Southern Discomfort

I lived in North Carolina for eighteen years, beginning in the fall of 1978 when I moved to Chapel Hill to study classics at the University of North Carolina, and ending in the fall of 1996 when I moved here to Athens to take a job at Ohio University. I was 20 years old when I moved down there--a very formative age. In spite of having spent nearly half of my life there by the time I left, however, I think I was always primarily a sojourner rather than a southerner in spirit. I loved North Carolina: it is a very beautiful place, and from Chapel Hill one can travel easily either to the mountains or the beach in just two or three hours of comfortable driving. My favorite spots were the Snowbird Mountains deep in the westernmost part of the state and the Outer Banks, but Chapel Hill itself is surrounded by beautiful country, and I have fond memories of many a long bike ride through farmland, forests, and hill country.

The real beauty of North Carolina, however, is not so much in the scenery as in the people. Of course, when you're in graduate school at a place like UNC, a lot of the people you meet are actually from out of town. Usually pretty far out of town. My teachers and fellow graduate students were mostly Damn Yankees. The same was true when, in the fall of 1990, I decided to start graduate school all over again at Duke University over in Durham. One of my teachers at Duke, Robert Brandon, was a native North Carolinian, but he did his own graduate work at Harvard and it showed. But I wasn't in school all the time, and from 1986 until 1990 I was actually a working stiff, and I got to meet plenty of natives, and I was always impressed by their kindness, their charm, and their basic decency.

I also met my wife in North Carolina, though she, too, was not a native. She grew up in the People's Republic of Ann Arbor, and may, to this day, be the only conservative to escape from that nut house. While we were both still in grad school she got involved with tutoring adults in reading, and I used to tag along with her sometimes because, well, I had a car and she didn't. So I guess I wasn't exactly tagging along, but, well, whatever. Anyway, one day while she was tutoring a woman who was working towards her GED I started playing with the woman's grandson, and eventually I became an unofficial Big Brother to him. As he grew up I would take him around to the local playgrounds, museums, libraries, movies, restaurants, and in general we had a good time. His father lived in Durham but he didn't see him very often. When he was very little we all called him BJ, but when he got to high school he changed his name--legally--to Christopher because of his serious committment to Christianity. Next year he will graduate from high school, and I'm planning to go down to North Carolina for the commencement activities.

In light of this rather boring and potted history of my time in North Carolina the title of today's entry might appear somewhat strange. After all, my time in North Carolina was actually quite comfortable. The discomfort has more to do with going back. Since moving to Ohio I have adopted an African American daughter, who is now four years old. She will come with me next summer, but I'm a little nervous about it. Race is a very complicated issue, and although I know that I cannot protect her forever I am still sad about some of the things that I imagine are in her future. Here in Ohio we are not immune to stares from folks who wonder what she is doing with us. (This is particularly uncomfortable when she's having a tantrum, and I am trying to lead her out of a store while she's screaming, at the top of her lungs: "Mommy mommy mommy! I want my mommy!" On the other hand, when is that ever comfortable?) In North Carolina, though, there is a little more baggage involved. Way back in 1979 I stopped at a gas station right in the heart of Chapel Hill. In those days the attendants came out and filled your tank for you and the whole thing cost about eight bucks. I got out of my car while the attendant was filling the tank, and we both watched as an African American walked past the station carrying one of those great icons of the 1970s, a gigantic boom-box, which was blaring some loud music. The attendant looked at me and shook his head, and then he said something I will never forget: "F&*%ing animals." It was only then, after having lived in Chapel Hill for almost a year, that I thought to myself, hey, this is the South-with-a-capital-S. The Civil Rights Act had been passed only 15 years before.

There are racists everywhere, of course--the south has no monopoly. I believe that I even have some close family members who are racists, and we were all raised in Ohio. It's not where you're from, it's what you're taught, what you learn to believe about human dignity and worth and about tribalism. I think that tribalism is probably the most important factor. A lot of people are happy to say that everyone has the same worth, the same dignity, but they still think of themselves as belonging to a particular group, and in their heart of hearts they are just plain more comfortable with folks from their own group. This can be a very innocuous attitude most of the time, but when it gets out of control it manifests itself in the form of racism: a judgment that someone who is different from me in some way is somehow deserving of something different precisely because he does not belong to my tribe. If he is not one of us, we don't owe him anything.

