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Sunday, April 27, 2008

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Spibby

A very interesting non-question, Sloop. As someone who grew up "out West" (that being the REAL West, not Californ-i-a), the mythologies of space have always resonated with me particularly because a) we have so much of it out there, and b) no one knows where to find my state on a map. But never did I feel such spatial liminality as when I, in my early 20s, went to live in The South (Georgia, to be specific). I had never been to The South before. The closest I could claim was an adolescent trip to Disney World, which so obviously doesn't count that I want to abandon the mention of it right now.

But your post intrigues me particularly because I don't know if The South exists at all, except as a discursive referent. I recall the French(ie) philosopher Baudrillard saying that prisons exist in part to make us on the outside believe that we are free. In other words, it's not the reality of that space itself that matters, but my ability to positively distance myself from that space. I feel the same way about The South -- it is the opposite polarity which solidifies everything else which it is not. Just as the prison I as a free-person understand is not the same prison as a prisoner experiences, yet it provides my life with a referent for meaning, so I believe The South is not the same as the spaces and experiences lived in a particular geographic locale, but is instead a means for others to distance themselves from a particular ideology they claim to know yet reject.

When I was a wee undergrad, I remember having a conversation at the school cafeteria with a dormmate of mine (a person I loathed, so I won't say "friend"). He was from Chicago, and upon hearing I was from "out West," immediately asked "I would never live there -- there's nothing to do out there." I thought about defending my turf, but ended up saying nothing because the man was a total idiot, anyway. Also, I wouldn't have been able to say anything too articulate. But it strikes me now that it wouldn't have mattered much, anyway. The absurdity of the situation was that we both -- at that moment -- in the same space doing the same thing; having lunch in a cafeteria in the Midwest. The space itself didn't matter. What mattered was that he could taut his Chicago-ness as superior by degrading my Western-ness. Neither place actually existed, of course -- they were simply conveniences of ego.

Similarly, I don't think anyone lives in The South -- not even those distasteful stereotypes which are often said to inhabit the realm. I lived in a Southern state for a handful of years, yet I do not recognize it as The South. Just as I do not recognize the "New York" of Sex and the City (or Friends, or Seinfeld, or...) as the New York I have had the pleasure (and disturbance) to know on a few occasions. The discursive fictions are productive mostly for their lack of realism.

But I think I understand -- at an emotional level -- your frustration with the constant conflation of The South and the south, Sloop. But I am also wondering what purpose you see in recovering The South from its discursive negativity, if that is one implication of your call for greater awareness(?).

Sam

Whoa! Maryland still counts as the South?

Sorry, I know that's taking totally the opposite point from your post.

So I was born in N.C. and all my recognized aunts, uncles, and g'rents are from Georgia, but I grew up right outside the D.C. metropolitan area. The only people I have EVER heard describe where I grew up as South come from far away, usually to the North and/or West. My Georgia fams considers me Yankee and when I played Sarah Hale in my second grade play with a thick accent - the whole audience lost their minds laughing as if they'd never heard a Southerner speak in their lives.

My g'rents, WW2 fighting, victory-garden growing, (relative to me anyway) conservatives, Baptists that they are, have always seemed like South to me. My uncle, with his Confederate flag and Civil War paraphernalia proudly displayed, has always been the South to me. And although parts of that story are a little embarrassing to me, I have always been proud to claim them as my roots, the good with the bad.

My (admittedly vague) memories of N.C. mostly involve front-yard tulips, prunes on top of the fridge, and having the chicken pox while staring out the front screen door as all my friends played outside. That group was a total mix of black and white, which is more than I can say for my later suburban MD neighborhood.

Even though I've never considered MD south, or believed that being born in NC gave me southern cred, I have still always felt fiercely defensive of the South. People in MD definitely perceive the South as a backwater, but don't really think too much about the beam in their own collective eye. What seems odd to me is that so many Southern folks (those who don't become immediately defensive) have been complacent about that description. Not that it really surprises me, but still ... odd.

