I’m sitting in my sun porch in Central Georgia, on a humid summer day, drinking a glass of iced tea, re-reading Eudora Welty’s “The Ponder Heart” in preparation for my entrance into Mississippi University for Women’s MFA program in about three weeks, and I can’t help but wonder how a Kansas girl, Midwest born and bred, ended up here, in the Deep South, with a penchant for Mississippi history, iced tea with lemon, hot, pan-fried chicken, and monogrammed towels. When did this happen? How did this happen?
I don’t feel Southern. At least not in the ways that one thinks a “Southerner” should feel, yet I’ve lived in The South for 16 years now. I’m fast approaching that point in my life where I’ve actually lived in The South longer than I was in the Midwest. Kansas is the Midwest, though sometimes it’s just west. It is not part of The South, that we can be sure of, never was. Considered itself a Northern state. Kansas, the Free State, a refuge for the Southern enslaved people. It was just unorganized prairie during the 1850 Compromise. Didn’t even have a name or a state line. Wasn’t born yet. Wild. Scattered. Unexplored. Out West. But it is still really, really close to The South, and by association sometimes lumped in with it.
My son, on the other hand, is the only true Southerner in our family. He was born in Southern Missouri, has lived in both North Carolina and Georgia, and is starting to develop a bit of a drawl, depending on the word and the company. He’s spent his whole life south of the Mason Dixon, but you wouldn’t actually be able to tell, if you didn’t know. He’s all Northern in manner and way of thinking. If we are still prescribing to the ways people in the North and South think. For me it depends, some days I see the differences, some days I don’t.
The biggest lessons for me since living in The South has been the debunking of some long held beliefs I had:
- Southern hospitality thrives here
- All Southerners are dumb
- Racism left with Jim Crow
These are all inaccurate and based on harsh stereotypes, and even harsher realities. I only share them now to let you have a glimpse into what is said about The South from people who have never been here. Those are three popular things.
- Not everyone in The South is hospitable. And it’s usually the people you would think would be, that in fact, are not.
- Not everyone in The South is a dumb, uneducated, hillbilly. To be fair, there are far more of them here than anywhere else, but they are not the majority. It is true, however, that the further from civilization you go, the more frequently they surface.
- Racism is alive and well here. Just like it is everywhere. It never left. You can look it straight in the eye at your neighborhood Winn Dixie, your local YMCA, your kid’s elementary school, your husband’s office. In Atlanta. In Biloxi. In Memphis, and in Orlando. Racism is everywhere, and everyone knows it, but most people just sweep it under the rug.
Which leads me to the biggest lesson of them all: The sweeping.
That’s a truly Southern thing. Sweeping things under the rug. Uncomfortable things you don’t want to deal with. Unsightly things you don’t want to see. Sweep. Sweep. Sweep. We don’t have racism here because we sweep. We don’t have a drug problem here because we sweep. Human trafficking, crimes against children, gangs, and addiction? Not here. Sweep. Sweep. Sweep. Sweep. Here we just have a rowdy history, or “heritage” as the true Southerner has been programmed to call it. I remind my son quite a bit that the history of his home is riddled with hate, addiction, racism, uneducated bullies making a mockery of our country. I want him to know the truth. The harsh, unbridled truth. I want him to learn it, see it, and then grow from it. I don’t want him to get comfortable with the sweeping.
So I guess here I am. Sitting in my sun porch, on a humid Central Georgia day, thinking about how I have navigated the last 16 years. What I have learned, how I have grown. And wondering how to keep learning and growing, in a place that sometimes makes learning and growing hard to do. I’ll do my best. You do the same.