Tribalism is everywhere, too, but one of the things that makes me uncomfortable about the south is that some southerners have practically institutionalized it. It gets expressed in many ways. Some are seemingly harmless, for example, Confederate battle flags plastered on pickup trucks. Some are political, for example, referring to the Civil War as the War of Northern Aggression. Some are rather nasty, for example, the Ku Klux Klan. All tribes have their own equivalents of these, I think, so I don't mean to single out southerners as the only ones who practice this sort of thing. But Southern Pride is an unmistakeable phenomenon, and I don't think there is anything quite like it among northerners per se. There are the Irish, of course, and the Italians, the Germans, and who knows how many other groups who celebrate their national heritage; but I've never heard of "northern pride" and when you see an American Flag plastered on a pickup truck it's usually an expression of 21st century patriotism rather than 19th century Union Federalism.

So I love the south, but I confess that I also fear some aspects of southern culture, of southern tribalism. Although it is often couched in terms of independence and states' rights, it is difficult to forget the fact that most southern states, in their declarations of secession, did not give states' rights but the preservation of slavery as their reason for seceeding. The emphasis varied from state to state, but even in those states where states' rights was given as the main reason for seceeding, we find that it is offered as a negative reason: South Carolina, for example, was angry at northern states because they were exercising independence in not enforcing the federal laws demanding the return of escaped slaves. It comes as no surprise to me, then, that this is the sort of thing that many African Americans think of when they see a Confederate battle flag. Some southerners have said (indeed, I have heard a southern Catholic priest say) that this is not what the flag stands for, and it is folks' own fault if they misinterpet it so badly as to be upset by it. But the nagging question remains: well then, what exactly does it stand for? Southern culture? Which southern culture? The one that oppressed and enslaved blacks? No, the answer is supposed to be, the culture of independence and states' rights, the culture of antebellum grace and charm. But this culture only existed at the expense of the enslaved. What was truly noble about the antebellum south has far better symbols than the battle flag: Thomas Jefferson comes to mind.

When my daughter sees one of those flags and asks me what it stands for, what am I going to say? That it is a "Confederate battle flag"? What battle were the Confederates fighting, daddy? They wanted their independence. Independence from what? The United States. Why didn't they want to be part of the United States? Because they felt that the northern states had broken the Constitutional agreement. What agreement? To allow the expansion of slavery into new territories, and to return escaped slaves. What's a slave, daddy?

But all of that is just theoretical disputation. I'm sure that plenty of defenders of southern pride are not really racists. The problem is not being proud of your region or your heritage, but failing to see how tribalism can harm, failing to have empathy and compassion for differing points of view about the nature of your heritage and region. No culture can exist in a vacuum--southern culture is no exception. The icons we employ reflect the background of our beliefs, and that is as good a reason as any to do away with battle flags and Klansmen.

I'm sure my family will have a great time in North Carolina next summer--we always do. In my mind, as the song says, I often go to Carolina, especially the mountains. But I'm always mindful of what took place in this country and why, and how it will impact future generations. Including, now, my own family. It is somewhat discomforting.


Darwin said…
Maybe it's having grown up in Los Angeles (which despite it's rep has a very different racial atmosphere than the south and indeed also from older parts of the country such as Ohio and Michigan) but I've always felt very uncomfortable visitting the deep south. My mother-in-law's family goes way back in Baton Rouge, and I've come to think of visitting down there as "hanging out with the oppressor class". I don't know if it's in spite of or because of my conservative, middle class background, but the idea that there are parts of the country where the invariably black "help" address people as "Miss [first name" really bothers me -- not least because I've never, never seen anyone who isn't black in that kind of position down there.
Aw c'mon. Being an outsider seems more like a problem of discomfort. You can get the same feeling in parts of New York City and for sure in L.A. Try being a guest at a hotsy totsy Country Club or "Exclusive" restaurant. Find out what it's like to be the invisible man. Better yet....sit in the wrong section of town anywhere and you can feel not just out of place but threatened by your own presence on someone else's turf.

As to racism....ALL the deadliest race riots in this country were north of the Mason Dixon Line (New York, Boston, Chicago, Detroit) and what was that thing in Watts? or that other thing with Rodney King? Singling out the South....I'm not so sure we're not just comfortable blaming "the other" for the racism still practiced in the rest of the country. The fellow at the gas station said only what an awful lot of what went unsaid in the rest of the country. I'd bet either he was trying to make you feel at home or trying to make you feel uncomfortable...sort of a test of whether you're in or out. I'll buy in to the tribalism thing...but the same goes on in NYC where you can ask any woman how long it takes man to assert in one way or another that they went to Harvard or Yale (30 seconds). Same holds for the Rhodes Scholar crowd. Tribalsim can be about anything - including "being like Mike" or wearing the T-shirt of your favorite team. Some is threatening...some not. But ALL is intended to test you and whether you fit. Rites of passage.

