Cover image: Walker Evans, Selma, Alabama (1935)
This is going to be a mushy, abstract post wherein I self-reflect about why I do what I do, fight for the people I fight for, and whatnot.
How do we balance loving our home and knowing our ancestors were responsible for atrocities? More than that, how can we look past the hatefulness of some of our current neighbors, extended family, and old friends?
Being Southern means balancing pride and shame from birth. It means to defend without apologizing, and to learn to see both hatred and love without dismissing either.
When I was a kid, I started listening to The Drive-By Truckers because of my cool sister and brother-in-law. The band is partly from the Shoals area, and they sing songs about locations I grew up riding past on various highways. I fell in love with the Truckers when I was in middle school, listening to Patterson sing about the tornado that touched down north of my hometown, Russellville, in the song “Tornadoes,” or Jason sing a song-story about somebody getting picked up from “Parker’s Place,” a little bar on the Tennessee line where you could drink before the counties went wet. When I heard the album Southern Rock Opera, I listened to the boys grapple with the duality and disesteem of the South so ferociously and sympathetically that I moved past home-loathing and, I guess, into a dual consciousness wherein I could see what we have to be ashamed of and what we must do to love our place.
This isn’t a post about the Truckers, though. This is me trying to reconcile how to fight for the South without apologizing for our collective shame.
In Away Down South: A History of Southern Identity, James Cobb provides the most succinct historical framework for understanding the Southern imaginary. By the middle of the 20th century, he says, “Not only had southern cultural identity become ‘a fiction of a geographically bounded and coherent set of attitudes to be set off against a mythical non-South,’ but, one might add, that mythical non-South had become virtually synonymous with the idea of America itself” (2). Southern exceptionalism, whatever you think of the term, did become a strict dichotomy through which America judged itself or ascribed value to its cultural imaginary. The North imagined itself as a place outside of a set of foreign, un-American traits, and that fiction became America. Alternately, I’d argue, the South framed itself against that fiction. “We’re different than them Yankees,” or, “They ain’t our kind of people.”
One of the biggest fictions in the outsider’s imagination of the South is the caricature of the white, male, poor, toothless farmer. Surely, he exists, and despite our collective progressive tendency to believe his exploitation doesn’t matter, classism and economic disenfranchisement are at play even in the most “abhorrent” figures of the South. But this caricature is more than a classist shun of rural people; it neglects the vast diversity of the modern South. It pretends poor people of color, who are suffering in the black belts of Mississippi, Alabama, and Georgia, aren’t even real. That’s pure erasure. That’s giving the caricatured white man the loudest voice used to frame an entire region.
Citing C. Vans Woodward, the author of the Mind of the South, New York Times reporter Diane McWhorter addressed guilt and shame in an article on Birmingham in 1983. She points out one important tension in claiming that only Southern white people are/were racist, not America as a whole:
In 1963, many Americans exhibited what Mr. Woodward calls ”pretensions of innocency” when they imagined that Southern racism was a monstrous mutation rather than a virulent strain of a national pathology. Perhaps the rest of the nation’s invention of reformed bigots is its way of expressing collective guilt long denied. If so, it is what Mr. Woodward describes as a ”bargain in guilt” –another cheap way of isolating and disposing of the messy, ubiquitous business of racism. If everybody is guilty, no one is guilty. ”Inverting myths,” said Mr. Woodward ”may be a way of preserving them.” (emphasis added)
In short, by bargaining guilt—claiming ‘they’re an outlier’ and ‘we can’t be racist’—we’re inverting myths. We’re placing blame on one when the whole is responsible. We’re preserving our history by transposing it on the obvious other.
All of the academic jargon aside, I think about guilt and shame simply. I don’t feel guilty for being Southern and sticking up for poor people. I don’t feel ashamed of my accent, my food preferences, my music taste. I don’t even feel ashamed when I drive through Alabama and see pro-life, “judgment day is coming” billboards or Roy Moore signs in yards. I don’t feel guilty for my dad’s maternal grandmother’s ancestry of probable slaveholders. Guilt isn’t productive, and communal guilt or shame doesn’t change a region.
The only time I feel guilt or shame is when I slip into an apology. We can’t apologize for the bad and we have to face it head on if we ever want to construct positive Southern identity. When I call Roy Moore an outright lunatic who doesn’t represent anything about Alabama, I’m guilty of apologizing. Pointing out that he did lose—despite the close margin—is more productive and combats apologies with historical fact. We did the right thing, we’re continuing to try to do the right thing, and all that our shame has ever done is keep the class system in place. I can’t be ashamed of the people that taught me strength, perseverance, love, progress, and hope. I can’t feel guilty for fighting for a region full of people that the U.N. declared live in poverty unseen in the developed world. Remiss would be to not point out that their study was conducted in Selma, Alabama, the poorest area of South Alabama with a majority of African Americans living under this strain of crippling poverty. Apologetic would be to place significance or value on certain people’s poverty over others or, alternatively, to fail to address compounded status and racial implications.
So I’ll listen to my uncle spew hatred from his insular world while I pour myself a glass of bourbon and listen to the crooning of R.L Burnside or Tammy Wynette. I’ll thank a God I don’t believe in because the world is, in fact, going to change. We can’t look past the hatefulness of our friends, family, and neighbors. But we can work to make a world where their words are eradicated from the human vocabulary, we can drink, we can love where we come from while wanting her to change–all while needing to be the person that will fix her.