I see the news today about Virginia, and it breaks my heart. I cry as that question comes back to me “Will this always be the South?” It catches me off guard, and takes my breath away, the ugliness that still exists within people.
Growing up in the South can be hard to come to terms with. I was born in Tennessee and raised in a small town in the Appalachian mountains. I am Jewish and as a second generation American am the granddaughter of immigrants who moved to the plateau to start a sweater mill. People ask me what it was like.
I tell them, I have been dunked in the river to be Baptised. Prayed over. Listened to people speak in tongues. Taken off my shoes and had my feet washed by another. I have gone to Bible camp, and been led to a priest to take communion. I was given a tiny red New Testament Bible with gilded pages in elementary school, which I guiltily thought was beautiful. I have watched from a window as my peers held hands and prayed every day in the courtyard in school lunch. I was advised to read and dutifully read the book, I Kissed Dating Goodbye, by Joshua Harris.
My grandparents arrived to the country and to the South in the sixties. The story goes there was one Catholic family that lived a little over an hour away, in Oak Ridge. My grandparents and they became close friends, and they would frequently make the long drives to spend time together. People outside the South sometimes forget that Catholics were not considered Christians by far right groups. So these two families had a lot in common. Different food, different traditions and it drew them together in a kind of bond only the happily ostracized can have.
What about the Civil War? What about racism? The division I felt and grew up with was rooted in religion. But what about the KKK? How did it impact the African-American community? On that I can only say… I do not know. Because in my town, there was not a single African American. There was an Indian-American family, a Chinese-American family, a handful of Mexican-American families. I was naive. I thought that was normal.
When I went to university “up north”, I chose a predominately Jewish school, thinking I would fit in more. But naive again, I was surprised, that there I stood out for being from the South. My fellow students from New York, New Jersey and California had travelled around the world, studied in France and taken vacations with their parents to Italy, but none of them had been below Washington DC. People teased me about my clothes, asked me if I wore shoes all year round, and referenced the donations they made every year to the poor children in the Appalachia. Even though I felt estranged, and an outsider in the place I grew up, I also didn´t think it was fair the way I heard them stereotype southerners.
I hadn´t realized what strong views people from the rest of the country had about people from the South. But I learned in conversations with my classmates that they were considered racists, rednecks, backwards, stupid, and of course racists. In his book the Lost Continent Bill Bryson, the famous travel writer, captures this insulting stereotype with a provocative passage describing the southerners he encountered on a trip to Mississippi in his college days: “A whole roomful of good ole boys with cherry coloured cheeks and bib overalls watched us in silence and wondered whether their shotguns were loaded. It was disconcerting. To them, out here in the middle of nowhere, we were at once a curiosity. Some of them had clearly never seen no long-haired nigger-loving, Northern, college edjicated, commie hippies in the flesh before..“
Bill Bryson was a college student in the sixties, and in the same passage he remembered the freedom riders who were dispicably murdered in Mississippi in 61´by a mob. Their deaths were facilitated by a sheriff and no one was ever charged with murder. To this Bill wrote “To me this was and always would be the South.”
I read that, and it stung because it forced me to ask myself, Is this still the South?
In the South growing up Jewish and the granddaughter of immigrants made me a minority, and while I was loved and cherished by the Christian community, it still meant I was an outsider. Still, as I became an adult I realized, that even as an outsider, the South was still where I spent 18 years of my childhood, still a part of me. Every lightning bug and snow cone, the peaches sold in wicker baskets from the sidewalk, the potlucks and the cakewalks. It is in that way my home. As an adult you have to come to terms with many ugly things about your home. Things you were not aware of as a child. Things that maybe even adults hid from you.
Time and time again the South seems faced with acts of hate, like the one that happened in Charlottesville. Acts that bring us so much grief and shame.
But as someone born and raised in the South, I guess I also have the right to say, that is not me, and that is not us. We are Jewish, and gay, Muslim, Latinos, Catholic, women, African-American. What about all of us? What about our voices, that are so many, and what about the home we have been fighting to create? Who is the minority here, and who is in the majority? Those voices of hate, from the mouths of men who do not even have the shame to cover their faces while committing these terrible crimes, are displacing us, the communities who have been seeding love all these years.
But when these horrible things happen, even though you pray that these people are the minority, it cannot help but spread a seed of doubt about how far we´ve really come. About who your neighbors really are. Bill, again with his provocative humor, writes in the Lost Continent “It is surely no coincidence that all those films you have ever seen about the South (…) depict Southerners as murderous, incestuous shitty-shoed rednecks. It really is another country.”
It would be gratifying to disprove this ugly depiction. To be able to say, Bill you are wrong to think that this is and always will be the South.
But yesterday was not that day.