Dear Lily June,
As completely un-Southern as it is of me to do, I’m just going to get right to the point with this one. (If you’re confused, see Part I from yesterday.)
To any Southerners who may stumble across this, know that I lived in the South for only about a decade, and I could furnish you with just as many (if not more) complaints about the Northeastern part of the United States where I come from. Where I am wrong, though, I await to be humbly corrected.
Part Two: The Things I Won’t Ever Miss about the South
A strange culture of violence permeated and percolated down South, a glorification of fists and bullets over facts and figures. I more than once had a student make the argument that guns should be allowed on campus. Maybe it was something to do with how the genders split along such traditional lines of demarcation–machismo versus domesticity–though there seemed to be a violence in women directed towards themselves and their bodies. (They were supposed to cook like Paula Dean but look like Scarlett O’Hara, sans the aid of an antebellum corset.)
Regardless, the regular rumor around where we lived was that this football player had put that stranger into such and such hospital (outside the stadium, no less) and so neither would be in class. To further send home the symbol, the mall (which we called The Small) just down the road from where we lived had a giant tank and jetfighter plane just sitting out front, immortalizing war in the parking lot.
The Institutionalized Racism
I’ve written about my experiences with this in more depth here. But there’s no other way to say this for me: living in the South feels heavy, as if the humidity weighing you down isn’t just made of weather but the sweat of ghosts. You see it subtly, when at almost every restaurant, the servers have one skin color, the patrons another. You see it blatantly, when students at the University of Alabama end up in the news again for yet another “incident”–like lynching dummies outside of their fraternities. You see it, and you keep pushing through it, like wading in a kiddie pool filled with feces.
I’m not oblivious to the fact that racism exists everywhere. The “joke” was that, in the South, they just advertise it more honestly. But I couldn’t help averting my eyes from my one black coworker when, together, we’d enter our academic building, Morgan Hall, named for John Tyler Morgan, a Confederate general and major proponent of racial segregation during Reconstruction. A huge portrait hung in the building honoring him, as if the past were literally hanging over the present for all of us.
The Economic Disparity
I also couldn’t help thinking, every time I saw a mansion planted in the very same neighborhood as relative shacks, that I was witnessing the remnants of slavery. I will never forgot when a student came into the Writing Center where I worked as a graduate student. She was having trouble with a paper, she said, about the roles of family. To aid in brainstorming, I started asking her, “Well, who does the dishes around the house? Who cooks? Who does the yard work?” She pointed at her fingers, listing them off, “Well, the cook does the cooking, the maid does the cleaning, the gardener does the gardening…”
I stood dumbfounded. I knew then what it really meant to be a Have Not, and to be the teacher to an entire class of Haves. Their reality was not my reality. And my reality was not the reality of the clerks at the gas station across the street from me, who couldn’t afford the taxes on the cigarettes I was purchasing with stipend money. But neither of us shared the reality of one of my students, heir to a large tobacco fortune, who told me he was only going to college because “Daddy is making me.” He barely passed basic English. And he could have bought and sold me.
The Denial, Dissembling and Oversimplifying
I don’t know how many times I was told I “didn’t get it” because I was a Yankee. I guess I still don’t. Because I don’t understand how so many in the South could fly Confederate flags on their front porches (eerily similar to the Alabama state flag pictured above) and could say it was “Heritage, not Hate.” That felt like dissembling to me, as did the claim that the Civil War was about “states’ rights.” Right, I thought. Like the right to continue slavery, an economic system with a heritage OF hate. History to me, Lily June, is not a buffet–something from which you can pick the appetizing parts to remember, while letting the less appealing parts rot on their respective plates.
Even on a smaller scale, there was a false smile on the face of the South that never sat well with me. They supposedly took so much pride in their hospitality, but I was rarely granted evidence of such cultural kindness that went beyond the surface. There was a secretary, for instance, in our department, born and raised in the South, who was fond of saying to your face, “I appreciate ya!” whenever you’d leave her office. But the second the door clicked closed behind you, she would spew a stream of back-biting invective under her breath about you. It was a commonly accepted thing, what comedians call the “Bless Your Heart” phenomenon. I longed for the seemingly more honest Resting Bitch Face of my Northern youth.
The Dirty South
To go to a more surface-level complaint (literally), let’s talk involuntary off-roading. Like those who live near a beach might find themselves constantly plucking grains of sand from out of their every possession, you couldn’t throw a stone in Alabama without hitting the deep red clay that seemed to stain everything.
