I’ve lived in the Deep South my entire life— in the same city as a matter of fact: Montgomery, Alabama. After years of studying and writing about this region, I’m well aware that the names of places I love have ugly meanings for many Americans. I’ve become accustomed to my daily surroundings being often-cited cases of racism, poverty and inequality . . . even though that dim view, however true, is also short-sighted.
Before I talk about this region with anyone, I always want to know: which South are you wanting to hear about? Which version are you looking for— the quirky, offbeat South that the Oxford American sells, or Garden & Gun’s South that’s all handcrafted weaponry and shabby-chic restorations, or the charmingly delicious one that Southern Living features in its colorful pages? Or maybe you’re far more serious than that, and you want to “bear witness” to the dark and shameful South that gets offered up in the interactive multimedia displays in Civil Rights interpretive centers and memorials. Are you looking for one of those?
Or possibly you’d prefer a different set of choices: pick one from among the Black Belt, the Bible Belt and the Sun Belt. They’re all here, too. Opening door number-one can show an interested on-looker all about slavery and the plantation, Reconstruction and Redeemers, lynchings and Jim Crow, marches and decay. The middle option is for you Bible-thumpers. That one has Billy Graham’s crusade and Jimmy Swaggart’s sweaty brow and Roy Moore’s big rock. Or for something lighter, that third, more modern Chamber of Commerce fabrication lets tourists and businessmen come down here and enjoy golf and hiking and beaches, in our warm weather, without thinking about all that other stuff.
Which one do you want, huh?
Or let’s say you’re a travel-foodie who wants to straddle the line between then and now, you might come down here and dine with the Southern writers du jour in town, before heading out in the country to a real live juke joint. Or maybe you’re a journalist from a liberal magazine who wants to find out how – or if – we’ve really changed since the movement years. Then you’d head for state capitols and non-profit law offices and small-town church socials, so you can paint word-pictures for people too busy to find out for themselves.
I live with all of those Deep Souths, because I’m not just passing through. I’m invested. I was raised here, my parents were raised here, I’m raising my kids here. To learn about and face the many truths, as best as I can – the good and the bad – I have been all over the Deep South for a variety of reasons, have read all four major histories of my home state, and have been studying this region for years. What can I say about the great many Deep Souths after all that? Our culture can be both endearing and discomfiting.
I’ll be honest that, for the love I have for the Deep South, I’m worn out with the historically absurd politics. With these differing evolutions of same damn arguments over and over and over, the Deep South usually comes out with the bad end of the stick. Even though pop history focuses on slavery – “moonlight and magnolias” – our complex political culture, developed in the early 1800s, has always emphasized Southern “other-ness”— we aren’t you. Looking back to the frontier days of the 1830s and 1840s, some Southern politicians didn’t want to take federal railroad money because they feared the intervention that came with it. Sound familiar? That same thinking led to secession and then war and then Reconstruction, and it dubbed the people Redeemers who reinvigorated pre-war ideals. I could keep going: patter-rollers, sharecropping, the Klan, the Great Migration, lynchings, mills and mines, convict leasing, the Depression, the movement, integration, white flight, private schools . . .
I don’t know what you’re looking for, but the Deep South is all those things that I listed before. If you do come down here, you’ll find whatever you want to find: white-sand beaches, forests full of pines and oaks, windy two-lane roads flanked by mossy trees, food cooked with butter and bacon, blues music and country music, mythic college football rivalries, hunting for animals large and small, fishing in fresh water or salt water, racism subtle and overt, long-standing injustice too deep-rooted to fathom, severe poverty as bad as parts of the Third World.
I’ve spent some real time staring at the ugly truths, as though staring them will make them better. The problems are so glaringly obvious, as are the solutions. I’m not saying that the fight isn’t worth fighting, but I will say that fighting things that are obviously wrong gets old.
In the Deep South, we have racial problems, education problems, taxation problems, jobs problems, standard-of-living problems, income-inequality problems, over-incarceration problems . . . and I’ve read about them, listened to experts describe and expound on them, read reports and studies on them, talked to other people about them, and even shared what I’ve learned about them. I’m not changing my mind about what’s right and wrong in the Deep South, I’m not shifting my values, and I’m not sinking into complacency, but I have come to one fairly simple reductive conclusion about this multifaceted region.
The endless number of consequences that we suffer down here relate directly to the way that we stolidly reject any suggestions that we do better. As for me, riffing off of Albert Murray’s words, I’m getting less and less interested in the sociological and the political, and more and more interested in the human beings who are living our lives down here. I set out at the beginning of the 21st century to educate myself on our past, and I did that— the region’s history and my family history . . . But as much as I might like to turn my attention elsewhere, in the Deep South we can’t let bygones be bygones. The dead won’t let us. They hover and swoop, surveying progress with snarled upper lips, relentlessly urging a turgid way of life.
Me, I am on the side of the living. I can’t leave the Deep South, literally or intellectually, because this is my home. Our history might be reinterpreted, but it can’t be changed. As we inch toward our future, I’m sorry to say that more-of-the-same seems inevitable. The present is where possibility resides.
All I know at this point in a long period of study and thought is: what the Deep South needs is a massive progressive shift driven by an honest acknowledgment of real problems. That’s it, I have nothing else to declare beyond that. For positive change to happen, the majority of people in South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana (and also in northern Florida, Tennessee, and Arkansas) must recognize the need for educating all people, must agree that taxes are necessary to fund improvements, must stop accepting low-wage jobs lured with corporate tax breaks, and must understand that the same-old leaders will never achieve results. Until those things happen, the same problems, like under-performing schools and over-capacity prisons, will persist. There may be a great many Deep Souths, but that is common to all of them.