One of XARK’s categories is “The South,” and it seems to me fitting that we allow the category to once again force the question, “What is the south?”
My very first post on XARK was a review of the film, “Searching for The Wronged-Eyed Jesus.” The film is a documentary in which, more or less, an “outsider” explores, and attempts to discover, an authentic South. Ultimately, my review turned into a rant about how ridiculous and off-putting are many representations of the south. Here, I want to take another brief turn at this topic. Or rather, I want to urge you to help me interrogate the topic by recounting two recent conversations I’ve had with colleagues (University faculty) who have lived for lengthy periods of time in some portion of the southern US.
In the first conversation, I was talking to a friend of mine who teaches at North Carolina State University in Raleigh. We were discussing one of our mutual friends who claimed that she would never take a job at any university in “the south.” While I always bristle when I hear such a statement, I’m honestly not all that surprised. It’s an attitude I’ve heard a great deal, especially from some of my Ivy Leagued educated colleagues and circle of friends. However, my colleague at NCSU gave a response to our mutual friend that was problematic on its own grounds. Here’s what he said (I’m paraphrasing): “I told her that she shouldn’t be so silly. She could move anywhere in the Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill area because it’s really not the South. It’s not like that at all.”
In the second conversation, I was talking to one of my junior colleagues who had taken a job in a northern state and was preparing to move. As part of an exit interview, I wanted to find out why she was leaving, how she had enjoyed her time here, and if she enjoyed living in the south. In response to the last query, she noted that while she was from New York, she had completed her Ph.D. in Atlanta and worked in Memphis for a few years before taking a job here in Nashville. Nonetheless, she observed, she had never really lived in the south, since her entire 10 years were spent in these cities.
In both cases, we have a logic that already prefigures a “negative” meaning for the south and then somehow moves the cities, large population areas out of the category of “the south.” The thing that sends me off is that, like my friend in example number one, this is a logic often used by those who live in southern cities and claim to love living in those cities. Despite their happiness—or perhaps because of their happiness--with their quality of life in a city in the south, they never considered themselves living in the south. Pull out your abacus and figure that one out.
I understand the power of representation, and I understand the weight of myth on the present. Nonetheless, this particular form of gymnastics frustrates me. As Janet and I noted in my earlier film review and subsequent discussion, “the south”—whatever that means and whatever region it defines (Florida or Texas, anyone?)—contains a wide array of people and behavior: the good, the bad, the ugly, the dirty, the peacemakers, the morons, and the angels. As does the every other region of the world. So, why the dickens do we continue to allow “the South”—a vast and differentiated ideological and material space—get so tied down to a negative set of meanings that examples of its more positive features get chalked up to “exceptions” while many of the ugly elements of the “East Coast” get seen as exceptions to their “pure” positivity?
There are of course no easy answers to such questions, and I know writing yet another blog post will do little to solve the problem. However, I do urge everyone to complicate such received knowledge and explore social spaces with relatively open eyes.