An editor’s look back: “Myths are the truths we live by.”
It was three years ago today that I put up my introductory blog post on Nobody’s Home: Modern Southern Folklore: “Myths are the truths we live by.” In the spirit of that anniversary, I am revisiting that introduction, and I have found that the ideas expressed there are just as valid today. When that post went up in late March 2020, COVID-19 was a brand new problem that no one understood. At that point also, the 2020 elections were about eight months away, and the cascade of election denial, which included the attack on the Capitol on January 6, had not yet materialized. Of course, those historical events have changed our lives, and not necessarily for the better. However, I do think those facts just show us how some aspect of human life can change very much as other aspects don’t change at all.
“Myths are the truths we live by.”
the editor’s introduction for Nobody’s Home, March 31, 2020
The American South has been called a land of myth by more historians, literary critics, sociologists, and scholars than I care to count, though the average Southerner has little idea of what that means. Myth is a tricky term, in part because it has a somewhat different meaning in popular culture than in academia. Myths aren’t true, most folks would tell you— like in the show Mythbusters, in which two scientists explain how some things we believe don’t actually work the way we think they do. Or take the Greek or Roman myths, which included an array of topical gods and heroes with magical powers, as another example. They no longer exist as valid religious beliefs . . . because they weren’t true. But that would mean that a land of myth would be a land of untruths.
Actually, myths are true . . . to the people who believe in them. The writer Joseph Campbell, author of The Power of Myth, put it well: “Life has no meaning. Each of us has meaning and we bring it to life. It is a waste to be asking the question when you are the answer.” The South is a land of myth by Campbell’s standard. Here, we assign meaning to all sorts of things: plots of land, days of the calendar year, and sport team logos, and though these have significance for us, their meaning would be indistinguishable to an outside observer.
Also, in the term’s common meaning, a myth must be larger than life. If something obtains mythic proportions, then it must be big! Yet, to be a land of myth doesn’t simply mean that our home region is a larger-than-life place populated by large-than-life figures. We’ve made them larger-than-life. Those symbols, even the ones that are controversial in modern terms, are underpinned by such a longstanding sense of their value that the objective truth has been obscured, compartmentalized, or even lost. A person who suggests that the Confederate flag should be taken down because it represents a racist ideal will be countered by a person who proclaims that we shouldn’t try to erase history or nullify heritage.
In other cases, ordinary people in current times simply don’t know the facts of the events and people that have become symbolic for them. Take Rosa Parks, for example: people are often surprised to find out that the now-famous photograph of police officer Drew Lackey fingerprinting her was staged later, that it was not taken at the time of her arrest. First, almost no one knows Lackey’s name even though he’s standing there just like she is, and second, it seems unfathomable today that there were no news photographers in the booking area that evening, waiting to capture a major 20th-century event. Those facts have given way to the myth, which has placed no value on Lackey’s name or police career, but has on Rosa Parks’ arrest being an important event, which made her a transcendent figure to admire. Rosa Parks’ status evolved quickly, in historical terms, and that staged photograph helped.
Perhaps more so than other parts of the country, the South relies heavily on the past, tradition, and heritage as continuous sources of wisdom. This reliance has led to the region being dubbed “the Bible Belt” and has also led to the term conservative being widely applied. However, this conservative preference for tradition over change in the South puts us in a pickle, one that even those guys from Mythbusters wouldn’t be much help with. In 2016, a University of Alabama study “found that conservatives were less interested in viewing empirical data” and “more skeptical about the value of science.” In thinking about the culture of a conservative region, that’s important. Lead researcher Dr. Alexa Tullett concluded that “conservatives are less trusting of the scientific community” and “more worried that the data were biased.” Put simply, Tullett found an inclination to decide that “facts” were not necessarily true. The problem is that science, by definition, is the umbrella term for making conclusions based on what can be observed and proven. In the absence of a reliance on facts, what we’ve got are storytelling and mythmaking.
Generally speaking, in Southern culture, because facts can be less important than core beliefs, my question is: what are the core beliefs that have molded Southern culture since 1970? Among the works that lay an academic foundation for that question are Frank E. Vandiver’s 1964 anthology The Idea of the South; Paul Gaston’s The New South Creed, which was originally published 1970 then reissued in 2003; and James C. Cobb’s Away Down South from 2007. When discussing matters of identity, beliefs, and myth, we have to look at the underpinnings of what we believe, what we don’t believe, and how those beliefs lead us to act, to behave, to interact, to befriend, to exclude, to purchase, to locate, and to vote.
And the core beliefs that I’m asking about don’t have to be monumental. Those beliefs can be about grocery shopping, cooking, and eating. They can be larger, like choosing a neighborhood to live in or a school for the children attend. For some Southerners, myths even support decisions about which make of car or truck to drive, which brand of beer to drink— and, Lord help us all, which sports teams to root for! (We’ve all heard a fan of one team say to a fan of a rival team, “Y’all suck,” and we may have even said it ourselves.) These core beliefs then affect our lives, our health, our environment, our economic opportunities, our kids’ schools, our friendships, even our self-esteem.
There is an old saying in the South: “The light is on but nobody’s home.” That’s where the title of this project, Nobody’s Home, comes from, because myths and other core beliefs can cause otherwise reasonable people to make certain decisions unreasonably, and those decisions often cause Southerners to work against our own interests. The subtitle, Modern Southern Folklore, seeks to clarify that a bit. The term folklore is defined as “the traditional beliefs, customs, and stories of a community, passed through the generations by word of mouth.” The beliefs widely held in modern Southern culture have not been written down in any one instruction manual that we can revisit or amend or edit. We may have our Bibles, Boy Scout manuals, and school textbooks, certainly. But for some very important lessons, we Southerners have to pay attention to what is done and said, grasp those vague instructions and examples, compare them to what we know, then discern how to act accordingly in a variety of unclear situations. Our official lessons in church and school are similar to those learned and embraced all over the country, but in the South in the years since the Civil Rights movement, it is those ever-evolving myths that have been key.
For some years now, we’ve been hearing that we need a “national conversation” on this or that. In that spirit, Nobody’s Home offers a forum for a regional conversation on the beliefs that have defined our culture since the end of the Civil Rights movement. Consider this an invitation to write about and submit your own ideas about the myths and core beliefs that have steered the South in its current direction for the last fifty years. The guidelines explain the basics of what to do and how. I’m already looking forward to hearing from you.
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