It stalks like a shadow and hugs like a strait-jacket. I wear it like an off-the-rack, ill-fitting coat. At times, it tightens round my throat like a scarf threatening to strangle me. It’s closer than my own skin. It itches in spots beyond my reach to scratch. I didn’t ask for it but received it anyway – like a deformed child one has little heart to defend against taunts and slights and ridicule. Only I’m the child misfit, and there’s no other way to be me excepting of accepting that I am, in a word, irredeemably, irreducibly, irreversibly – Southern. Nor can I reconcile the existential duality that being southern imparts: defending the indefensible, loving the unlovable, hiding what won’t stay hidden. Never permitted the luxury of abstractions, like the doubting apostle Thomas, a Southerner will demand to see the nail prints. Too often, ours has been the stuttering cadence of a repeating decimal not subject to change.
Typically, a body adapts to changes imposed on it. Ours refuses. It behaves aberrantly, stubbornly, perversely, even criminally, at times. We’re a seasonal side show. If . . . I were God (Everybody else is pretending to be Him or Her. Why can’t I?), I’d erect a razor-wire fence around the eleven Confederate states and turn us into a theme park. Tourists could drive by and wave. Signs would warn not to get too close as we have a tendency to bite the hand that feeds us. We could put on a spectacle for them. After all, we’ve had 400 years of practice. A Montana “Patriot” waving a Confederate flag? If there’s one thing I can’t stand, it’s a Johnny-come-lately, amateur-ass racist. Step aside, boys. You’re out of your league. Watch how pros do it!
Ours is a complex and messy history inviting of despair: Quentin Compson’s violent denial in Absalom, Absalom!, his self-told, self-repeated lie, “I don’t hate the South!” before plunging into a New England river frigid in the extreme. Inhospitable extremes of hot and cold best define the Southern temperament – never tepid, never lukewarm, never in moderation.
No less than Mississippi native and Nobel laureate, William Faulkner, intuited that the heat and humidity spawned a Petri dish of . . . acid bitterness, violent relationships, ignoble histories, and gloomy memories. In fact, visitors to the South in the nineteenth century frequently alleged heat to be a causative agent for the South’s corrosive and peculiar character. How else to explain it? A Vermont tourist, a journalist from Montpelier, was shocked that Southern girls seemed to “blossom” earlier, achieving puberty sooner than lasses from other parts of the country. Explanation: a veritable greenhouse effect stoking hormones.
Obviously, early physical development translated into promiscuity to outsiders sniffing self-righteously at the lax morals of Southerners. A more useful explanation might be that the sticky, broiling heat encouraged Southerners to shed clothes whenever possible. I have a theory that skinny dipping originated in the rural South and required only one rule for participation: What happened underwater stayed underwater. Brilliant and boisterous man of letters, Robert Penn Warren, put a finer edge on it: “Sexual intercourse is the chief pastime of the south because it’s cheap and easy to procure.” Let me just say it. We Southerners are sexy as hell. Others know, too. According to a recent national survey, the Southern accent was rated sexiest in America.
What to make of our impulsive, hot-headed, lust-in-the-dust collective spirit? Why, own it, of course. Let’s face it. We’re a convocation of the guilty. Our sins are writ large, a fact of which we are reminded constantly. We can make no excuses. However, if cultural psychosis is the hand we’ve been dealt, then maybe we should exploit that hand in ways that benefit us all. Our best writers have always known who we are and have often written about us with a devastating sense of humor, refusing to pull punches when we behaved foolishly, knowing when more was at stake than our egos. A week or so ago, I came across an article, chuckling at the title: “Freedom at the Freak Show: Carnivalesque Imagery in the fiction of Flannery O’Connor, Eudora Welty, and Katherine Anne Porter,” writers steeped in our mad, crafty, wild, and absurd legends perpetuated by what one author calls “agile Southern furies.” Surely our craziness has much to teach the rest of the country.
Don’t assume you’re immune to our disease if you only just moved here and are a transplant, either. Once here, you’re infected. You’ll know by the elongation of vowels and softening of consonants in your speech. Your genes will mutate under our influence. Your children will sound like us.
Don’t despair, though. Our best people have risen above the din and confusion and petty hatreds to do some remarkable things. For every Bull Connor, we’ve witnessed the rise of a Martin Luther King. For every race-baiting journalist, we’ve encountered the outspoken courage of a Hodding Carter. For every segregationist preacher, we found a Reverend Ralph Abernathy and Will D. Campbell praying in our midst. For every gun-toting thug in the coal fields of Harlan, Kentucky, we beheld a stalwart Florence Reece standing her ground and singing “Which Side Are You On.”
Our checkered history offers us ample evidence of being authentic, if nothing else. It also encourages us to be humble on occasion, humility being a gift whereby we learn to tolerate, even embrace, foibles common to us all. There’s a saying in the South: “He may be a son of a bitch, but he’s our son of a bitch.” If we like you, we’ll be loyal to a fault.
My meditation wouldn’t be complete without sharing the concluding stanzas of Robert Penn Warren’s poem, “Founding Fathers, Early-Nineteenth-Century Style, Southeast U.S.A.”1)Francisco, Edward, Robert Vaughan, and Linda Francisco,. The South in Perspective: An Anthology of Southern Literature. New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 2001 p. 707-708.
In this era of fierce generational strife, Warren reminds us of our essential connectedness to those who came before and those to follow and the common denominator uniting us all:
. . . and they died, and are dead, and now their voices
Come thin, like the last cricket in frost-dark, in grass lost,
With nothing to tell us for our complexity of choices,
But beg us only one word to justify their own old life-cost.
So let us bend ear to them in this hour of lateness,
And what they are trying to say, try to understand,
And try to forgive them their defects, even their greatness,
For we are their children in the light humanness, and under the
shadow of God’s closing hand.
**Featured Image Source: Year 1919 – “[Unidentified] Group in Costume for a Masquerade, Nitro, West Virginia”/ West Virginia History OnView, West Virginia University, West Virginia & Regional History Center