The South brings to mind many things and a lot of them aren't good. We've got history here, from cobblestones and live oaks to the horrors of slavery and bloodshed. Once upon a time I was ashamed of being Southern. Everyone thinks we're backward, right? We're the ones they find to describe the tornado on the news, you know, the person who insists it sounded like hell opened up and “flung ol' Jimmy's prized cow through the back winder”. God, it embarrassed me. And then I read something that opened my eyes, a glimmer of a hint as to what it meant to be Southern. In “Writing Down the Bones”, author Natalie Goldberg tells of how in all her classes, her southern students shine. How some of them would hide their “Southerness” but it would ooze out as they stood to read their work. If you want to read Ms. Goldberg's thoughts on Southern writing, check out the sidebar. I've included a lovely, long excerpt.
That Southerness wasn't an accent. It wasn't a perceived ignorance or backward manner. No. To Ms. Goldberg, it was a poetry, a pain and joy that must, she insisted, bubble up from the dirt and the asphalt and, yes, the blood and the horror. That perspective made me rethink where I'm from and what I should do with that. What does “being Southern” mean? Does it mean I eat deep fried everything and drown my kidneys in sweet tea? Well, sure, but not all the time. Does it mean I cling to ethnocentric notions, refusing to grow, expand, and embrace? No. But it does mean I have to guard against falling into those prisons, those perceived bunkers of power.
We are a people strongly steeped in the past yet yearning for a future that is bright. Just like everyone else. We are every color, every race, and every nationality. The South isn't just the back roads and the cracked pavements of hit country songs. It's also thriving cities of immigrants and booming towns within towns that reflect the cultures of the people who have settled here. Those who have chosen the South as their home. It's red clay and Spanish moss. It's where the glimmering grace of the present is ever aware of the ghosts of the past. And trust me when I say we love our ghosts.
Understanding what it means to be Southern has been my focus this past summer. I didn't write much. I didn't do much. I simply re-calibrated my writing and my wondering brought me here. Life is a journey, so the cliché goes. But as we travel we aren't merely to assimilate property and trophies. Life is as much about looking behind as it is looking forward. Our identity isn't a destination. It's a pilgrimage of place, a constant awareness of who we are, where we came from, and where we're going. My hope is that my mining of memories and my venturing out of my comfort zone and expanding my experience will urge you to do the same. I want to learn, to grow, and, hopefully, to carry you along with me.
And if at some point you laugh or smile or nod in agreement; if you shake your head, scream “NO!”; if you try a new recipe, cook up a dinner, start a new tradition; if you can get a glimmer of your own history, and become inspired to find out what carries you along your own pilgrimage, then I guess I can say I've done my job.