My family moved to the Deep South in the summer of 1968 when I was ten years old from “up North,” which even today, includes pretty much everywhere, except the South. My father, climbing the corporate ladder in the go-go sixties had several job opportunities, even one in Venezuela. As I look back, the Deep South and Venezuela weren’t that much different to us, as far as being a foreign land.
I recall arriving in a small town in Northeast Mississippi, with a population of less than 2500, on a bright, suffocating hot summer Saturday afternoon. As a family we had already moved three times -that I remember. My mother, the ever good sport and head family cheerleader instilled in us a great sense of adventure and optimism with each new destination, and I clearly remember with eager anticipation the thought of arriving in the Land of Cotton. My hopes were pretty high after seeing Gone with the Wind at the theater as a primer for Southern living. Imagine my disappointment when we arrived and there were no dirt streets, horse and carriages, or wooden planked sidewalks in front of the stores along Main Street. Most of those had been gone for …four or five years.
The thing I most clearly remember about our early days in Mississippi was the family-like friendliness and hospitality showered upon us Damned Yankees. The saying goes, Yankees come from the North; Damned Yankees come and stay. For almost fifty years, I’ve never left, so that makes me a Damned Yankee for sure.
We initially stayed a few days in a small motel, with a pool, thank God, just off the main dusty highway on the West side of town; it was owned and operated by the mayor –who my mother called several weeks later because of giant roaches inhabiting the rental house we lived in while our new home was being built. Makes sense: got bugs, call the Mayor.
The only full service restaurant in town was located right next to the motel. The restaurant owner was a large, red faced, silver haired, perpetually sweating jolly man. “Y’all” was one of our first foreign words we learned. With three meals a day over the first week at the restaurant, we discovered grits, country ham, red-eye gravy, buttermilk biscuits, greens, jowls, black-eyed peas, catfish and cornbread …and on and on.
We quickly noticed that everyone waved at each other. They raised their finger from the steering wheel –index, not middle, to acknowledge on-coming drivers. “Hey,” was another new word for us. Not “hey! What’s the matter with you?” But, “hey, how y’all doin?” “Hey, y’all come on over for coke.” Not a pop, not a soda. Not even a Pepsi, Mountain Dew, Dr. Pepper. Those are all “cokes.” The particular flavor or type of “coke” would be determined once ‘y’all got there… And tea. It was cold and sweet.
When I entered fifth grade in the fall, actually August, which was another foreign custom to us because we had never started school until after Labor Day up North, I was asked by the kids to “say somethin…”
“Okay, ‘peanut butter.’”
“Did y’all hear that? Oh man. Say it agin!”
“You guys sure make a big deal…”
“’You guys’…did you hear that? Man! Say that agin!”
This language exploration in Mississippi was always amusing and done out of a sense of curiosity, among friends. I never felt made fun of. It was never uncomfortable. We were discovering new languages, and cultures together. -Southern Hospitality 101.
But there was also a dark side to this Southern Culture. To ignore it, or claim it was misunderstood or didn’t exist is just preposterous. Because as warm and inviting as whites were to each other and to us, blacks rarely if ever, enjoyed that same kind of embrace from whites, that same kind of inclusion. This white aversion of black people could be manifested in varying levels from a simple lack of respect to downright malicious hatred. I suppose some whites did acknowledge and embrace people of color in those days, in that town; but I suspect those relationships were very few and far between.
It’s cliché to say “The South is complicated.” But it is. How can a people be so generous, loving, giving, forgiving, “Christian,” to some people, but completely opposite to others, simply based on skin color? I don’t know. I do know that parts of the Southern Culture are wonderfully beautiful, -Flannery O’Connor, William Faulkner, Tennessee Williams, Shirley Ann Grau, Georgia O’Keefe, Jack Daniels! And some of it is horribly tragic, terroristic and ugly beyond human understanding.
The one symbol that epitomizes this dichotomy is the Confederate Battle Flag, the stars and bars. It’s like one of those drawings where two people look at it and one person sees a horses’ face, and the other person sees an angel sitting on a cloud. Same drawing, same artist, same paper, same pen, but two clearly different things appearing to two different people. This is why I believe that flag should not be publicly displayed. At best it should be preserved in museums. For those who want to wave it to proclaim Southern Culture, I get that. But, the fight for slavery, the KKK, terrorism against our own citizens, the years of Jim Crow laws, and now the white supremacists who embrace it, simply cannot be separated from the fabric of those red white a blue cross bars. Likewise you cannot fly a Nazi flag in remembrance of a proud Germanic peoples recovering from a humiliating loss of a world war without the haunting images of death camps, torture, and extreme racism.
So, we Southerners –those of us Southern by birth and those of us Southern by choice, need at this time to come up with a new symbol to celebrate our culture of hospitality, of our unique foods and flavors, of our amazing artistic expressions, and of our intense loyalties to friends, family and country. That’s our challenge of the New South in this new millennium: to share this beautiful culture, with everyone. I propose a magnolia blossom, or mockingbird, – a red velvet cake! Jack Daniels on the rocks? Fried catfish. Hushpuppies. Food and drink is something that we southerners of all shades can agree on. So, let’s get together under the shade of an old hickory tree, and toast the passing of one faded symbol, and welcome in something new; something that we can all celebrate, together.