Sweeping The South

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.

M.

Racism in The South

I was born and raised in Kansas. But not the kind of Kansas you’re thinking of. I wasn’t Dorothy, living on a pig farm with my aunt and uncle. I didn’t know any farm hands, I didn’t run to the cellar when the twisters came (we ran to an interior closet, because we could never afford a house with a basement), and I didn’t have any ruby red shoes. Rather I grew up in Leavenworth, a small albeit diverse* town, in the statistical Kansas City-metro area. I was born in one of the two hospitals in town. I attended Leavenworth public schools (mostly Title One schools), and I graduated from Leavenworth High School with a class of about 1200 kids. My best friends in first grade were two little white girls, two little Black girls, and a boy from Pakistan whose dad was an officer in the Indian Army, and was stationed at Fort Leavenworth that year for Combined Army and Services Staff School or CAS-Cubed. So no, it wasn’t Oz or anything like that.

When I was 21, Jerimiah and I moved to Southern Missouri to live at the resort his parents bought on Table Rock Lake. Like really, really Southern Missouri. We lived about four miles from the Arkansas line, and had many run-ins with what I’ve come to know as “Hill People.” We spent five years on Table Rock Lake, where I couldn’t tell you that I ever saw a person of any skin tone other than white (other than our friends we worked with in Branson). We moved into Branson for the first five years of Jackson’s life, where at least it was a little more diverse. Still, we knew it wasn’t the place we wanted to raise our son. Southern Missouri is not reflective of real life, and we never wanted our son to stay there, so we figured we best move somewhere with a little more diversity.

We ended up in Denver, North Carolina because my brother-in-law said it was nice. And it was, but it was more of the same. White. Middle-class. Lake. Boats. Second homes. Sub-divisions. We lived there for nearly four years before we moved to Charlotte and actually lived the sort of life we wanted for our son. He finally had a diverse set of friends, he was in a Charter School during that time, but it was racially, economically, and academically diverse. We liked our little Charlotte neighborhood, and we were happy. Then we got the news we needed to move again. This time to Atlanta.

We’ve been in the Atlanta-metro area for a year now. We are in a small, diverse town on the edge of the Perimeter, which is the highway that runs around the city. We are twenty minutes from downtown. We can catch a bus, ride the MARTA, or Uber to one of the busiest airports in the world with great ease. We have everything we need here, and we are happy. But there is one little thing: Racists. And I’m not talking about the men who murdered Ahmaud Arbery. That is a different kind of racism, and it is my opinion that the man who pulled the trigger should die. The others should serve life. But I am not the judge, nor am I the jury. (Don’t worry I’m not gonna pull some “Jesus is Lord” shit here, I’m saying I am not actually in charge and my opinion doesn’t matter, but I hope the GBI does right by Ahmaud.) The kind of racism I’m talking about here is the kind of racism you find up the road in a town like Cumming, Georgia. It’s covert, not overt.

Cumming has a population of less than 10,000 and no, they are not all racists. I’m sure there are some fine people in Cumming, Ga I don’t know them. I don’t know anyone there because I have never been there, because I refuse to go there because the things I know about the city are not good. I’ve heard about “Sunshine Laws” in Cumming. You might have heard of Cumming from a story that Oprah did on the town in 1987. It’s known for it’s racism around these parts, and even if it is on Lake Lanier I’m just not interested in knowing “that part of Georgia.” The problem is Cumming isn’t a stand-alone, small Georgian town full of racism and unchecked bias. Cumming seems to me, in the year I have spent traveling through the state, to be normal. And it isn’t just Georgia.

We spent six weeks last year in Louisiana. We drove down there on three separate occasions and stayed for two weeks at a time. We drove through places like Birmingham and Biloxi, sure. But we also drove through towns like Newnan, and Opelika, and Chickasaw, and D’Iberville, and Thibodaux and I promise they are all more of the same. Covert, overt, unchecked aggressions and bias, and everything in between. Here read this blog post I wrote about Baton Rouge, or this one, or this one. I tried to share what I was seeing and hearing. The rampant racism that sits just under the surface and is ALWAYS present there is present all over the South. It is present in every, single state in The South, and I’m not saying it isn’t in every state in our country, it’s just so much more pronounced here, that it is hard to look away from.

It is present in my county, DeKalb county, where statistically speaking we are minorities. The Black people in DeKalb County make a lot of money. A lot of it. We are the second richest county in the country with a predominantly Black population. But guess what is here, covert and overt racism, unchecked aggression, and bias. Cause it doesn’t matter if you have money or not. It doesn’t matter if you are educated. It doesn’t matter if you are the kindest person ever. It doesn’t matter if you are small business owner, or the CEO of a Fortune 500 company in Atlanta, there are people who will hate you if you are Black and there is nothing you can do about it. And some people truly don’t know this. Some privileged white people really think racism is under control here, and they are walking around trying to save face with the rest of the country, but friends there is no face to save.

As I said, I’ve lived in some different places. Some backwards sorta places, where people chase their lost donkeys in the middle of the night, then smoke meth all day, and still the racism here, in Georgia, in The South, is the worst I have seen in any place I have ever lived. And it is sad. And scary. And unfortunately what happened to Ahmaud is not unique down here, and we all know that. And I think everyone needs to know that. We need to know it, discuss it, and deal with it.

Stay safe, y’all.

M.

*I’m not doing that thing white people do when they say “diverse” and just mean “more Black people” I mean truly diverse when I use the word. Ethnically, culturally, spiritually, educationally, and economically, and yes, varying races represented in the community. That’s the ideal place for us, and one similar to where I grew up.