Is a southern accent the same as speaking with the accent of a foreign language? Is the South another country from the United States? Back in the 1930s, a northern journalist, Carl Carmer, commented on his experience in the South by writing, "The Congo is not more different from Massachusetts or Kansas or California" (Griffin 10). I'll also quote again from the Bubba-L chat line. Someone wrote: "What worries me is that for the most part there aren't pockets of expatriate southerners and southern culture in Yankee cities and other foreign places…" Notice the word "expatriate" and the phrase "other foreign places." If even people from the South act as if the region is a separate country from the rest of the United States, we lose part of our right to complain when people from other areas take the same attitude.

I assume that people all over the United States, however, do not have to deal with similar pride/shame attitudes toward their own regions, that a feeling of inferiority is not a regular part of cultural discussions about other regions. It's a little mystifying that we carry these hangdog expressions when the South has so many good things about it. The phrase "southern hospitality" has long been taken as a symbol of southern politeness and generous treatment of guests. Although serving those same guests a good hot bowl of grits or a heavenly plate of crispy fried okra might inspire sudden, intense politeness about what to do with this strange food, there are other quintessentially southern foods that evoke rapture from nearly anyone who eats them. Fried chicken the way my grandmother made it maybe doesn't exist now, but nevertheless, even in Maine and Hawaii they know that southern fried chicken is on the list of foods we will get to eat in heaven. It isn't just fried chicken either, but southern fried chicken, which first appeared in a cookbook back in 1824. Biscuits also seem to be a typically southern dish that is highly regarded by non-southerners, along with pecan pie. In addition to hospitality and food, the South is known for storytelling and for music. How many artists, or for that matter, how many musical genres, has this region given to America and to the world? Blues, bluegrass, country, jazz, rock `n' roll. Hank Williams, Patsy Cline, Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys—country music would be noticeably, audibly poorer without them. In pop music the South has given Johnny Mercer, in R&B we have Otis Redding and Ray Charles. And of course there's Elvis, taking black blues and white country and helping to create a type of music so full of energy that it makes your radio get hot just from tuning in the stations. After Elvis we have modern southern rock, from Lynyrd Skynyrd and the Allman Brothers coming down off some southern Mount Olympus, to the Atlanta Rhythym Section and the current band Southern Culture on the Skids. While we listen to the music, we also enjoy other entertainment activities that are common to many southerners: football (especially college football), stock car racing, or hunting.

Well, if you go to a southerner's house and they graciously serve you pecan pie, put on an Allman Brothers CD, and ask you if you'd rather watch the Georgia-Georgia Tech game, what can be bad about a place like that? Actually, as anyone but the most narrow provincial knows, quite a few things have been wrong with the South. Beginning well back in slavery days, the South has had a reputation, which it deserved, for viciousness and racism toward the blacks. It may be true that one of the greatest strongholds the Ku Klux Klan ever had was in Indiana, it may be true that racial tensions brought tanks onto the streets in Detroit, it may be true that racial tensions have led to murdering strangers in New York City, but other people's faults do not excuse our own, and it is also true that in the 1890s all across the South Jim Crow laws were passed with the unashamed, open goal of depriving blacks of the ability to vote, and it is true that all over the planet Earth people knew about the frenzied mob murders as gangs of whites lynched black men, and it is true that dogs and fire hoses were turned on southern black marchers in the 1960s. Maybe it has not been fair to say that the South was more racist than the rest of the country, but to say that the South was very racist was true.

Related to racism, yet different from it, and perhaps related originally to the same rural life that is thought to mark southern culture, there has been a southern culture of isolation, suspiciousness of the unknown and almost a conscious desire to remain proudly ignorant. These attitudes can be called provincialism, but we have a more colorful term, clearly associated with the South: those people are rednecks. For most people the term "redneck" is so obviously negative, with such repulsive connotations, that they could just as easily ask you to call them an idiot as a redneck. The word generally connotes strong ideas of both ignorance and intolerance, and it is shocking, therefore, to see that some southerners gladly embrace the word "redneck," who accept it with a sort of pride and make use of the symbols that are thought to be a part of the redneck culture, such as the Confederate battle flag. Perhaps for those who accept the word, "redneck" means something like "member of a southern rural brotherhood." Romanticizing doesn't help here, however, because there is an ignorance and intolerance in the culture of those who call themselves rednecks, and ignorance and intolerance are harmful traits for any region to have, preventing that region from attaining its full human potential. Even southerners who try to distance themselves from rednecks and who consider the whole redneck idea embarrassing and distasteful will also display a similar provincialism when they begin making references to Yankees.

