I had originally thought about titling this post “Living In The Southland”, but, I have another piece in the works that already carries that name, so… Besides, one can live in the Southland their entire life and never truly be a “southerner”; it’s as much a state of mind as it a locale. So, I thought I’d tell you what I think it means to be a southerner.
Being a southerner means you have an overpowering awareness of history. Specifically, the history of The War Between The States (aka, “the recent unpleasantness”). As Mark Twain once said, “In the South the war is what A.D. is elsewhere; they date from it.” Maybe that’s because we are descended from the only Americans to ever lose a war and live with an occupying army. It makes a difference, y’all.
Being a southerner means suffering the slings and arrows of your neighbors from more “enlightened” regions. This is especially true if you’re anything other than a dyed-in-the-wool, red state Republican. As my boyhood friend and idol, Hugh Hollowell (a great American) said recently: “Being in and of the South while being a progressive white straight male means your liberal educated friends from North of here will watch how your state votes and will call your friends back home “inbred” and ‘hillbillies” and “white trash” and ask you how you stay there.”
Being a southerner means not just putting up with eccentricities, but embracing them. Every community in the south has its “characters”; the ones who, when outsiders comment on their odd behavior, folks respond, “Oh, that’s just (insert appropriate name). He/she’s fine. Just a little off.” In other areas of the country, these people might wind up in an institution of some sort. In the South, we make them chief justice of the state Supreme Court.
Being a southerner means having a rebellious spirit. If Thomas Jefferson was right and “a little rebellion now and then is a good thing”, then southerners are drowning in “good things”. Unfortunately, we often choose to rebel against things we should accept. But, that’s a post of its own.
Being a southerner means that religion is immensely important in your life. That holds true whether you’re an atheist or a fundamentalist. The thing is, we don’t do religion all that well. As Flannery O’Connor said “I think it is safe to say that while the South is hardly Christ-centered, it is most certainly Christ-haunted.” In other words, we are drenched in religion and spend our lives either embracing it or running from it.
Being a Southerner means that race is in everything, from the food you eat, to books you read, to the music you listen to. Two uniquely southern foods are black-eyed peas and okra. Both originated in West Africa and were brought to this country by slaves from that region. And, just try reading a book by a southern author where race doesn’t come into play, somehow. As for music? The majority of music we listen to (Blues, jazz, rock and roll, country) has its roots in the music of southern African-Americans. And, many of the most beloved practitioners of that music are black Southerners. Unfortunately, like religion, we don’t always get it right when it comes to race. But, now and then, we’re ahead of the rest of the nation on this issue. Why is that? Maybe because we’re the only region of the country that’s been forced to deal with our racism in any significant way.
Being a Southerner means you understand the importance of hospitality. Even when it means being pleasant to people you can’t stand. Income inequality is nothing new around here and most Southerners are working-class folks who knew the only way to make it was to take care of each other. If that means helping someone you don’t like, well, that’s what the phrase “Bless your heart” is for.
Being a Southerner means having a sense of place. Clyde Edgerton put it best when he said, “Because I was born in the South, I’m a Southerner. If I had been born in the North, the West or the Central Plains, I would be just a human being.”
Finally, being a Southerner means you love your homeland, warts and all, and wouldn’t dream of living anywhere else. That’s not a bad thing, no matter what your smart-ass Yankee friends might think.