“Don’t get above your raisin’ ” is one of those uniquely southern sayings, like “Bless your heart”, “How’s your mama and ’em” and any phrase with the word “fixin’ ” in it. You don’t hear it so much anymore, it was dying out as my generation came along. But, I did hear some old-timers use it from it time to time. Once, it was popular enough to inspire a song: Don’t Get Above Your Raisin by Flatt and Scruggs. Ricky Skaggs did a cover of the song, but it’s a pale imitation at best. Don’t get me wrong, Skaggs’ version isn’t bad, but Lester and Earl made it jump, brother.
If you google the phrase, you might think it has to do with social standing or being more successful than the rest of your family. But, that’s not really true. Those old folks who used told us “don’t get above your raisin’ ” weren’t averse to improving one’s standing in the community and they would never begrudge their children’s success. When they told us that, they meant don’t forget where you come from and what you were taught.
The important word in that saying is “raisin’ “. If you’re from anywhere but the Southeastern United States, you’re probably thinking there should “g” on the end. That might be true if we were talking about the word that means “to cause or help to rise to a standing position“. But, we’re not. As Lewis Grizzard once said, “The Southern way of speaking is a language of nuance. You take the word naked. It means you ain’t got no clothes on. But sometimes naked just won’t do. You need something a little bit stronger. So we change that word just a little bit–and we say nekkid. Naked means you ain’t got no clothes on. Nekkid means you ain’t got no clothes on and you’re up to somethin’ . . .” In this case, by changing “raising” to “raisin’ “, we’re talking about how you were brought up. And, let me tell you something friend, “raisin’ ” was important in the South.
Raisin’ was what your mama told you to remember whenever you went out in public. It was set you apart from the “white trash“, the people that were just “common”. Folks that had raisin’ were polite and civil, they were always respectful of their elders and would never talk ugly. They said “yes ma’am” and “no sir”, men gave up their seats to ladies and always took their hats off indoors. Wearing a hat at the dinner table was a terrible faux pas (even we didn’t know what that meant). Raisin’ meant manners, sure; but, it was more than that. It was the way you lived your life.
If you think I’m trying to gloss over the less savory parts of my homeland’s culture, I’m not. I’m well aware of our downfalls and have talked about them extensively (here, here, here and here). But, there was something special in the way I was raised, something I’m seeing less and less. Something the whole country could a good dose of: civility, hospitality and respect. It should have been truly embarrassing for southern people everywhere when Rep. Joe Wilson (R-SC) shouted “You lie!” at the President during a joint session of Congress in 2009. Instead, he was hailed as a hero by all too many of my fellow southerners. That’s just sad, because I know his mama taught him better than that.