I love the South. I grew up in Oklahoma, which I think of as part of the South. It was not a state during the Civil War, but had it been, I suspect it would have seceded. The last confederate general to surrender at the end of the War of Northern Aggression, Stand Watie, was a Native American of the Cherokee Tribe who participated voluntarily in the removal of Native Americans to what is now eastern Oklahoma. Oklahomans refer to the southeastern third of the state as “Little Dixie.”
I always say I can prove that I’m a southerner because I have a sister whose (middle) name is Darrell, which is my great-grandmother’s maiden name. Who else but a southerner would reach back three generations for family names? The Darrells were a fine old former slave-owning family from southern Louisiana near the McIlhennys of Tabasco Sauce fame.
The South is a place of incredible natural beauty and an inventive, resilient culture that has contributed enormously to the larger culture of the United States. As a former colleague of mine argues, the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame should be in Memphis, not Cleveland. Rock ‘n’ Roll is, at base, a fundamentally southern invention. Then there are the many great southern story tellers who have immeasurably enriched the American literary imagination – Flannery O’Connor, Alice Walker, and William Faulkner, to name only a few.
As is often the case with humans, southerners’ best quality is also their worst quality. Southerners tend to be defiantly independent, caring little or not at all for what others think about them. An old song by that southern apotheosis of the intersection of country and rock ‘n’ roll music, Charlie Daniels, nicely summarizes this attitude: “People say I’m no-good/And crazy as a loon/I get stoned in the morning/ I get drunk in the afternoon/Kinda like my old blue tick hound/I like to lay around in the shade/An’, I ain’t got no money/ But I damn sure got it made/’Cos I ain’t askin’ nobody for nothin’/If I can’t get it on my own/If you don’t like the way I’m livin’/You just leave this long-haired country boy alone.”
This song also contains a swipe at televangelists, which is high irony given that southerners still attend church regularly at higher rates than other Americans. Of the states with the ten highest rates of self-reported regular church attendance, only two – Utah and Nebraska – are not southern states.
I admire Charlie Daniels’ philosophy, and tend to think this way myself. Of course, in my case, my defiance of convention manifests as being openly gay and Buddhist in an overwhelmingly heterosexist, homophobic, Christian culture, but I bet ol’ Charlie and I could get along just fine if the opportunity presented itself.
But a darker version of this same attitude manifested itself during the African American civil rights movement, when many white southerners took the position that anyone who called for racial integration just didn’t understand the realities of southern culture and traditions, and needed to go away and leave them all alone. Many white southerners proved willing to give up just about everything, including the respect of the rest of the nation and the rest of the world, in order to keep segregation.
On hearing that global opinion strongly condemned the violent response of police in Birmingham, Alabama to peaceful civil rights protestors, Alabama Governor George Wallace replied, “I don’t care what they think. After all, we’re feeding half of them.”
Several southern states enacted legislation in the wake of the Brown v. Board of Education decision requiring desegregation of American public schools that would have closed the states’ public schools entirely rather than comply.
This is the sad side of southern defiance, a cut-off-your-nose-to-spite-your-face sort of mentality that can result in all manner of willful stupidity in defense of an abstract notion of “southern culture.” I thought of this while reading a New York Times article recently about Louisiana Senator David Vitter, who is working anti-Obama sentiment among his state’s white voters for all it’s worth. The Times reports that, while Louisiana has among the highest percentage of adults with no health insurance, most of the white population opposes President Obama’s healthcare reform proposal.
This is the sort of political belief system that leaves the rest of the country scratching their heads and dismissing southerners as a bunch of stupid hicks.
But most true, white southerners don’t really care.