Monday, April 2, 2012

My South

In the last couple of weeks, I've had a number of emails, comments, and conversations about life in the South. I am the first to admit that I have a love/hate relationship with my section of the United States, so I thought I would explain some of what I love and some of what I hate about the South.
Photograph by William Gedney
I love the beauty of the South. First of all, there is nothing more beautiful than a country boy, what a friend of mine would call a "preppy cowboy" or what I call a "preppy redneck." Either way, a man of this distinction has certain qualities that I find beyond perfection. He will obviously be handsome, generally with a six-pack, but then again he might just have a six-pack in his hand and have a ever-so-slight beer belly (a measure of a man who knows how to have a good time). Without a doubt he must have a Southern lilt to his voice, an accent that is sure to drive you wild with the softness and gentleness of his soothing words. He must also have impeccable manners; no matter how rough around the edges, he knows his manners and follows them when it counts. Many people find southern manners to be a tad annoying, but no true gentleman is without them, and when he shows them off, he is sure to make you melt. A true Southern gentleman will go to any length not to offend someone, but he also knows when to speak his mind and let someone know, in the most gentle way possible, when they have committed a social wrong. He will never embarrass someone on purpose, and he will not only be honorable in all occasions, but make sure that your honor remains intact.
Southern Gentlemen
Beyond the men and manners, the South is one of the most beautiful areas of North America. From the white sandy beaches on the Gulf of Mexico to the verdant mountains of the Appalachians, the beauty of the South is breathtaking. The lakes, rivers, ponds, and streams provide a gentle cool reprieve from the heat of the long hot summers. The azaleas, magnolias, camellias, jasmine, honeysuckle, wisteria, and the myriad of other flowers provide the smells of the great outdoors of the South. The smells of the rural south bring a simplicity to childhood memories: newly plowed soil, fresh cut grass, a recently cut tree--pine, oak, pecan, etc., a just ripened fruit--peaches, blackberries, apples, pears, etc. Your senses come alive in the South.
Fried Chicken, Turnips, Black-Eyed Peas, and Cornbread
Then there is the food. Life would hardly be worth living without the tastes of Southern home cooking. Chicken 'n Dumplins, fried chicken, a salt cured ham, mama's macaroni and cheese, most anything fried, those are the foods of my world. That does not even begin to include all of the fresh grown vegetables, pink-eye purple hull peas being one of my favorites. Of course, there must be bread with any southern meal, usually cornbread (never sweet) or buttermilk biscuits, like only grandmama can make. It takes a lifetime to learn to cook this way. You are taught from a young age, watching mama and grandmama cook. They are the true master chefs of the world because the include the most important ingredient, and I'm not talking butter, but love. The love that goes into their cooking and the joy that it brings is an ingredient that not just anyone can provide.
Antebellum Plantation
There are also the small towns where everyone knows each other and will do what they can to help in any way. The beauty of antebellum architecture. The ability to walk into a store or place of business and the person behind the counter knows you by name and knows how best to help you, and always with a smile on their face. The sense of community and family are ever present around you. It's that small town feel and sense of community that makes the South a wonderful place to live.
Oak Alley Plantation
Those things above are the bright and sunny parts of the South that make it such a wonderful place to live. But it is not always so wonderful. The South has always had a dark side, one that I am afraid will never go away. Bigotry and hatred of those things that don't fit into the neat little packages above will always find this darker side. Wherever in the South you live, whether it is a mostly white region of the mountainous regions or the majority black areas of the Black Belt and Mississippi Delta, the minority population will face bigotry, and it does not matter about race when you are in the minority, even when your white. Race is not the only issue in the South. Religious bigotry is alive and well. Catholics and Jews are not as welcomed in certain parts of the Protestant dominated South. You will be shunned if you are not a regular churchgoer in the more rural areas. Sexual 'immorality' becomes the feeder of gossip, and homosexuality has a long way before it will be widely accepted in the South.
Governor George Wallace stands defiant at the University of Alabama
The South is full of those who judge. The South has its own codes of morality, and you have three choices: fit in, be shunned, or leave. The South has as many gay men as any other part of the country, yet more seem to be in the closet. As Tim Gunn says on Project Runway, we "make it work.". Being different is one of the hardest things in the South to face, but you learn who you can trust with your secret and who you can't and you make the best of it or move to an area, such as a larger city, where the people are more accepting.
New Orleans French Quarter
Lastly, one of the worst things about the South for me personally is the heat. The winters are often mild and I looks forward to the reprieve it brings from the often repressive heat of late spring through early fall. As someone said to me the other day, the humidity is so thick that you don't need to drink water because you breath enough in already. My thought on the heat is that in the winter you can put on enough clothes to be warm, but in the summer you can't legally take off enough clothes to be cool. Thank God for air conditioning, I don't know that I could survive without it.
Overall, I love the South, and quite honestly if those who don't fit in, i.e. gay men like myself, don't stay, then we cannot make the effective changes that are necessary. There will always be the darker side of the South, but by standing our ground and fighting the good fight, we can make that darker side hide in the shadows instead of us. We need to do with the South's darker side what Southerners have often done with their family secrets, put them in the attic and throw away the key. It can only be done if we stay and fight for change. We need to throw out the bad and keep the good.
Residents of Penderlea Homesteads enjoy a Sunday school picnic in 1937.
To me, the South is hot summers.  The South is humidity that completely defeats the purpose of a hairdo.  The South is sweet tea, lakes and the Mighty Mississippi, old houses, mosquitos, dirt roads, watermelon and peaches and pears, comfort food like cornbread and grits.  The South is catfish and swimming holes and tire swings and slow talking, front porches and bare feet.
From To Kill a Mockingbird
The South is William Faulkner, Louis Armstrong, Rosa Parks, Atticus Finch, Zora Neale Hurston, Thomas Jefferson, Johnny Cash, Helen Keller, Elvis Presley, and Tennessee Williams.  The South are those who have made it such a wonderful place.  Those who tell it's stories, who sing the songs, who cook the food. These are the people who make up the South and make it such a special place to live.


