The Southern Problem
Jason’s post was timely as I am thinking about home today from the shores of Cape Cod. For some reason whenever I am far from the South it gives me the ability to consider it more objectively. I keep thinking about cultural pride in New England as it contrasts with the Southern Pride I know well. To be certain the people here are all proud of their shared culture, whether it be the ocean or Northern liberalism or dropping their r’s when they talk. Each village we drive through has its own personality and charm. The food is fantastic, the beer selection amazing, the sights breathtaking. On the Cape they are proud of the Kennedys and the Red Sox and I have seen more than a few Boston Strong shirts this week.
In the last 10 years I have spent a lot of time in New England. I have no doubt that there is such thing as a New England Pride, or Yankee Pride or Northern Pride (choose your own label) but it just isn’t the same thing as what we Southerners feel in our bones. Likewise pick any other geographic locale across the country and try to lump everyone together under one large banner. It’s impossible to do in the same way you can in the South*.
Outsiders are still trying to figure us out. Two of my favorite bloggers, Laura McKenna at Apt 11D and our own Tod Kelly have recently asked semi-rhetorical questions about the South. Unfortunately these questions usually arise from negative events. Still, there is an acknowledgement that the South is a unique place which of course means a unique culture. Of course, there are also sub-cultures in various parts of the South. Just ask someone in Memphis about Carolina barbecue and watch the fireworks. But there is also a level of homogeneity you will find nowhere else in the United States.
At various times during the last 148 years people have declared that the South will rise again. To that I say, brother it already has. Southern culture is exploding along every front. In entertainment we see the popularity of shows like Duck Dynasty which has become A & E’s most successful show ever. The show is guilty of redneck stereotyping at times but it also shows a family committed to each other and God, two things we admire in Dixie (for better or worse). Southern authors are keeping book clubs across the country well-supplied. Magazines like Garden & Gun are celebrating high-end Southern culture or what we call the ‘mint julep crowd’. Hipsters have carried out a new War of Northern Aggression but at least they bring a love of culture with them. Cities like Chattanooga, Asheville and even my beloved Louisville are benefitting from their presence as they resurrect those neglected neighborhoods that seem to have the most charm.
Businesses are booming. Policymic talks about the success of pro-business strategies below the Mason-Dixon line.
“A review of state business climates by CEO Magazine found that eight of the top 10 most business-friendly states, led by Texas, were from the former Confederacy, while former Union strongholds California, New York, Illinois, and Massachusetts land firmly at the bottom. “
And oh, the food. it has never been a better time to be a Southern chef. In his new book Smoke and Pickles Korean-American chef Edward Lee writes,
“Something is happening in Louisville right now. Something is simmering wildly throughout the American South. Every time I look around I see bold new expressions of Southern cuisine waving a proud flag. And this expression of food has captured people’s attention, because it is the story not only of Southern cuisine but also of America’s identity…what is happening now in the American South is not a trend: It is a culinary movement that is looking inward, not outward for its inspiration.”
So we have a lot to build on these days but we still have a problem: Southern Pride scares people. It scares both those who have seen racism firsthand in the South or more often, those that live elsewhere and imagine a far more pervasive problem that what actually exists. Negative stories like the recent revelations about Paula Deen, go viral but how often do we hear about successes? That is both a fault of outsiders and Southerners themselves. We spend too much time feeling mistreated and not enough time talking about good things, like the huge immigrant populations that find welcoming communities and better lives all over the South. We need to tell more of these stories.
Additionally, there is the problem of the Confederate flag. While it would be easy to point out all of the horrible actions carried out under other national flags still in use (including the Stars and Stripes) the Confederate flag gets a special distinction because it was adopted by people opposed to Civil Rights in the mid-20th century. Basically, they ruined it for the rest of us. So as much as it might mean something else to me than an African-American living in Brooklyn, it would be intentionally obtuse to believe they should just get over it. The question is though, do we Southerners really need a visual representation of the pride we feel in our hearts? Of course not. So maybe it’s time to stop being so damn stubborn and give up the Stars and Bars once and for all.
In addition to a Southern reluctance to admitting we still have some changes to make, it would be nice for the rest of the country to stop using us as racist scapegoats. The whole country has a racism problem. If not malice towards blacks there is hate directed towards other minorities from sea to shining sea. And while we’re painting with wide brushes, minority communities have their own problems with racism towards one another. The truth is that human beings have struggled with racism for thousands of years and we will continue to do so for a long time to come. The American story though has been a relatively positive one of assimilation and acceptance, even if it occurs slower than we would like.
* For the purposes of this post I am defining the American South as Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia, and West Virginia.