“Southerners love a good tale. They are born reciters, great memory retainers, diary keepers, letter exchangers . . . great talkers.”
― Eudora Welty
“We didn’t get spanked! It was the 70s. My parents went to workshops on how to parent.”
This friend and colleague was born and raised in upstate New York. She was talking to me and a fellow coworker, who was born and raised in the South. We exchanged a sly southern smile.
“We got whoopins...in the 70s...in the South.” He almost sounded proud.
“Yep, my husband used to get sent to the yard to find his own switch.”
“Remember the line?”
“This is gonna hurt me more than it hurts you.”
Our Yankee friend was appalled. Same 70s. Different set of rules.
There is much to celebrate about being southern. Great food, good music, and breathtaking landscapes. Certain ideologies or cultural practices exude southerness. It is hard to describe, but you will always know it when you see it. We are, afterall, the only Americans to have lost a war. Add that shame to a heavy dose of Baptist guilt wrapped in hellfire and brimstone, and you have a sloppy stew of southern experience.
I have been pondering my southerness since attending a workshop at Charlotte Lit titled, “The South Keeps Calling You Home.” Two local authors described their experience publishing in the genre of Southern Lit (no other part of the country has a clearly defined genre of its own). There was the usual argument over the physical boundaries of the South. Do we include Virginia? Then we discussed the essence of southerness and attempted to define it.
Southerners are one of the only American groups who identify with their region before identifying with their country: Southern first— American second. We are proud and must combat stereotypes of being slow, backward, and uneducated. In many ways, we are playing from behind. We are continually trying to own our narrative and rewrite it, like the Civil War reenactments— seriously, what is up with that? Bless our hearts.
We can be a complicated breed, and I’m no exception.
My identity is not simply southern. I was born in New Hampshire but moved to North Carolina at the age of one. I have no recollection of my life before we moved south. While my father was born in Miami, Florida (no self-respecting southerner would include THAT in the South), my mother was born and raised in South Carolina— the Palmetto State. Her southerness held strong and ran deep. She took her southern womb above the Mason Dixon line for my birth and then later packed up her southern sass and flew it to Chile where she raised me for seven years according to the “Lord’s plan.”
I have floated in and out of the South my entire life. Born a Yankee and raised in South America— some of you are thinkin’ you sniff a FRAUD. My birth certificate and passport might lead you to question my southerness. Well, hold your horses.
I would not hesitate for one second to label myself a southerner. I embody the voice, tension of resistance, guilt, search for redemption, emotional tie, accent, love/hate relationship, and general understanding of this regional persona. A product of the Bible Belt, I’m fluent in Standard Southern.
With a strong, southern man by my side, I spent years in New York City and Colorado where my true identity was on full display. I opened my mouth and the South came out. Strange looks soon followed. The tea was unsweetened, the talk was fast and the air was cold. I stuck out like a sore thumb. Soon, I was longing for the comfort I had once fought to escape. Was this what they meant? Maybe the South was calling me home.
All these years later, I am a reinstated resident of the South raising two kids in Charlotte, NC. Are they southern by birth? Is it passed down through our mothers? I’m not sure it’s that simple. I gave them life, but I did not give them that title. There’s no faking it. My son was born in New York City to two southern parents. My daughter was born two years later in Colorado. Although they have resided in North Carolina for the past eight years, I would consider them members of the New South— a more urban, infiltrated, hybrid version of the South (ala Nashville and Atlanta). They do not share my experience or upbringing.
I grew up in a world defined by southern structure. I was able to push against those limitations and test out my truth. The confining rigidity of the southern experience was the very iron that sharpened my personal development. What will my youngins do without the southern albatross about their neck? They will never know the sting of a swift southern spankin’ or the weight of a heart born black with sin. And while I fought for this progress and a softer, more forgiving structure, I can’t help but be a little sad for them. Our narratives will not share the same context. I failed to accomplish what my momma did or perhaps times are just a changin’.
I was not raised solely in the South, but I was raised with the South in me. Will this southern cycle be forever broken with my children’s generation or will it show up again somewhere down the road? And does it make me a traitor or simply a southerner at her best— constantly trying to run away from what she carries inside her?
I reckon we’ll have to wait and see how this one turns out.
My sweet southern Momma, Sandra Mae Phillips Pollard.