WHAT IS THE SOUTH ANYWAY?
To me, it like a dog chasing its tail.
First stereotyping blacks. Now stereotyping whites.
‘Round and ‘round it goes. Unable, it seems, to let go of itself.
I consider myself a Southerner, not by birth but by preference. To me, the South is warm, easy, rich with the kinds of flowers, trees, and birds I like most. With foods that make me feel at home.
I’ve never met a plantation owner. Just mechanics, plumbers, carpenters, farmers, and former “lint heads” (people who worked in textile mills before NAFTA shut them out). I’ve never met a slave owner, obviously, only people who agree that slavery was wrong.
So I wonder what to do about myself as a writer living in the South writing about people and places here, about some of ways of the South I find interesting, worth weaving into stories.
Am I a racist? I hope not. I don’t mean to be.
Have I benefitted from white privilege? I imagine so. How could I not—having been white in a white dominant location. The South, yes. But also the nation. And most of the planet as well.
This morning I read a Literary Hub article called The Troubled Task of Defining Southern Literature in 2021. The author, Ed Tarkington, had interesting things to say about the current transformation of Southern literature—the nurturing of greater diversity as the South looks for its best voice in time of rapid change. There was a line that stays with me. In mentioning his discovery of Brad Watson’s debut story collection, Last Days of the Dog Men, he said it “redefined what was possible for a bookish Southern white boy uncomfortable with the idea of ‘Southernness.’”
What is Southernness? Yes, the South has bad things woven into its fabric. Slavery. Lynchings. Jim Crow laws. The Southerners I have met, same as the Northerners I have known, believe those things were awful, believe the world is capable of doing much better, believe progress is being made.
Of course there are some people that disagree. But they are only to be found in the South. The South doesn’t own the patent on intolerance. Nor do white people. Intolerance isn’t a white thing only. There’s a lot of it being doled out these days from all across the rainbow.
Which brings me back to my situation as a straight white male living in the South writing about Southern places and people…
Check out listings for publishers and agents these days. In 2017 there were ones stating openly on the internet for all to see that they would welcome Southern authors and Southern stories.
They’re all gone now.
Am I supposed to be, as Ed Tarkington said of Brad Watson, a bookish Southern white boy uncomfortable with the idea of Southernness?
If so, my latest novel is screwed. I’m screwed. The world is screwed.
It’s one thing to be uncomfortable with wrongs of the past. The way past and the recent past. I’m sorry those things happened although they were things I didn’t do, didn’t condone through silence as they happened. As far as I’m concerned, they’re not on me, they’re on people long gone from this world and maybe a small number of hold outs. Most of us have moved on, have learned from those mistakes and built that awareness into how we carry ourselves. I don’t agree that the sons should be punished for the sins of the fathers. No, I can’t go along with that.
So, while as I’ve mentioned, I’m uncomfortable with the wrongs of the past, I’m not at all ashamed of my Southerness. In fact, I’m proud of it, proud of the things of this place, it’s flowers, trees, beaches, foods, and climate. And of what’s in our hearts here. Demonstrated by our improvements, our enthusiasm for moving forward.
I worry about so much censorship happening. So many babies being thrown out with the bath water. Where are we going with this if we follow along? As we search for our one voice, how can we ever find it when all voices aren’t included. Not just POCLBGTQ+. But ALL.
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