Reading Teddy Roosevelt...the BIG reconstruction era unwritten agreement was that the South could practice Jim Crow so long as it kept blacks out of the North. Funny that Civil Rights didn't get any show until blacks started moving north. And yet still I'm challenged to find any blacks in New England today outside of these cities. By contrast....many families that migrated north are moving least to Atlanta. How do we explain this? How many urban youths get to dine with the Boston Brahmins up on Beacon Hill?

At the same time that the South may be or was more openly is also much more openly accepting. Least you know where you stand. Voting Rights laws have gone a long way to making progress...that is real progress rather than simply papering over and ignoring reality as folks do in the rest of the country....where let's face it...race relations are typically more academic than an everyday issue.

Voting Rights laws are still a puzzle with all the well meaning folks in other parts of the country unwilling to subject themselves to the same laws.....what are they afraid of? Surely racism doesn't disappear magically at the Pennsylvania border?

I claim no virtue in asserting that racism continues to be a problem in the US. Most of us who don't like to think in these terms and probably don't think about race....don't want to admit that there is simply no way racism is confined to 13 states.

The aftermath of Katrina brings this home....but also more generally that our poor have been left to fend for themselves, and appear untrained in the lessons of civic behavior and moral uprightness....only because the training they've received is precisely that practiced anyplace where survival is a physical struggle. Yet these same everyday "skills" they need on the streets are precisely the skills that hold them back elsewhere. How do you break this catch-22? Ever read Suskind's "Faith in the Unseen"? Great, great and true contemporary story or racism from the streets of Washington DC to Brown University.

Personally, I think the time has come for a little government reform. The time for just blaming southerners seems over...and didn't get the problem licked. What next? I think the decay is wider and deeper. I have no clue what the answer is...but it's certainly time to give up some of the shibboleths and take a real fresh look - accross the board.

That said, the challenge of the 21st century will be less about race and more about defusing nativism by knitting a nation together in real required national service. Start it in rebuilding New Orleans. Make it get to choose the service...but you gotta do it to become a citizen. This would do more to break down barriers than we can dream about.

Yeah....we're looking at a disaster on the Gulf. But as this sinks into the consciousness, I remain hopeful that a great awakening and renewal of both spiritual and civic virtues may come about. I'd just like to see us come to these sorts of renewals without the pre-requisite of disaster.
Steven said…
Dear Sir,

Two things.

When I lived in Ohio (Columbus to be exact), I worked with an African American woman who testified clearly to the fact that she was much more uncomfortable in Ohio than she had been in Mississippi. She stated that the racism was every bit as prevalent in Ohio as it had been in Mississippi; however, in Mississippi, if someone didn't like you, you knew it--they made no bones about it. In Ohio, if they didn't like or trust you they followed you around the store, dogging your steps and watching you.

(2) We had adopted an African American child some years ago, and I think I must live in the very best place in the entire world for this situation. No one looks twice or says a thing about it. In fact, the only questions we have ever gotten have been from small children who ask why Sam and I don't have the same color skin. My usual answer has been, "Because God made us that way." The answer seems to satisfy at least at these ages.

I was terrified when Sam was going with his mother up to West Virginia, which I thought would be a haven of racism if ever there was one. (Show you the peril of prejudice.) Sam, with his two white parents, was accepted by everyone we met, not a stare, nor a question, nor a remark, nor even an unpleasant feeling.

We haven't conquered racism, but I've been much encouraged by my experiences with my child. I hope the same proves true for you. There will be enclaves of hostility wherever you go. I pray that you do not encounter them and that you find your reception as warm and welcoming as it has been for us nearly everywhere we've been.

(The exception has been Washington D.C. area in which we got a remarkably hostile reception from the African Americans we encountered who seemed to think we were "stealing" children to somehow transform them into the racial equivalents of changelings.

I sure wish we'd all get over this "race" thing. There is one race--humanity, all beautiful, wonderful children of God.


Steven said…
Dear Sir,

All the above said, I must agree with you on the matter of the Confederate Battle flag. Some symbols are so misused, distorted, and associated with history they have lost any value they may have had for what they originally represented. I thin of the confederate battle flag, the swastika, and "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" all in this category of things. While what they originally may have meant may or may not have been a good thing, what they have come to mean through association is undoubtedly very, very bad. (The last of these the crow of the carpetbagger/reconstructionist as he raped the South.)



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