You know, I’m not a person who’s particularly easily offended. I don’t walk around with a giant chip on my shoulder, daring someone to try to knock it off. I don’t wear my heart on my sleeve, whining every single time someone dares to hurt it. I don’t look for reasons to get my panties in a twist. But there is one thing that pretty much sets me off every single time it occurs.
I am a born and bred Southerner and I refuse to either apologize for that or be ashamed of it. Worse, I’m not just Southern, I’m from Mississippi, the popular choice for most backwards, racist, idiot filled state in the country. I have lost count of just how many jokes I’ve heard made at the expense of my home state and those of us who are from there. And don’t even get me started on the morons out there who preach about just how horrible a place it is when they’ve never so much as set foot in the state. Even more offensive to me are native Southerners who buy into the perceived shame of their heritage. One example that comes to mind is the comedian, Brett Butler. I used to watch her years ago and she usually made me laugh. Right up until she made a joke out of how smart she was for getting out of the South. It went something like this, “I was born and raised in the South and I’d like credit for getting out.” I don’t think I’ve watched her since then.
It’s not that I’m some kind of nut who goes off the deep end every time someone makes a joke about the South or Southerners. If you’ve ever seen the movie, “Sweet Home Alabama,” then you’re familiar with a long string of jokes that had me laughing so hard I was crying. It portrays Southern life pretty well. I always laugh especially hard at the scenes of the Civil War Reenactment. I’ve actually been to one of those. And there are countless other comedians who poke their share of fun at Southern culture and behavior. Believe me, it’s hard not to laugh at some of the things my fellow Southerners do. But I do not understand why so many have to turn it into something ugly. It’s a form of bigotry, whether anyone else is willing to see it as such or not.
For example, Mississippi is supposed to be a hotbed of racism. Okay, only a fool would deny that much of the South took a very long time to get over their backwards views of blacks. Some horrible things happened there. But it wasn’t just in Mississippi or just in the South. And what happened 30 or 50 or 150 years ago has nothing to do with today. I will openly admit that I grew up surrounded by racism. Mostly, it was the kind of racism based on ignorance and/or repeating what was heard from others. Like all racism or bigotry, people who have no first hand knowledge just repeat what they’ve heard others say without bothering to question it. This doesn’t somehow make it “better” than blatant hatred of someone just for the color of their skin, but there is a difference between the two. Mainly, those who are racist out of ignorance are much more easily reached than those who are firmly entrenched in their hatred. I’ll use my own mother as an example.
She was born and raised in Tennessee. (Both my parents were.) Not just Tennessee, but a hole in the wall little place. She disliked black people, not because any black person had ever done anything to her, but because she’d heard all her life that they were somehow unworthy of trust and/or respect. (My father was much the same way.) It’s what I think of as “generational” racism. They got it from their parents, who got it from their parents, etc. But my mother was a natural born teacher. During my elementary years she began working occasionally as a substitute teacher at my school. Then she got her GED and became a teacher’s assistant. Don’t make the mistake of thinking that just because my mother did not graduate from high school, she was stupid or dumb. She wasn’t. She just lived in a time and place when graduating, especially for girls, wasn’t that big a deal. So, anyway, she was working full time at my elementary school by the time I reached 5th or 6th grade. One of the other elementary teachers was a black woman. That was, I believe, the first time my mother ever really had the opportunity to get to know a black person. I mean really get to know them. Knowing this one person opened my mother’s eyes in a profound way. It taught her that all the garbage she’d heard her entire life was, in fact, not true. It changed her life.
Okay, so the South has plenty of racism. Yes, there are groups like the KKK, skinheads and neo-nazis who’ve carried it to violent extremes. But none of that behavior is limited to the South. And this I know first hand from personal experience. I was born and raised in Mississippi, but I have spent my entire adult life living above the Mason-Dixon Line. In fact, as my childhood best friend recently pointed out to me, I have now lived longer in the North than I did in the South. (Pardon me for just a moment while I grieve for that fact….Okay, I’m back now.)
I lived in Mississippi for almost the first 18 years of my life. I moved to Indiana just before my 18th birthday and have lived there ever since. (More than 21 years, now.) So I have plenty of experience with life in both regions, and what have I found? I have found that there is every bit as much racism here in the supposedly enlightened North as I ever saw in my backwards home state. The biggest difference is that up here it is far more insidious. It hides behind false smiles and pretended tolerance. I was told that one of the grand wizards of the KKK once lived right here in my small town. A family that I knew quite well and that fronted a friendly, open, Christian appearance turned out to have VERY close ties to the Klan. (Not so close to them now.) Even people I respect on many other issues have some frighteningly racist leanings. I find it a little scary just how well it’s hidden around here.
