I wasn’t born there, but I did live in the South for 12 years, deep in the Mississippi Pine Forests. From my first days of High School until just after Grad School, I luxuriated in all the best the South has to offer. Those years helped define the well lived life for me and serve as a useful counterpoint to the fizzy, ephemeral, interneted age in which I find myself.
Because of those years, my attachment to them and to the good folks who peopled them, I think I can lay claim to some Southern Heritage. It is a claim I make with a kind of grateful pride and that I do not take lightly.
I am proud of the strong sense of civil manners that I learned in Mississippi. I still say “Yes Ma’am” and “No, Sir” to my elders, even if the numbers in that camp are dwindling rapidly. I extend a certain courtesy to strangers on first meetings. I believe a meal is about more than food, but, also, that I can demonstrate the depths of my affection in a well prepared repast. I expect of myself and others a certain integrity and basic humanity even if we do not always perfectly achieve it.
I am proud of and awed by the deep sense of connection, of community that weaves in and out of almost every aspect of Southern living. It is a complement to the civility mentioned above, a kind of the emotional partner to the intellectual structures of civility. It is fed by the story tellers, famous and common, Faulkner (who could use some reintroduction to the graces of the “.”), Welty, O’Conner, and your cousin Bubba. It is nurtured by church picnics and fish camp meals, by red clay, and regular three o’clock thunderstorms that are done by supper time. It is the shared sense of time and timelessness that floats on the high humidity.
I am proud of a certain agrarian sensibility, even in the most technological and industrial souls, that appreciates what the good earth has to offer, be it the beauty of magnolias and azaleas, the nurture of corn bread and grits and catfish and yes, even okra, or the still of a pine forest on a ticking hot August day. A slight scent, just a suggestion, blows through even the most modern of conference rooms in the Deep South.
I am proud of my Southern heritage and wish there was more like it in our modern world. Is it a little tattered and much stained by various human failings? Yes, absolutely. Are there some weird racial and gender boundaries to this civility, community and appreciation of the natural world? Yes of course, but we’re working on those and I’d suggest they are configurations of cultural software that is not even installed most other places.
If you doubt this, I suggest you consider the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire or the WW II Japanese Internments as markers of a deeper and more persistent xenophobic classism and racism that is not geographically bounded, nor mere historical aberrations. Look for their modern manifestations in Indian sweatshop factory collapses and the makeup of our ‘No Fly’ lists.
I am not amused by the confusion of Southern Heritage with Confederate Battle Flags. O.k. I get reaching for a simple icon to represent a very complex idea. But is there really no better icon for Southern Heritage? Must we pick something that, no matter how we might choose to present it, no matter what it may mean to us, will unquestionably draw attention to some of the least savory aspects of our Southern history? Any attempt to reduce Southern Heritage to a single woven icon, is to demonstrate an almost Yankee lack of sensitivity for the rich complexity that is its very heart beat.
If you are a white supremacist, go ahead fly the Stars and Bars without apology or explanation. If you’re a proud Southerner, as I am at least part time, it strikes me that there are more influential and accurate ways to represent that pride that will inspire less confusion and negativity. You’ll find Welty and O’Conner (and even Faulkner) on my bookshelves. You’ll feel some of my Southern pride in every meal I cook and every handshake of welcome. You’ll see my Southern pride in every effort to reach out and connect with those around me regardless of where they or I am geographically.
Because I am, at least in part, a Southern boy, maybe just about old enough to be called a Southern Gentleman, the flag I choose to fly, is the flag of my actions, my words, the spaces I create, and my friendships. It is my hope and prayer that, modern times or not, that is enough.