Stuck on a Yo-Yo: Southern Origins, Diaspora and Homecoming

Part 1: Can I call it thoughtless? A narrative introduction

a series by Max Thorn, guest writer; illustrations by Cindi Taylor, guest artist

At the time, I was ready to leave. I hated the façade of gentility, the conservatism, the pearls and the neckties, and most of all, the summer heat. I liked barbecue, but not much else about the South escaped my verbal berating. Besides outright disparagement, indifference seemed like the only other option—such was my acquired disposition. So three years ago, when it came time to apply to colleges, my two criteria were “small, liberal arts college” and “not in the South.”

I cast my net into Vermont, New York, Massachusetts, Colorado, Portland, and Seattle. Disclosure:  I applied to New York University, among other large universities—none of which can be considered “small” or “liberal arts,” leaving no doubt as to which was the more important of my two criteria. It was only to satisfy my parents that I applied to Hendrix College—a small, liberal arts school about three hours south of my hometown of Fayetteville, Arkansas. Three years later, I am a resident of Colorado Springs, Colorado, home to Colorado College, a school which happens to meet both of my senior-year “criteria.” How did I get here?

My father is only one generation removed from East Arkansas cotton farmers; his grandfather had to leave farming because of the Depression and the boll weevils (a beetle that infested cotton plantations, leaving destruction in its wake). My great-grandfather traded in plows for pencils:  he taught school and managed to pass the bar examination. He eventually joined the political circus in the Arkansas capital, Little Rock, as Speaker of the House of Representatives during a time and in a place that bred politicians (white, Protestant, and male) who dealt with issues like Prohibition, farmers’ movements, and notoriously, Jim Crow laws. My grandfather came from Harrisburg, a small town situated on an errant fault-line affectionately called Crowley’s Ridge. After college in Fayetteville and a few years of married life in a couple of Southern towns, he relocated across the river from the State Capitol building to what was at the time a much smaller suburb called North Little Rock, the city where my family still goes for holidays.

My mother’s parents grew up in Booneville and Danville, two tiny Arkansas towns that even I have trouble finding on a map. Although I have trouble recalling them, flashes of my own memories combined with my family’s constant emphasis on knowing our history tells me that I must have spent some time, however brief, in those small, rural towns where high school football is king and if someone isn’t at church on Sunday morning they’re either visiting kinfolk or dead.

These are my roots, and their tangled arms have more of a hold on me than I expected. I tried to pull them up with one solid jerk, only to be overwhelmed by their depth.

I’ve rarely felt myself to be a typical Southerner. The traditional definition of the South includes the eleven states that seceded from the Union, recited here by heart:  South Carolina, Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Texas, Virginia, Arkansas, Tennessee, and North Carolina. Nowadays I don’t include Texas, often because of the very habit of Texans insisting that their state “is unlike any other,” “used to be its own country,” “is fucking big,” et cetera. Nor do I include Florida (except for maybe the northern part) for fairly obvious reasons such as Disney World and retired New Yorkers. My hometown situates me geographically as a fringe Southerner:  I was raised in Fayetteville, which sits not even forty-five minutes from Oklahoma to the west and Missouri to the north. Kansas City—the epitome of the Midwest—is accessible by car in four hours’ time. The town houses the University of Arkansas. There, a small but dedicated group of mostly University-affiliated men and women have for generations subverted typical Southern values, some consciously and others without realizing it. Fayetteville also sits on the Ozark plateau, dominated by hills and forests. My home town is quite far from that iconic but ultimately misleading picture that most American History textbooks paint of the South: a land of vast, flat farms or humid, coastal plantations.

I hate the hot weather and the humidity. Driven by some strange kind of masochism that I fail to understand despite years of trying, many Southerners live for this kind of stultifying weather (my father perhaps more than any other). In the summers the South breaks into two dichotomous worlds, one with air-conditioning and one without. The two rarely meet, but by August even the more hardcore of heat enthusiasts retreat into artificially cooler climes. August heat collides with the traditional Southern man’s fashion. Lax summer rules maintain an emphasis on a necktie and slacks but allow him to lose the suit jacket and roll up the sleeves of his dress shirt. This gave rise in my family’s United Methodist church to the peculiar but welcome phenomenon of the “Camp Meeting Month,” during which pastors trade their pulpit robes for cooler, almost scandalously casual polo shirts and sermons to match. I still found no respite, and have personally never been able to cope with summer in the South. My only relief from the heat came from rivers—the Buffalo in particular. But by mid-July even this impressive body of water dries up enough to force canoeists and kayakers to drag their boats as much as they paddle them.

The Southern drawl, that most immediately recognizable and archetypal Southern asset (or detraction, depending on your point of view) never makes itself too apparent in my voice. I am told that I have very little of what many know as a Southern accent, a notion probably formed through a combination of the Beverly Hillbillies, Billy Graham and Mike Huckabee. The closest I come is the Southern vowel shift, with which I unwittingly make homonyms out of words like “pen” and “pin,” or “Ben” and “bin.”

