Is there another Southern narrative?

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.

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2 Responses to Is there another Southern narrative?

  1. Savta says:

    you have hit the nail on the head: It lies in a deep attachment to family and to community, and to the values of community. This is true in all communities, but perhaps it is more cherished in our south. But is there a flag for that? Thank you for sharing this.

  2. In 1971, my family moved down to Davidson, NC from Rhode Island where my father taught at Brown. I was raised by northeastern liberals in a small southern town. More to the point is my choice to live in a small community in South Carolina (accessible to Charlotte) and send my son to a public high school in rural Clover, SC. But here’s where things get interesting. In 1949, the feminist activist daughter of an upper class family from Elmira, NY, moved to Clover to join her husband who was starting the district’s first band program. Clover had 3500 people at the time, and as Janet Mann writes, her mother was in despair that her well-brought-up, college-educated daughter was going to bury herself in this tiny town. Yet, that’s exactly what she did, and she and her husband, the nationally-known Jazz musician Matt Wingard, lived here for the rest of their lives. The community embraced them, and they left a music appreciation legacy in this community the likes of which other school districts wish they had.
    When my son graduates this spring, I’ll complete my term as Band Booster president. Last November, during the band’s huge annual Fall Fish Fry when I was talking with one of the mom’s (a woman from one of Clover’s old families) about not eating meat, I said, “I know I’m weird.” She responded, “No you’re not. You’re just different.” That’s what Janet Mann understood soon after she arrived in ’49. She cared about making this tiny town a better place as much as the people who had been here for generations, and once Clover residents realized that, they didn’t care where she came from or how she had been brought up. Is Clover an exception? I can’t say, but I do know that working within the established social framework of a community like this allows people from diverse backgrounds to work together for the common good …even in the isolated bubble of tiny area in the Deep South.

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