Thus we have in the South a mixture of very good and very bad. Almost anywhere can say this, but at the same time, not everyone shows a schizophrenic pride/shame attitude toward the place where they live. I have two suggestions to make as to why I think southerners might feel ambivalent about the South. The first is that southerners in a broad way accept the definitions made by people from outside the South as to what is considered good, intelligent or desirable. I realize that accepting such a definition is not true for everyone, but I'm speaking in broad generalities here. Unfortunately for southerners, those outside definitions declare that some of the basic aspects of traditional southern life are not good, intelligent or desirable. If what is good is urban life (in contrast to rural life), many southerners may actually live in a town or city, but culture (at least in the South, if not everywhere) invokes as much mythology and beliefs as reality. Maybe we do live in the city, but if we vaguely identify with rural life as part of our identity and are then told that rural life is dirty and backward, we feel attacked. The situation is similar with the southern dialect of English (and in fact there are quite a few varieties of this presumed dialect). Southerners themselves accept the general view of the U.S. population that the standard version of English differs strongly from how southerners speak at home, and since most people think of the standard version as "correct," then every thing else is wrong by definition. It isn't just a dialect, it's a defect, as far as many people from outside the South are concerned.

As an even more negative aspect of accepting outside definitions of what is proper and good, southerners may resent stereotypes about the South, but they also accept those same stereotypes to some extent. Everyone in the South probably knows someone with an even stronger accent than their own, somebody who really sounds like they're from the country. Southerners also tell the same stereotype jokes that nonsoutherners tell, but we aim the jokes at another state where the people really act southern. We're not ignorant ourselves, but in the next state over…. If a man and woman get married in Alabama, for instance, then move to Georgia and get divorced, are they still brother and sister? I've also heard of a reference made by a southern colleague to the phrase "I'm your Mississippi," an allusion to Mississippi being at the bottom on many indicators of the quality of life. The idea here is "no matter how bad you are, you can always know that there is someone worse."

The question naturally exists as to why southerners accept definitions created outside the South. Why is a rural life somehow inferior? Why is a southern accent a defective way of speaking? Of course there are examples of people who did not or do not accept other people's negative views of southern life, a famous example being the Vanderbilt Agrarians, who proudly proclaimed that the rural life is a valid and valuable alternative to modern industrialism. In spite of such examples, many southerners do in some way accept negative views of the South, and I cannot really answer the complicated question of why, but I believe there has been and somewhat still is a lack of cultural confidence in the South. Perhaps there is a kind of chicken and egg dilemma in this. Do southerners lack confidence because we accept definitions that tell us we are inferior, or do we accept these negative definitions because we already lack confidence? I don't know.

I also have a second suggestion as to why southerners might feel ambivalent about the South, and it does not involve false negative views imposed from outside. It is also possible that southerners recognize that there actually are serious problems in southern culture and history. Maybe we do know that racism is degrading even to the racist, maybe we do know that lack of education is shameful and stupid, maybe we do know that the serf-like poverty of southern history, both black and white, makes us look like a crude, feudal society. As a region, however, we have not had the cultural confidence (so again I come back to this idea of lacking confidence) to acknowledge our own negatives openly and combat them. Instead of saying "Yes, we have our faults and we're working on them," instead of saying "Yes, our history contains grim episodes that we aren't proud of," instead we mutter about damned Yankees, hang our heads and slink off to schools to lose our southern accents.

If southerners want to be fully proud to be from a region that can, by God, stand proud before the world with the music we've given to the human race, we have to accept who we are without excuses. We face here a problem that all people at some point in their history face, of being culturally honest. The Germans after World War II had to face this problem and have been generally honest about it. The American South has not followed the German model, however. Instead we have taken the approach of the Japanese, making excuses and pretending not to know all of the evils committed in our own history. You cannot honestly acknowledge only part of a culture and a history. If you want to tell the world that you are an Englishman, then abusing the Irish is yours just as much as Shakespeare is yours, and you must take both. To be an honest southerner we cannot claim only the antebellum mansions, but we must take the slave shacks with them. We cannot claim only the shining malls and skyscrapers that sit in our modern southern cities, but we must take the hotels and restaurants of decades past that would not serve blacks. If I want to claim to be a southerner, then I have a moral obligation to accept all of the South, and not to lie about the nobility of fighting for states' rights when I discuss a war fought over slavery, not to lie about how the Confederate battle flag got onto the Georgia state flag. Slavery is my history. Anti-labor laws are my history. Cotton mills holding their workers by the throat is my history. This is my culture. And so is watermelon on summer evenings my culture, and Greg Allman is mine, and fried chicken is mine, with biscuits and gravy. Southerners must take all of it, and we must look with open eyes at both the good and the bad. Then perhaps more of us will have the cultural confidence to say to the rest of the country, "Y'all might could at least try these grits."

Works Cited

Griffin, Larry J. "Why Was the South a Problem to America?" in The South as an American Problem. Eds. Larry J. Griffin and Don H. Doyle. Athens, GA: U of Georgia P, 1995: 10-32.

Wilson, Charles Reagan and William Ferris. Encyclopedia of Southern Culture. Chapel Hill, NC: U of North Carolina P, 1989.

 

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