Thursday, September 29, 2011

Reflections on the New New South

Until I moved to East Texas three years ago, I'd had very little personal experience with the South, just four short trips, in fact. As a five-year old I went on a family vacation to Disneyworld, which included stops in Chattanooga on the way in, and Mobile on the way out. For years I vaguely remembered one strange stop where we went to eat at a roadside cafe in the rural South somewhere, and we left without ordering any food. I never knew the reason why until recently; my Dad informed me that this truck stop had refused service to a black customer while we were at the table, and thus took us out of there in disgust. The subject actually came up when we discussed the possibility that I might take a temporary job in Mississippi back when I was just out of grad school.

Except for a trip to DC, where we stayed in suburban northern Virginia (which is quasi-Southern), I didn't go back below the Mason-Dixon line until grad school, where I attended the weddings of friends in Shreveport, Louisiana, and Augusta, Georgia. These were great trips, and when taking them I treated my destination like an exotic foreign land, full of positive and negative stereotypes. On the positive side, I had my formative pop culture memories of Smokey and the Bandit and the Dukes of Hazzard (regrettably, it was my favorite show in my early childhood) as well as a great love for the South's musical traditions, from New Orleans jazz to Kentucky bluegrass to Nashville country to Memphis soul. On the trip to Augusta I distinctly remember riding along the highways of northern Georgia, marveling at the Gothic beauty of overgrown kudzu while "Midnight Rider" played on the car stereo. On the negative side, I had my knowledge of the South's history of slavery and Jim Crow often on my mind. Many of my preconceptions about the South's inferior standards also found vivid confirmation. For instance, I came away from these trips appalled at the fact that just about every gas station toilet I had the misfortune to enter was a disgusting mess. (The worst instance came on a trip this summer to Atlanta where I stopped at a gas station in Alabama where the men's toilet was overflowing with shit. When I mentioned this to the cashier, he gave me a look that said he knew about it, and that I was an asshole for expecting any better.) As I made the move to East Texas, I wondered which imagined version of the South I would inhabit, the birthplace of great American food, literature, music and culture, or a racist, backwards hellhole.

From my perch in New Jersey after three years of southern living, I'm now convinced that the incessant exoticization of the South by those in the region and outside of it prevents real understanding and needs to stop. Although many Southerners claim they are sick and tired of being depicted in an exotic manner, the voices today calling most loudly for the existence of a distinctive Southern way of being reside in Dixie. And yet, as my friend J. who grew up in Alabama likes to note, the South has never been more similar to the rest of the country, and the rest of the country more similar to the South. On the one hand, every Southern town of size has the same ugly growth of the same box stores and fast food chains at its edges, except for a couple of Chic-fil-as thrown into the mix. On the other, country music has saturated the rest of America's airwaves, Southern rappers dominate hip-hop, Southern-style evangelical Christianity has gone national, Paula Deen is making Southern food accessible to the Yankee masses, NASCAR is regularly televised, Arkansas-born Wal-Mart is the biggest retailer and the traditional Southern abhorrence of the public sphere has become the dominant theme of American politics this year.

Yes, there are real differences, but they are increasingly less important, especially in the urban South. (Pockets of the rural South still remain forbiddingly set in their ways, part of the reason I had to get out.) A modern day Faulkner or Flannery O'Connor wanting a truly "Southern" setting for their literary work would have to choose Wal-Mart or a suburban subdivision rather than a general store or Greek revival mansion. In my opinion, there are two recent depictions of this New New South that actually ring true, HBO's series Eastbound and Down and the Will Ferrell vehicle Talladega Nights. While the main character of Eastbound and Down, Kenny Powers, does teach in a place called Jefferson Davis High School (it's hard to believe there are still public institutions named for this nation's greatest traitor, but there are many), he has his comeback at a suburban BMW dealership. These days folks eat their grits at a Cracker Barrel off the interstate rather than a dusty roadside diner, a fact reflected in Talladega Nights, where much of the film takes place in an Applebee's. The "baby Jesus" prayer scene from this film is about as scathing an indictment of the shallow, anti-intellectual version of Christianity common these days in both the North and South as you'll find.

It's in the best interests of those living in both the north and the south to stop fetishizing the latter's eccentricities. Folks up north have a maddening tendency to ascribe racism to the South so as to shift attention from endemic racial inequality in their own backyards. (By the way, my old university in East Texas had more interracial couples on its campus than any other that I've ever been affiliated with up north.) People in the South need to stop bristling at every criticism of their startingly hierarchical society as some kind of Yankee intrusion, or indictment of a unique and cherished "way of life." It's time for Americans all around this country to ask some hard questions about how we got here, and not to retreat into a regionalism that makes the current situation and its attendant problems the result of someone else's behavior, and not their own.