If you’re not from around here, let me start with this: The South is exactly what you think it is, and nothing like what you expected.
As someone who was born and raised in the Midwest, has lived on the East and West coasts, and has lived in the South on-and-off for the past 10 years, I think I have a unique perspective. My perspective is certainly different from that of my husband, who was born in Memphis and raised in Birmingham. He see things I don’t, because he was raised here. And I see things he doesn’t, because I wasn’t. Now you know what Hammontrees fight about.
Almost everything terrible you read about the South is true. Almost everything good you read about the South is, too. Everybody asks after your mama even if they don’t know her, everybody makes the best mac and cheese, everybody comes to help you when a tornado destroys your town, and every one of us is living in a part of the country that is known best for its racist past (and football.)
So, how do we reckon with that? How do we reconcile the backwards views of our family on both racial and gender issues and the fact that we know they’d be there for us in a heartbeat? How do we confront our friends when they surprise us with inheriting those views? How do we keep pushing forward in a part of the world so rooted in “tradition?”
The answer is we do. We do reckon with it. Not always well. Not always at the right times, not always in as friendly of a way as we’d like, and sometimes not always as strongly as we’d like either. We say the wrong things and the right things at the wrong time. But we are saying them.
And that’s not what I experienced in other places I have lived. I loved San Francisco, deeply, but it tends to be a place that thinks it has everything figured out, because, well, everyone in San Francisco looks and thinks the same. They don’t ever have to confront anyone different from them. Which is comforting, but not nearly as progressive as they’d like to think it is. (I love you, SF, I really do.) You're foggy and beautiful and naive.
I grew up in a town that’s 97% white, and when I went home during college breaks, my friends would say to me, “So, are people, like, super racist in Alabama?” And I’d blink, slowly, so they’d know I knew they hadn’t talked to someone of a different race in at least a year. So they'd know I knew they should be asking themselves the same question.
I've been down here a while, and I've learned to embrace the Duality of the Southern Thing. There is no rebelling against a past you can't change, and so you must embrace it. You must read about its history, and listen to the stories that have been silenced. And you must be silent so you can absorb them.
But the future of the South? It isn't written yet. We are carving out its present, and we are asking you to listen. We are saying we know we were wrong, are wrong, can be better. We are packing our bags with all the things we've learned and we're carrying them with us, not so that we can continue our terrible history, but so we do not forget it. Not so that we can remember our demons, but so we don't forget those who fought against them. Not so that our mistakes prevent healing, but so we know what we need to heal from.
And I am hopeful that this duality--the thing that make us such uniquely complicated Americans--is the thing that can save us, too. I believe that we know and see things others don't, and if we decide to--really decide--we can do better, too.