Furthermore, I have never been hunting, and I’ve always been terrible at fishing. Football lost its allure by my senior year of high school. I drove a Nissan Altima instead of an SUV or a truck, and I’ve always thought that those who drive the latter (and thus consider themselves more “Southern”) are utterly misled. My parents still frown at me for not compulsively using “sir” and “ma’am” or for not shaking hands with adults to whom I had just been introduced. I don’t own anything seersucker. I do, however, have a hard time voting for Democrats—not because I find Democrats too radical but because Democrats are not radical enough.

I went to college having been ready to escape the South for years, and when my opportunity  arrived—or rather, I arrived at my opportunity—I finally felt free to solidify my sense of self through voluntary culture shock. My familiar cultural backdrop vanished, and I found myself among students from all across the U.S. and beyond. Here were people who had never been to church (not even on Easter or Christmas), never eaten okra, didn’t hold doors open for others, honestly used colloquialisms like “wicked” (which I had only ever heard in parody) and whose mothers kept their maiden names after marriage.

Before meeting them at college, I had known these people existed. In fact, I had made it a point during the latter part of high school to find them, those who were displaced as I now am. I felt “in,” like I had something my peers did not. What I had was a cheap illusion of cosmopolitanism. I longed to be immersed in a new culture; only in hindsight have I realized that this longing had less to do with a desire for the company of those culturally different than it had to do with my very active desire to leave the culture that had me in its hold by default. Upon this realization I should have recognized the depth of my subconscious Southernness:  I had created a binary between “this culture”—the Southern one—and “that culture,” a foreign, monolithic culture that only varied slightly among every other part of the entire United States.

On a freshman year backpacking trip through Colorado’s Gore Range, a New Englander had brought her iPod and a small, battery-powered speaker. Within a few songs, the generic college standards—Radiohead, The Beatles, The Doors—were interrupted with some knockoff of a bluegrass song. Immediately a smattering of voices interrupted my Southern reminiscing. Each one relayed the intricacies of his or her own love affair with bluegrass and old-time music, a rabble of stories and accolades that culminated in someone from Connecticut gushing that “bluegrass is such a part of my life.”

It took a lot of effort to hold in a slew of insidious questions that inched further and further up my throat. I found myself, not even a month into my first year away, ready to defend the integrity, history and essential Southernness of bluegrass, and by extension, the South itself. My defensiveness told me that I saw Southernness as something inaccessible to those not born into it. Of course I know that bluegrass has for decades carved a place in our national culture, despite its thoroughly regional genesis in the South. But at the same time I somehow felt robbed, angry that a born-and-bred New Englander claimed as her own something so integral to my culture.

Of course it turns out that I robbed myself. I cannot rightly blame any non-Southerner who, because of the disappearance of many regional barriers in American consumer culture, has come to love bluegrass any more than I can blame a Southerner who has made Latino music a part of her life. The issues of provinciality, cultural ownership and appropriation are relentlessly tricky. For three years I had willingly put conscious effort into shirking my Southern origins, believing it all to be intellectually stifling, creatively deprived, morally self-righteous, politically delusional, full of pretentious and inane traditions and permeated with hypocritical rules for behavior. The shame I carried, courtesy of the South’s dark history of racism and systemic oppression, was firmly rooted in my consciousness.

But do not expect this to be a manifesto calling for the South to rise again, nor a tear-stained ballad that finds no fault whatsoever in “home.” Much of the South still doesn’t sit well with me, and I may never go back for good. But beginning with that moment in the Gore Range, I now realize that what I wanted to do was keep the South in a little shoebox hidden in my closet, there for me when I wanted it but most days kept out of the way. I wanted to simultaneously retain the right to throw it out as backwards while still having the right to claim my roots in the same soil that grew the greats: William Faulkner, Zora Neale Hurston, Truman Capote, Robert Penn Warren, Martin Luther King, Al Green, Louis Armstrong, the beginnings of jazz, the entirety of the blues, sweet iced tea, and actual barbecue (which, let’s be clear about this, is not just grilled meat—barbecue requires sauce, and the ongoing debate in the South between mustard-, vinegar- or tomato-based sauce is a vital form of regional preservation).

Is it selfish to want both of these rights—the right to reject the South and the right to embrace it? Perhaps, but I want them all the same. Must one born in a culture he or she didn’t choose be forced to accept that culture? To expect this of anyone would be absurd; to expect it of a Southerner perhaps even more so. There must be something more to being Southern than assenting to a list of historical events and enacting cultural clichés. What does it really mean to me to have Southern origins? A sort of meta-answer to that question is the appropriate one:  A persistent emphasis on history, on origins, is the definitive aspect of my Southernness. With ferocity and deep-seated respect I have begun to wrestle with my Southern origins in order to find my sense of place in the world, all the while still missing that sweet tea.

This article is part one of a series. Look for an interview with CC sociology professor (and Southerner) Jeff Livesay in next block’s issue.

Stuck on a Yo-Yo

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