Queer Heaven said...

What a beautiful and honest post! Often the good things about a place out weigh the bad.

fan of casey said...

Joe: Everyplace has good and bad. Yummm, fried chicken! And what about the desserts?

Coop said...

Joe, you have identified everything I like about the south. I've been as far south as Virginia-- near the NC border. (And I've driven trough WV). I flew into Florida so I guess I could say I've missed a lot of it. I've met plenty of southeners so I understand what you mean about manners. (And the MEN :) )

My aunt's former neighbors were from Louisiana. Nice people. It was odd to hear them remind their kids to address me or my Dad as "sir". We don't expect that of children in Boston. I was taught to be polite to but it never went that far.

silvereagle said...

Spoken by a true southern gnetlemen. One with civility in his upbringing, compasion in his soul, and love in his heart. Wonderfully written.

Anonymous said...

We think so much alike it's scary. Backwards social agendas like Virginia's and heat like no other propped up by mild winters (we get two extra days off this month and in May since we only missed one full day this winter!), and really nice people, as long as they don't know you're gay.

I've never lived anywhere but NC, SC, WV and VA, and while WV might arguably not be in the south, it shares many of the south's traits. Not sure I'll ever move from the south!

Peace <3

Chris said...

Thank you for that. It sums up all I love and don't love about the South. I moved away and have been gone for over 4 years, but I miss the beauty, the food, the manners, the "Bless her/his Heart.", not having to defend my intelligence just because of my twang/drawl. I don't miss the racism, bigotry, and homophobia. I live in South Korea. I teach English here and when I saw the movie, The Help, I cried because I felt at home. And at the same was reminded why I moved away. I admire your courage as a teacher in the South who is not closeted. I know you aren't openly gay but from what I have gleaned here I also know you aren't closeted. Thanks again for that entry.