A few years ago, I had a good old-fashioned feud with one of my older neighbor ladies in South Carolina. It all started with a disagreement over trash cans, but it escalated to a full-on (and, I assure you, totally classy) shouting match from our respective yards, wherein she called me a “yankee,” presumably because I had an Obama sticker on my car and had called animal control on her. I proceeded to furiously defend my southern-ness, determined to prove to her that I was not some sort of outside agitator sent here to make her spay and neuter her pets. After our argument ended and I cooled down, I wondered why on earth it made me so mad to be called a yankee. For all the things I hate about the South––the prevalent racism, religiosity, homophobia, the suburban sprawl, the poverty, the willful ignorance––I still cling to my southern identity.
This past year is the only year of my entire life that I’ve spent outside of the Deep South. I grew up in northern Florida, a queer white tomboy with two Baptist ministers for parents and a tight-knit but typically dysfunctional extended family. From there, I went to a Southern Baptist college in Georgia, and then to grad school in South Carolina, where I studied southern and African American history as part of my ongoing effort to understand this region that is my home, in all its beauty and all its ugliness.
My young life has been slowly moving up the east coast, raising a bit of hell here and there as I crept closer to the Mason-Dixon Line. Last summer, I got a job offer in Washington, D.C., and moved to northern Virginia, which although technically southern, feels nothing like the South I know. This past year, I’ve become somewhat self-conscious about my southern-ness. For the first time in my life, I spend most of my time around actual yankees, with an occasional midwesterner thrown into the mix. When the South comes up in conversation, I feel caught between the urge to talk about the things I miss and the pressure to condemn the awfulness of some of my people.
Although I’ve never felt marginalized because of my southern-ness, I often feel like the non-southerners around me assume that every white southerner is an inbred, hopelessly backward peckerwood, or think my childhood was somewhere between Dorothy Allison and Erskine Caldwell. While I’m willing to admit this may be some sort of inferiority complex on my part, I’ve often thought of the scenes in William Faulkner’s Absalom! Absalom! where the protagonist, Quentin Compson, is away at college in New England and talking with his northern roommate, Shreve. “Tell about the South,” Shreve demands in one oft-quoted passage, “What’s it like there. What do they do there. Why do they live there. Why do they live at all.” Like Quentin, I feel compelled to explain the South, to justify to outsiders the region’s continued existence and value, even as I sometimes doubt it myself.
When I lived in the Deep South, I consistently found myself in the political minority, particularly among my fellow southern whites who, like my angry neighbor, are often skeptical of my southern identity. Like so many white southerners, my family tree has its share of slaveholders, Confederate soldiers, and Klansmen––people whose contributions to the institution of white supremacy make me angry and ashamed––but they also form the foundations of my own identity as a southern progressive and fuel my determination to acknowledge, understand, and dismantle the racial caste system that continues to provide me immense privilege.
While I have enjoyed my first extended reprieve from southern conservatism this last year, it has been a particularly difficult time to be away from the South and the people there who have been so devastated by recent events. Nationally, the Black Lives Matter movement has brought worldwide attention to the horrors and injustices that our white supremacist society continues to inflict upon people of color. And in this context, the South once again proved itself fertile ground for blatant and unapologetic racist violence when a white supremacist walked into Emanuel AME Church in Charleston––a church founded by former slave Denmark Vesey who dared to foment a slave uprising in 1822––and murdered nine African Americans, including SC state senator Clementa Pinckney.
As I watched the news of this massacre unfold on television and social media, I felt helpless and hurt. I wanted to hold the entire state I had recently left behind in my arms and mourn with them. On the news, I heard a white, Republican state legislator choke back tears in a phone interview, talking about his slain friend, Clem Pinckney, and calling for the removal of the Confederate flag from the SC State House grounds. While other white Republicans in the state and around the South––including the son of ardent segregationist Strom Thurmond––followed suit when it became less politically suicidal to do so, in that moment, in that interview, a southern, white conservative suddenly and painfully understood the racial hatred in which his state’s continued allegiance to the failed confederacy was grounded.
While I have little faith that Republican majorities in Deep South states will ever come close to supporting issues like expanding Medicare or increasing funding for the region’s crumbling public schools and services––issues that disproportionately affect black southerners––in that moment, something seemed to shift in the South’s selective historical memory of its racial past. At long last, in the wake of this horrific violence, the state of South Carolina––and many other parts of the Deep South––have finally engaged in some serious and productive discussions about race and the white South’s continuing allegiance to the Confederate flag and the lost cause for which it stands.
The day that flag finally came down in front of the South Carolina State House, I was proud to count friends and former colleagues among those who organized protests and petitions and spoke at rallies to bring the flag down once and for all. When I think of the people who make me proud to be a southerner, I don’t think of Confederate generals or white politicians. I think of people like Fannie Lou Hamer, the Mississippi sharecropper who asked the Democratic National Convention on live television, “Is this America?” in a voice so powerful that it scared President Lyndon Johnson enough to silence her. I think of Lillian Smith and Stetson Kennedy, white, southern liberals who dared to denounce segregation before most northern whites would even do so. I think of my friends, Becci Robbins and Brett Bursey who have spent a lifetime fighting for progressive causes in South Carolina. I think of Mandy Carter, black, lesbian activist from North Carolina, who I recently heard speak about how southern progressive organizing transcends boundaries of race, gender, and sexual orientation––because it has to.
So I and others like me cling to our southern identities not out of some moonlight-and-magnolia-tinged mythology about what the South really is but because, even as a queer liberal, I have as much claim to that identity as any Confederate general or segregationist senator, and the southern progressives who have come before me have created a legacy that I am proud to be a part of. These progressive activists, black and white, have stayed and fought for change in the South when no one would have blamed them for running as far away as they could.
In another scene from Absalom! Absalom!, Shreve asks Quentin why he hates the South, and Quentin responds defensively, “I don’t hate it!” And then, with the weight of the South’s history resting on his young shoulders: “I don’t hate it he thought, panting in the cold air, the iron New England dark; I don’t. I don’t! I don’t hate it! I don’t hate it!” I imagine that many of my fellow southern progressives also feel compelled to continually grapple with the question of how we can know all of the terrible things the South is capable of and not hate it. And maybe some of us do hate it. Maybe we will never fully understand what we love and what we hate about the South––but we do know that we are not outside agitators, that whether we stay here and fight out of love, inertia, or obligation, the South is ours too.