August 18, 2011

The South I know

My father used to have a sign with the saying “American by birth, Southern by the grace of God” hanging in his shop. I like that…

Another quote I like, that I just heard this evening, is, “The south is the soul of America…”

You hear people bad mouthing the southern United States everywhere. Rednecks, hillbillies, inbred, etc etc… we’ve heard them all. We’ve been made fun of in every medium you can imagine. I’ve had people that have moved away from here use the line, “Thank God I got away from there..” funny thing is… they always seem to come back.

When talking about the south you have to recognize first that we are all aware of the bad things. But then… reality, more often than not, isn’t quite the same as perception is it? What most people know to be true isn’t actually true at all.

Contrary to what you may learn through media and modern text books about the civil war, the vast majority of white southerners were not standing around in fine clothes, sipping mint juleps while their slaves worked the fields… Most southerners were on about the same economic level as the slaves. Indeed, most people that lived in the south barely scratched out a living at all. The civil war wasn’t fought over slavery, it was an issue of unfair taxation on the exportation of goods from the south because people in Washington didn’t want too much power to shift from the good old boy network of industrialists to the “nouveau riche” hands of southerners… but then, I’m not debating history…

What is the south that I know?

The south that I know is a place where it didn’t matter what financial status you were born into, or what race for that matter, everybody played together as kids. We didn’t question things when we were little, you just did what was expected of you or suffered the consequences. Growing up, discipline was bred into you from day one. When you crossed that line you would hear the call of “go get me switch” and you knew what was to follow, so you towed the line… well, most of the time. It’s a place where you can walk up to a chimney sitting in an open field and have someone tell you that a plantation once stood there, but was burned down when union troops came through. The same ground, undisturbed, still sits there. History is alive here.

The south is a place where the humidity comes to life at night and wraps its arms around you, attempting to pull you away from the world that you know and throw you head first into a world of whiskey soaked voodoo that you never knew existed. There is a glue that holds the south together with a sense of community that cant be understood unless you’ve lived in it. This sense of unity is exercised all over the south on Friday nights at high school football games and every Sunday morning at the churches that dot the landscape.

In the south you’re expected to sit down for a while and talk to people. There shouldn’t be running in and out of places to grab what you need so you can rush back home. When you stroll into a business you’re expected to look for people that you know, and if you don’t know anyone, you’re expected to act as if whoever comes up to you and asks if you need help is a long lost cousin you haven’t seen in years. The art of conversation is a dying one…

We fix things when they don’t work right, with whatever we have available to us that will do the job, usually duct tape… and we don’t really give a damn what you think about it. That’s another thing about us that’s been bred into us from birth, being frugal and making do with what you have. You would be shocked to know that all those forwarded emails you get hallmarking the latest “redneck photos” are usually filled with photos that were shot north of the Mason Dixon line… just as most of the people of walmart photos are… like I said, perception versus reality.. it’s a bitch…

We hold strong to tradition here. There was a period in our history when there was a literal attempt to burn away our traditions, and we’re still pissed off about it. While General Sherman murdered, robbed, raped, and burned his way across the state I live in he was followed by two groups of people. The first group was comprised of slaves seeking freedom. The second group was made up of soldiers bent upon retribution. When he finally reached his goal he burned a bridge behind him, leaving the slaves to the mercy of the soldiers that were hot on his heels… Mercy is what they got because by the time this rolled around the united states government was the largest purchaser of slaves in the history of this country, buying slaves from Cuba to send to the frontier to fight Indians since everyone else was busy with the war. Most of the slaves that were left behind actually took up arms against the union soldiers for this little bit of helpfulness. Regardless of what we are shown by media, we still teach the things our fathers taught us to our children. Reeducation can sometimes be a pain, but in the long run its worth it. Sherman was talked out of destroying Savannah by its citizens, bearing gallons of whiskey and common sense. They took the “just get him drunk and keep him smiling til he gets bored and goes home” approach… it worked.

We just do what has to be done. When hurricane Katrina blew through I was talking about it online with people from England in a forum. They were appalled with the slow response of the federal government. I asked this question, “the area of total devastation from that one storm covered more than the total of your entire island, if that happened there, how quick would parliament react?” we don’t depend on the government to clean up the mess, we already know they are full of shit. So we just do it ourselves. That is what we have done throughout all of our history.

We sound funny when we talk, and we like it.

We would rather spend the evening in the front yard with our kids chasing fireflies than going to a wine tasting. There just isn’t any sweeter sound in the world than the noise a slamming screen door makes when kids are running outside to play. Toss a few other people in the mix and you have the recipe for a full night of front porch sitting that nothing could beat. Conversation about everything from what the neighbors are doing to the very existence of god is sure to be had, and is looked for with relish and contentment.

Being born here, I’ve gotten to do some pretty amazing things. I’ve stood on a spot in Savannah where slaves were sold right off the boats from Cuba. I’ve read diaries kept by soldiers and those waiting at home for their return from the civil war, now that gives you a fairly accurate picture of what life was really like here then. I grew up in a small southern town where everybody knew me and we share all the same memories of people and places. I’ve smelled the freshly cut grass on a Friday night football field before the game started. I stood atop a mountain and looked into a valley where people died trying to simply protect their homes and families from an invading army. I stood alone at doctor buzzards grave at midnight and listened to the wind moving through the moss in the live oaks. I’ve traded for shrimp right off the boat at the docks when they first come in off the Atlantic. I’ve sat on the pier at Tybee island and watched the sunrise. I’ve listened to my father and his brothers tell stories while sitting around a fire all night. I sat on a front porch with my grandfather as he told me how he and his new bride worked and raised their children in the face of adversity, and beat the odds. I’ve drank moonshine directly from a still hidden in the woods. I played golf with my mother in the early hours of a Saturday morning. I sat in a church and listened to a little Cambodian man tell the story of how he escaped a genocidal regime. I stood for over an hour staring into the faces of my Cherokee ancestors in an old photograph. I cried when I learned of the death of an old black woman that didn’t know how old she was or how to read or write, but was there every day when I got home from school with a glass of ice water just for me. I brushed the cheek of my father while I stood next to him in the hospital and the world I knew came crashing down so hard I couldn’t breathe, and… by the grace of God, I am raising my sons in the same place I grew up in. That is the south I know.