Tuesday, August 09, 2005

Leaving the South

As usual, real life makes hash of the best-laid blogging plans of both mice and men. I really ought to write up something about how well my political theory and film class worked out; there was a great discussion of Thomas Frank's What's the Matter with Kansas and populism in general a couple of weeks back at TPM Cafe that, given my interests, I ought to comment on; and then of course there's all the news of the day. But I'm going to have to pass. I managed to write a review of Half-Blood Prince which got more traffic than practically everything else I've ever written combined; that ought to suffice for now. In the meantime, I'm surrounded by boxes, and soon we will be heading north to my new job in Macomb, IL. On Saturday we'll be moving from Jonesboro, and Arkansas, and the South--who knows? Perhaps for good.

We've lived in the old Confederacy for the past 10 years. Some would, with fair amount of justice, suggest that the first 6 of those 10 years, from 1995-2001, didn't count: living in Northern Virginia, while attending graduate school in D.C., does not residency in the true South make. A few would go even further, and suggest that the last 3 of those 10 years don't count either, as Arkansas, while a Southern state, is really more Midsouth than Deep South, and it's true that you're a lot more likely to meet people around here who consider themselves cowboys rather than rednecks. So by a very strict definition, my family and I were only Southerners for one year--2001-2002, when I taught at Mississippi State University. But I stand by my first, more expansive claim. For most of our married lives, and the whole of daughters' lives, the South has been our home. It's a home I'm going to miss when we're gone.

I'm not pretending that our years in this part of the country have completely remade me; there are many ways in which I would fail any authentic Southerner test. (I'd probably fail to qualify as even an authentic Southern tourist: despite multiple moves, and putting a lot of miles on the car in the meantime, over the past decade, our American South checklist still has a lot of holes in it. We've managed to visit Charlottesville, but not Richmond; New Orleans, but not Baton Rouge; Memphis, but not Nashville; Little Rock, but not Fayetteville; Birmingham, but not Mobile. In fact, we've yet to even set foot in either of the Carolinas or Florida. So even by that standard we're pretty pathetic, though we have promised Melissa's parents, who are making the trip from Michigan to help us move, that we'll make a quick trip down to Vicksburg, just for them.)

Still, I don't think my talk of "leaving" and "missing" the South is therefore so much communitarian hot air. The fact is, we really kind of fit into this place. Yeah, I could go and on (and have, many times before) about how much I wish someone could discover here in the South the socially conservative, economically progressive, populist alternative that I think our country needs, and how frustrating it is to realize that few if any other Southerners, white or black, share that perspective. So, sure, politically it has been frustrating. But socially or culturally? It depends on what your frame of reference is. In the D.C. area, of course, there was an embarrassment of entertainment riches (the National Zoo has spoiled us forever, I'm sure). But since then? Yes, we've missed the art and music that so often bypasses even large cities in the South, but living in a relatively small town--as we have done for the last 4 years, and which we will continue to do--means you just have to make do without it, and that'd be the case no matter what part of the country you lived in. And the meantime, here in the Bible Belt, there are benefits. There was Megan's kindergarten teacher, a true Coke-for-breakfast Mississippian who taught her the right way to say "ma'am." There were Wednesday evenings, which I learned soon enough not to assign a lot of homework for since half the class would be attending Bible study. There were the church or city-sponsored (admittedly, sometimes it was hard to tell the difference) barbecue and catfish and crawdad cook-offs; there were the parades where every other float was sponsored by some church youth group or another. I liked living in a dry county, despite its affect on the restaurant business; I liked living in a community where I didn't have to worry about porn videos catching my daughter's eye at the video store. Yes, there were crazy people writing in to the local paper about the IRS selling the U.S. out to China, but you get those everywhere; a gentleman patiently correcting a newspaper report on how frog legs have fallen out of favor with the locals, and making some recommendations for where to get the best samples of this regional delicacy to boot on the other hand....well, somehow I fear I won't get much of that north of the Mason-Dixon line.

