There are so many tired tropes about southerners: the Foghorn Leghorn accent, the Boss Hogg mannerisms, Scarlett O’Hara, the bigger the hair the closer to God. Okay, that last one might be true. Tropes are easy and cheap, which makes them great for characters and caricatures. It makes them instantly relatable. They’re a part of the culture, a part of the fabric and need no explanation or thought.
A handful of days ago, a couple of our local school board members decided to play these characters. They outed themselves as segregationists in the spring of 2018. They’re playing an old game in a new day. They played a good hand, got all kinds of press, all kinds of people up in arms. They reinforced that one small version of the South, a jaundiced, sickly version of the South. But that version they’re holding up? It’s not the only version, or even the predominant one. There’s the version where the kids are organizing themselves and amplifying the voices of those with less power than they. There’s the version where culture-makers are shifting our reality to be something more than the anemic world these people want to pretend we have. There’s the version where I get to interview local college students and they unfailingly tell me about how important equality and justice are to them. There are a lot of versions of the South. There are as many versions as there are family stories, as many stories as there are voices to say them. These unpleasant people don’t make up our story; they have their own story to tell, but they don’t tell mine, and they don’t tell the story of the people I know.
When this all happened, my instinct was to say “that’s not my South” like I could put up a wall around “my South”. The Good Lord knows it doesn’t work that way. These unpleasant people are a part of my South. They’re my neighbors; they go to my grocery store. Maybe I even work with some of them. They’ve got joys and sorrows. They’ve got families of their own, and they are my South – whether I like it or not, and no meme or rant will change that fact. They’re a part of our culture, and they’re a part of our world. They’re a part of our ever-growing diversity. They just happen to be a shrinking part of the story of our South.
The South is not some monolithic place. From the Dirty South to Natchez, Appalachia to Miami, (and I guess we’ll claim Asheville and Austin, too), our cities and states are filled with diversity. It just doesn’t always run toward the beautiful and quaint. There are segregationists, neo-Nazis, and maybe worst of all, people who talk a good game behind closed doors and won’t open their mouths in the light of day. The thing is, though, people like that do not get to tell the southern story part and parcel. They are not going to be the storytellers for our future. Others will tell our southern stories. Our kids will tell our stories, and the stories they will tell will be of love, of humility and of joy. They will be funny and tragic, and please, let’s make them interesting and honest. Let’s tell stories with so much depth that those other tales ring hollow and off-key in contrast. Let’s tell about how colorful and beautiful and radical we are. Let’s tell about how we’ve owned resistance for a very long time. Let’s tell about how southern hospitality means a hell of a lot more than having sweet tea at the ready, how it is about the Cajun Navy, about Bree Newsome tearing down that flag, and Jimmy Carter building Habitat houses well into his 90s. We are writing our own stories and they are powerful. They are vibrant. They are history.
It’s hard to have faith right now, and I’ve never been good at patience. I don’t have any real answers, and I don’t have any cute ending to this. I just want us to make our way out of this these times with safe passage. My mom was telling me a story about how she’s teaching my niece and nephew to say grace before meals, and that in a long-winded sermon-like blessing, my little niece said “and thank you for helping us be brave.” Dear God, I’m stealing a four-year-old’s prayer. Please let me be brave. Please help me be an instrument of your love and peace and help me make a beautiful South where this ugly kind of mess is a sideshow act in a dingy carnival, where these voices take their rightful place as a reminder of where we’ve come from and a humbling endnote.