I make no excuses for Southern racism. Racism is never excusable, never “okay.” It is very offensive to me, but even more so when it comes from someone who hides it behind a smile. Someone who spews racist rhetoric is at least honest about how they feel. They aren’t shaking hands with a person of color with a big ol’ smile plastered on their face while secretly thinking about how beneath them that person is, or worse, spewing their skewed views behind that person’s back. I’ve seen all this right here in the good old North. Yankees are every bit as racist as Southerners, they’re just much more secretive about it. And that, in my book, makes them even worse. Because they’re two faced. Talking love, and respect, and wholesome Christian values out of one side of their mouth while the other spreads cliched racist lies.
So, maybe, the next time someone makes a joke about backwards, inbred, racist Southerners, you might want to take a moment to consider that it is just as offensive as a joke about a black person and a watermelon. I am a born and bred Southerner. I am highly offended by every form of racism. I am intelligent, educated, and hardly “backwards.” I am proud of much of my Southern heritage. Believe me when I tell you that being Southern is a blessing. As the saying goes, “American by birth, Southern by the grace of God.” Yes, slavery is a part of our past. But there was a time when Northerners owned slaves as well. And that whole notion that the Civil War was all about Southern plantation owners not wanting to lose their slaves is a load of baloney. Sure, slavery played a role in the war, but there was a lot more to it than that. The point is, I’ve never known a single person who owned a slave and neither have you. Well, maybe you have. There was a news story I read just the other day about a human slave ring that was broken up in NYC recently involving a bunch of young women from Africa who were being forced to braid the hair of black women while being kept in deplorable conditions and frequently raped and abused as well. The leader of the slave ring was a black woman. Imagine that.
So maybe it’s time people pulled their heads out of the sand and took a real look around. The South is not the seat of all racism any longer. It is not a hotbed of human atrocity and abuse. It is just a geographical region filled with people who, despite having an accent that makes them sound a little slow, are sick and tired of being labeled as something they aren’t. That accent doesn’t make us stupid. It just makes us different.
I am proud of who I am and where I come from. I was raised to be honest, loyal, and trustworthy. I was raised to understand that my family is my responsibility. I was raised to love with all my heart and without reservation. I was raised to believe in God, to trust in Him and to know that He died for me. I was raised to be polite and respectful, but to stand up for what I believe in. I was taught to love, even when it isn’t easy to do so. Even when your heart is breaking, you hang on. Seen “Steel Magnolias?” Then you know what I’m talking about. Being Southern shouldn’t have to be something shameful. As I told someone who made a joke (directly to my face) about how backwards my home was, “I’d rather be from a backwards place like that, than from anywhere I’ve lived or visited since leaving.”
Being Southern has been nothing but a blessing to me. Even the racism I grew up surrounded by came with a bonus. It made me hate racism. It taught me to recognize it, even when it was well hidden. The fact is, I haven’t lived in the South for more than 2 decades. The other truth is, every time I go home (which is VERY, VERY seldom since both my parents are dead,) there’s a place on the road where something lifts from my chest. Some invisible weight that I don’t even notice until it’s gone seems to ease and my body reaches a state of relaxation that I cannot describe. I can’t give you a mile marker or a town name. But it’s somewhere south of Nashville, some time after the trees along the sides of the road become mostly tall pines. Somewhere after the kudzu starts covering anything that isn’t moving. Somewhere after little BBQ joints start popping up along the side of the road. There’s a place out there where my body seems to recognize that it’s almost home and I love it. I love those pines. Always did, despite the fact that where I’m from, they’re considered trash trees. And BBQ will never, ever be anything but a smoked pork butt that’s been slow cooked until it’s literally falling off the bone. And sweet iced tea is the most popular drink, often served in Mason jars just because that’s what’s sitting around.
Southern culture is not about racism. It’s about family and friends and hot nights filled with crickets and lightning bugs and slow rolling storms. It’s about honesty and hard work and never, ever letting someone who doesn’t know you tell you that you need to be ashamed of who you are or where you were born. Southern pride is a very real thing. Whatever mistakes my Southern ancestors made don’t belong on my shoulders and I won’t let anyone put that weight there. I am a Southern woman and no matter how long I live up here amongst the Yankees (nor the fact that I married one of them) will change who or what I am. If I live to be 100 and die and am buried up here, I will still be a Southern woman and I will still be proud of that fact.
So, if you’ve got a repertoire of Southern jokes or some foolish notion that the South in general, and Mississippi in particular are the root of all racist evil, then you better keep those things to yourself when you’re around me. Because that’s one thing I will set you straight on in a hurry. Someday, maybe I’ll get a chance to move back below the Mason-Dixon Line. My husband loves it down there. He loves the way life is slower, less harried. I won’t ever go back to my hometown. It’s a long story, but there are just too many painful memories there. But I wouldn’t mind living down South somewhere. Some place where my house can be surrounded by tall pines like these:
I actually sang this song as part of my school chorus. Gotta love Elvis, even if you aren’t Southern!