I sympathize with you, Cousin Vinnie. Watching this again felt like what I used to call morning.
The Creepy Crawlies
Speaking of dirty, when I first got to my Southern campus, I was told there was a surefire way to catch cockroaches: Take a bowl, butter the sides along the inside, and poor a bottle of beer into the bottom. The bugs, attracted by the scent of the beverage, will attempt to crawl into the bowl, but will slip along the butter, and drown in the beer instead. I’m not a little ashamed to say that I tried it, but found it largely ineffective. All I ever caught were undergrads. (On a serious note, Windex does work. But the death is a cruel one–slow, drunken stumbling that is near operatic).
In the meantime, no matter how dirty or clean you kept your place, the tell-tale signs of an infestation were everywhere. The sounds of skittering in the dark. The liquid defecation, spread like tiny puddles of watered-down chocolate syrup around the counters and corners of your kitchen. And worst yet, the sightings: Here under your refrigerator, there in your shower drain. I feared, for months upon moving back North, that eggs had been laid in my suitcases, my shoes. I awaited that first, as the euphemism goes, “Palmetto Bug” to spring up in my bed. I’ll let you know if I see it.
There were other bugs, too. Enormous colorful grasshoppers they sometimes referred to as devilhoppers or, in Louisiana cajun, the devil’s horses. The Southern Black Widow spiders with their black golf ball bulbous bodies and bright red hourglass tattoos. And as ubiquitous as the cockroaches were the cicadas, the everpresent buzz of which became the background soundtrack to my life. In autumn, they’d die, and their dry husks would drop to the ground so frequently, you couldn’t tell if the crunch you heard underfoot was from the leaves of trees or from their bodies.
Cigarettes (and Potato Salad)
I was told before moving down South that I had to like at least one of two things: cigarettes or potato salad. I never did develop an appetite for the mayo-based side dish, but damned if I wasn’t willing to destroy my heart twice as fast with tobacco and nicotine. I started with a single cigarette a day on my mile-long walk home from school/work, thinking I wasn’t addicted. By the time I was up to a pack and a half a day, I was still in denial.
It kills me now to think that not only was I doing something that was bad for me, I was on the wrong side of history. I never connected (or never let myself connect, mentally), tobacco farming with slavery, so I never felt ethically icky about purchasing a product that kept blood money flowing into the hands of the same old families. The cancer I might get as a result? Almost feels deserved, Lily.
On the one hand, for a girl who didn’t own a car and had to walk a mile each way to school and work, and two miles to the grocery store, having 40+ degree (F) winters helped me considerably. (Though it did trigger the locals’ sweaters and claims of “seasonal affective disorder.” On one of the two times it snowed in the almost decade we lived there, your father and I made snowmen the length of my forearms and stored them in our freezer to remember.)
On the other hand, for a girl who didn’t own a car and had to walk a mile each way to school and work, and two miles to the grocery store, having 100+ degree summers almost killed me. Some days, the heat was so stifling, so oppressive, you needed only to pop a pinkie toe outdoors, out of the AC, to become drenched with your own perspiration. If the joke where I’d come from, in Pittsburgh, was that the four seasons were “Almost Winter, Winter, More Winter, and Construction,” Tuscaloosa had its own version: “Almost Summer, Summer, More Summer, and Christmas.”
But more devastating that the heat were the natural disasters. We moved to the South just after Katrina. And because I’ve already spoken to the tornado your dad and I went through, I won’t rehash old territory, in no small part because that moment of my life continues to haunt me. I suppose some part of it haunts everyone who lived there, but I couldn’t live there anymore after it happened. I had to flee.
And so this carpetbagger came back home where she belonged and started a family. But that doesn’t mean I’ll ever shake the memories.
- By User:Gator87 – File:Southern United States Civil War map.pngInformation taken from File:Census Regions and Divisions.PNG, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=15055407
- By I, Bluedog, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2241514
- By Warren K. Leffler, U.S. News & World Report Magazine. Restored by Adam Cuerden – Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division. U.S. News & World Report Magazine Collection.This image is available from the United States Library of Congress’s Prints and Photographs division under the digital ID ppmsca.05542.Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1596903
- By Carol M. Highsmith – This image is available from the United States Library of Congress’s Prints and Photographs division under the digital ID highsm.09254. Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=11972384
- By Steve Hall – http://openclipart.org/clipart//signs_and_symbols/flags/america/united_states/usa_alabama.svg, CC0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=323985
- By AMALAN619 – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=18473200
- By NWS Huntsville – National Weather Service, Huntsville, AL, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=15218162