I was born in New York City, raised in Delaware, and spent the majority of my adult life in eastern Pennsylvania. I’ve only lived in the South for a decade, and in Atlanta at that. This past week, among the news from my home state, was the new vanity license plate adorned with the Confederate battle flag. This raised the scorn of many across the country and the support of others, particularly across the deep South. After all, the pro-flag narrative argued, shouldn’t the South be allowed to celebrate its heritage, part of which is, undeniably, the Civil War? I happen to fall on the scorn side of this debate, because celebrating the secession of the South in support of the institution of slavery is not among the things of which I would be all that proud. I understand there were many causes of the war and have, in fact, taught a semester-long course at my university examining those varied causes. But under any reading of history, preserving slavery was at the top of the list for the South to go to war.
My purpose here is not to replay that debate. Instead, I wonder whether there is not another southern narrative to which we can all proudly lay claim. Even though I am a transplant to the South, I love living here. So what does makes me appreciate life here (besides the weather and the best airport in the world)?
That is a real query, not one to which I already have a clearly articulated answer. I admit from the start that I don’t have the answer, but let me begin the conversation in a personal way, informed by my own experience. That experience of the South is primarily based upon life in Atlanta, but also stretches to the coast of Georgia where a second home sits, and plenty of travel across both urban and rural cities and counties inside and outside Georgia. When I consider why I have found living in the South so appealing and how I’ve come to appreciate the roots deeply tied to the southern heritage, two stories come to mind.
On one of my first official visits to a prominent foundation in town; my companion was the Board Chairwoman of our university. On the way up on the elevator, she reminded me very firmly what she expected of me. This was not Philadelphia or New York, where after an obligatory five minutes of making nice we would dive right into business. We would likely be given no more than an hour, but it was expected that we would spend at least half of that time off agenda, just talking. My partner clearly anticipated that I would get down to business at the first opening and, of course, she was right. That was exactly my plan. I recall the ride back down the elevator like it was yesterday. I started to whine the minute the doors shut. "Belle, we spent close to 75 minutes with him and we never, ever got to business". "Yes, Larry," she conceded, "and it was a perfect meeting." Within that story lies buried one of the things I have come to cherish about life here. It’s all about relationships. Not necessarily deeply intimate relationships, but real nonetheless. Most especially, a commitment to building those relationships is valued. I have sent far more hand-written thank-you notes in my time here than I did in all my years before I arrived (by a factor of 10,000). Good manners matter down here and at the age of fifty, I had to begin to learn how to become well-mannered.
The idea that life in the South is slower than up north is a myth, at least for those folks I know. I have never worked harder or longer. But work, I think, is defined a bit differently here. I have a breakfast meeting at seven-thirty almost every morning. I think the GAM (that would be the Grits Association of America) is behind the three eggs/side of waffles/ bowl of grits everyday breakfast conspiracy. Eating and work seem to go hand-in-hand down here. I also have a dinner event virtually every night where my new favorite food, shrimp and grits, is often on the menu. The grits conspiracy apparently extends into the evening. But the problem of overeating aside, breaking bread together is part of the way relationships are forged here.
I could tell more stories and I invite you to share some of your own, but allow me to move to the bigger question I have posed: is their a southern narrative other than one which lays proud claim to the Civil War? I think the answer here lies in a nostalgia for a simpler life, a life less corrupted by the influences of modernity. It lies in a deep attachment to family and to community, and to the values of community. That’s why, I believe, relationships matter as much as they do. That’s why sharing a meal, as one once did with one’s family, matters. It has to do with a yearning for a life that while no longer slower, still makes allowance for the attributes of a slower life. Those ideas emanate from the our collective southern heritage, whether one’s ancestors fought for the South or were victims of the prevailing southern culture. What do you think?
I invite readers to share their thoughts on this subject.