The courtesy and conviviality, the willingness to watch out for one another, the sense of shared interests and intentions (not too mention the food)--no, it's not everything the movies and books and stereotypes make it out to be, but our years in the South have taught us that it's more real than the cynics might think. (It would take us unawares, sometimes: suddenly a friend would tell a story, or whip up a dessert, or crack a joke, and we'd suddenly realize we were in the presence of a culture still peculiar enough to be considered something very much its own.) The downsides, of course, are real too: some folks we knew who moved to Jonesboro from out west were amazed at the willingness of strangers--folks at the store, neighbors next door, police officers walking through the park--to comment (not always approvingly) on how they were raising or disciplining their children (or weren't!). And not all the stereotypes are so comparatively light-hearted: until we moved to the South, we never imagined we'd meet someone who could say, without the slightest embarrassment, that she doesn't shop at the local Wal-Mart because so many black people shop there also. Heaven knows we won't miss that. Oh, and we won't miss the smoking either, which from what we can tell is taught to most students around here in about the 4th grade.

It's a mixed bag, like every place. On the one hand, I never cared for the summers that lasted well into fall, and I missed having seasons. On the other hand, I'm really going to miss the pecan and magnolia trees. Politically, there's a lot I'd like to see changed. But I also know that a lot of those changes would bring consequences and losses with them, and since--culturally and socially at least--I'd kind of like to see the South hold onto as much of its distinctiveness as it can, I'm not sure the costs of those changes might not sometimes outweigh their presumed benefits. No, I don't care one bit for the Republican bait which most white Southern voters have swallowed, but I tend to believe that most of what needs to be done in the South--politically, economically and otherwise--can be done on their own peculiar terms, without some unnecessarily intrusive, modern-day progressive reconstruction. Living in the South has, contrary to what the usual liberal story has to say, enlightened us. I dearly hope we don't lose any of that as we take our children "back" to Melissa's and my native Yankee soil.

(I suppose once I'm set up at Western Illinois University, I'll get back around to blogging again. In the meantime, for a more personal and religious take on what we're leaving behind, click here.)


Anonymous said...

As a southerner, I also wondered where the South's peculiar culture came from. After all, it's not like it was settled by the same people, or has the same climate and flora everywhere.

The only constant was slavery. Once I realized that, I lost all nostalgia for the South's "peculiar institutions". Almost anything you can think of can be traced back to developments under slavery, and that's why I was glad to escape. 

Posted by Hektor Bim

Anonymous said...

I'm a native of Oklahoma, but I've lived in Louisiana for much of my life. I attended law school in St. Louis, which likes to think of itself as more Eastern than Southern, though some would beg to differ. Anyhow, we Southerners--both black and white--are a complex bunch of people. Slavery, the Civil War, and racism are part and parcel of our history, and there's no escaping that. However, race itself is fading as a factor for social distinction, to be replaced by economic class, which sometimes corresponds loosely with race. I personally live in a middle-class suburban subdivision that is mixed-race, and I've seen more segregation and overt racism in St. Louis and Chicago than I see in New Orleans. Perhaps that's because the South has been forced to address its heritage of hatred, while other regions have been given a pass. 

Posted by Randy

Anonymous said...

The Confederacy never controlled territory north of the Occoquan river in Virginia. And in the General Assembly there are regularly remarks about the People's Republics of Arlington and Alexandria. On the other hand, there were slaves here, and both Alexandria and Arlington had (a few) lynchings during Reconstruction and after.

So on balance, I would say no, Alexandria doesn't count. 

Posted by dave s

Anonymous said...

Being a Mississippian and MSU alumnus, I enjoyed your perspective.

BTW, for Hektor, maybe the tie you were looking for was a history of agricultural economies, not slavery. 

Posted by vianet

Anonymous said...


Kansas has an agricultural economy. Birmingham doesn't. No, the tie is slavery, and the peculiar economic and social institutions it engendered. 

Posted by Hektor Bim

Anonymous said...

As a native Southernor who has lived in several places in the North, the South's culture is probably more distinct than any other region in the US. There are many reasons that have little to do with slavery. Hektor obviously has some sort of bone to pick with the South (probably some type of reaction formation). Some of the ingredients of the South's culture include our transplanted Scotch-Irish and English Cavalier culture as it has been affected by our mutual history and the African-American minority that has always existed here. Part of our history is that the South is more agrarian than the North. Certainly slavery has something to do with this history, but I would say those prejudices are dying out and revealing that there is a lot more to Southern culture than the envious, rust-belt propogandists who see their populations dwindling would have you believe. Part of our history is also having been invaded by the federal government, which engenders a lot of modern-day libertarianism and conservatism. I would refer you to the book, Albion's Seed, for a exhaustive treatment of many of the cultural institutions that make American regions distinct, including the South. 

Posted by JohnBoy