AA

Thank you for bringing this to a wider audience. Growing up in South Carolina, my definition of "The South" was simply Home. I thought of the South as a place people knew each other (or someone's kin at the least), knew their manners (please, thank you, and common courtesies), and applied these to all people no matter their race, religion, or bad luck to come from The North ;) It was quite a shock growing up to realize that many of the intelligent, kindhearted people I knew were not individuals in the eyes of the "general public" but redneck racist jerks.

Negative stereotyping and prejudice against people from the South is the same as other forms of intolerance. It makes a sweeping statement about a group of people that isn't necessarily true. Sure, there are Jerry Springer show candidates in the South, there are jerks and racists too .. BUT, those same negative groups are in the North, the West, Canada, Ukraine, India, Africa, everywhere!

I still remember an episode of the old Oprah show where she interviewed an African American gentleman from Georgia with a thick Southern accent. I believe he was a historian but I don't really remember b/c for most of the episode Oprah was commenting on his accent and couldn't believe that a person of color could have a Southern Accent. It was as if the accent itself made him less of a person. See: http://tinyurl.com/5khkxz for an amusing look at accent perception.

The South has been given a bad rap, but I think the only way to evolve past the stereotypes is to have more widespread media coverage of positive occurrences in the South. So, to the Southerners, stop rocking on your wraparound porch sipping sweet tea - get out there and do something wonderful and newsworthy! :)

jmsloop

Nice smart commentary.

@Sam: sorry, but I didn't mean to include Maryland in the mix. That was simply an accident caused by my laziness in ripping off a flag from some other part of the intertubes. Heck, when I'm having my southern pride moments, I wouldn't include anything above Tenn or N.C. and would exclude Texas and Florida.

@Spibby: You pose a good question at the end. On the one hand, like AA, I am somewhat asking for this rethinking of the category simply because I'm frustrated. On the other hand, I suppose a great deal of what I do--and what you do in your critical work--is always asking people to complicate their thinking. So while my initial impulse here may be one of pride and frustration, I would place my critique here under the general idea that we are better off as humans--and as a community of humans--the more complex and grey our thinking can become.

Pennant

Cities generally tend to be more liberal for a number of reasons, one of the main ones being hosts to centers of higher education due to the higher population concentrations in cities. Another factor is that cities tend to have greater population mobility than rural areas, so city residents get more exposure to a variety of cultures and viewpoints. That exposure can provide direct counterexamples to the myths that can develop in more insular rural communities.

However, even so, when I visited Atlanta in the late 90's for a convention and stayed at one of the major downtown hotels, I was struck by the fact that most of the staff was black, except for the rare higher-paying supervisory positions: The maitre-d'hotel at the hotel restaurant, the reception desk supervisor, etc. This wasn't just by accident one day, but over a multi-day stay that overlapped a weekend. It was blatant, and it rubbed me the wrong way.

Ralph Kramden

So what's the South? I'm a 50-something northerner, so take my opinions with a truckload of salt. When I was growing up, my concept of "the South" was the small-town Carolina of "In the Heat of the Night". I've been south of DC maybe 20 times in my life, but I think only about half of them were to "the South". (Trade shows/Disneyworld visits in Orlando certainly don't count. Mardi Gras doesn't count - too many tourists.)

My first encounter with The South was 36 years ago - I was driving with 4 of my friends to a fraternity brother's wedding in Dillon, SC. The average hair length in the car was way longer than acceptable. :-) I was pulled over at midnight for going 25 MPH in a 25 MPH zone - it was drizzling, so this was "too fast for conditions". The officer took a look in the car, and then informed me that I could pay a $75 fine on the spot or we could spend the night in jail. He was a very sharp guy - the $75 left us just enough to get home to Boston.

My two most recent experiences have been way more pleasant. We visited my son and daughter-in-law in Chapel Hill, which is NOT the south - it's far more like Amherst MA. But my son took me to a beerfest in Durham (at the old Bulls field from "Bull Durham"), and then for some great BBQ about 20 min west of there, somewhere in the sticks near a RR track. Now THAT felt like the south.

And when I visited Charleston a couple of years ago, we had Friday evening dinner at Hyman's, then went to services at Beth Elohim. I experienced what I consider to be the best aspects of the south - hospitality, gentility, friendliness.

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