I was taken aback on my first trip to New York City. As I walked down the sidewalk I kept expecting to be shouldered, accompanied by a “Hey, watch where ya’ goin'” as I craned my neck to explore the skyline. At my first New York delicatessen I watched as everyone around me moved with urgency, eating in line before they paid. Approaching the counter, I expected a cold immediacy from the girl at the register, for her to angrily demand three times the value for a toasted bagel with gravlax. She looked me in the eyes, smiled, and asked me how I was. I said I was good, and she seemed to like that. I then paid over $30 for two bagels with cured salmon and cream cheese. Some things are just out of our hands.
I remind myself as often as possible the danger of preconceived notions. I am now 28 years old; a pure-blooded, redneck sporting, through-and-through Southerner from a rural town worth forgetting. I was raised by low-income laborers, lived down a dirt driveway, ate fried okra and collards on Sundays, and drank water from the spigot. I was taken to church, read my verses, and taught how to judge. As an “almost 30,” I will be the first person in a long lineage of Southerners to acquire an undergraduate degree. Here I am, a face amongst so many, trying to find my role in this peculiar region.
As I’ve gotten older I have become more interested — borderline obsessed — with the idea of the South. It is a complicated place. It is beautiful, so much so that I’ve found its lush imagery a convenient crutch for my writing. How can I write about real things after walking through an avenue of oaks, their limbs twisting and jutting, the haunting moss seeming to talk to me, to whisper in the wind and tell me of an older place, of an older time, before … I’m sorry. I genuinely have a problem.
In all seriousness, the South is complicated. It is the ugly, bastard son of the Union, the one who tried to get away. As Southerners, we are simultaneously revered for our welcoming spirit and ‘Hey, y’alls,’ and condemned for our isolationism. We are proud of our reputation and conveniently forgetful of our less-than-savory memories — those stark reminders we overlook, or were never taught, under the watchful eyes of John C. Calhoun while perusing artisan sea salts in Marion Square.
But no one should actually need a history lesson, right? For me, it is obvious where the line of human decency lies, and where it is crossed. I find, in my daily interactions with Southerners, the line of crossing smudges and blurs until it is nothing more a blend of broad brush strokes. After the third or fourth time a New Yorker held a door for me, after Rhode Islanders were repeatedly kinder and more convivial than my day-to-day interactions with Charleston residents, I started to wonder if we were all we are chalked up to be.
I like to think I was taught what sort of man to be. My parents and grandparents raised me within the guardrails of a deep-rooted Southern heritage, albeit a working class one. We were not the aristocracy; we ate with mix-matched forks. However, my sister and I were shown how to treat each other and taught to be respectful. When we weren’t, we were punished. A slap on the wrist, a teeth-clinched scolding. So many of my fellow Carolinians were drawn in the same light, to be good men and women. And many are, for the most part. Until, one day, in casual conversation, one of them, someone I might have talked and joked around with for years, makes what I would call a “nonchalant lynching joke,” and I realize we have not progressed as much we like to think. My grimace says everything they need to know.
When its all said and done, we are living off an old, beat-up, take-it-out-back-and-shoot-it reputation. Our hands are tied to the centuries-old whipping post of Southern customs, while our mouths move and operate against their behest. It’s time we dusted off the mirror, and took a hard look. I herby admit: I am a Southerner, I am part of the problem, I am part of the solution, I am one man in a place growing too big for it’s britches. I reckon those up North can sympathize with the last part.
It was on my last day up North that two sets of protesters in Charlottesville clashed and people died, others gravely injured. A woman and two police officers woke up as I had, ate and probably had some coffee, checked their Facebook or read the paper, and left to live their lives or do their job. And at the end of the day, after a man drove a car into a crowd of people and a helicopter crashed, their families had been robbed of their presence forever. Those of us that are still living, we have to ask ourselves — could we have done anything to prevent this?
The answer is yes.
Of course, the scenes in Charlottesville were not an isolated incident. Protests in New Orleans and Columbia stick out, where Confederate monuments and the state house flag were taken down, respectively. Each time we watch on as two sets of protestors, one arguing for free speech and “preserving history,” the other arguing against hate and bigotry, face off in a screaming match. At the end of the day, does anybody win? If Charlottesville has anything to say, nobody wins, but quite a few people lose. Did most of us know these people? No, probably not. But are we responsible for them? I think so.
Events like this are not exclusive to the South. Protests across the United States have been a historical hallmark of our passage. They are useful in that they allow for the emotions to bubble and spew, to provide a catharsis but not a remedy. These events are like picking at the scab, until it’s peeled back and we can take a look at what’s rotten underneath. It pains me to say, but we’ve been picking at the same scab for a while now.
I don’t want to be misunderstood. There are beautiful, loving souls here in the South. A lot of them. And on the other side of the coin, there are absolutely rude people in the North. There are racists and bigots walking the streets of New York City. Their slate is not clean, not from any perspective. The only difference is this: they aren’t trying to sell their image as anything otherwise.
These events are a result of a broader issue, but symbolic of an undercurrent it’s time to confront. It’s time we own this, on an individual level. If we do not acknowledge that, despite our reputation, the inclusion of “ma’am” does not make up for a general lack of human decency. What is the point of owning all this Southern Charm, when its gleam can no longer cover up the scars?
The period after Dylann Roof murdered nine churchgoers at Charleston’s Emanuel AME was difficult for me, for us all. When I talked about it I trailed off in utter disbelief, and I cried for their families more often than I’ve let on. Watching the bouquets pile up, watching this city come together, was an experience I will never forget. It was symbolic of a broader unity, of a turning of the tide. I take those images, that experience, and recognize that there is something utterly profound about this place, about our region; we are a stubborn, opinionated clan who tend to buck in the face of adversity, and protect our own with a fighting spirit. We are connected by a bond that is utterly inexplicable to those not a part of it, to those outside looking in, and it’s time we take responsibility for each other. It’s time we hold each other accountable for those “nonchalant lynching jokes”. It’s time we speak up to those people in our friend and family circles who say something out of turn, but we are too scared to confront. It’s time to take responsibility even when we feel like we shouldn’t have to, and recognize that, as Southerners, we are in this together.
I am so damn proud to be a part of it, but we can no longer ride the coattails of the South’s self-drawn image, one where it is revered for its beauty and class, and its people are kind and as sweet as the tea. How long before we recognize, as a collective group, those bastard step-children of the Union, that we have never been all that we’ve promised. How long before we realize what everyone else already knew, that we are not so nice, not so kind, and that all along, we’ve only been trying to convince ourselves?
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