My wife Julie spent the weekend roadtripping between Philly and St. Francisville, delivering my car because I have to drive the U-Haul in next month’s move. Her brother flew up from Texas to drive with her, giving them some time together. On the drive, they had some car trouble Saturday night passing through Christiansburg, Va. The Honda place sent them to Advanced Auto Parts, where a young man — a mensch — named Ben received them, helped them sort things out, and sent them on their way with no charge, and only a “God bless you.”
I thought: Ahh, the South.
Yesterday, Sunday, they stopped for gas near Birmingham. Julie said the clerk inside the station was listening to a radio preacher talking about Cyrus the King of Persia, and the Jews of Babylon.
I thought: Ahh, the South.
Later, as they motored closer to home, Julie phoned to say, “We’re driving on the Jerry Clower Memorial Highway!” Have mercy, I love me some Jerry Clower, who was, for my money, the world’s greatest Southern Baptist. Just you listen to this master storyteller. Ahh, ahh, ahhhhh … the South.
A friend e-mailed me this Swampland interview with the Southern sportswriter Clay Travis, talking about what, in his view, makes the South exceptional. I recognize what he said and love it. Clay Travis makes me so, so glad to be moving South toward home. Read this:
The other day I read an article that was discussing the extreme blandness of being white in America today. I think it was the four billionth article about Barack Obama ascending to the White House, and it was trying to make a unique point. The basic thesis was that Hispanic, black, and Asian cultures are all more proud of their cultures than white people are. From there the article meandered into examining why hip hop became so popular with white people, why white people buy more hip hop albums than black people do. It was almost as bad as Sports Illustrated’s profile of Obama that used basketball to explain everything about his personality. Stuff like, “His cross-over dribble is indicative of his respect for Palestine.” The blandness article didn’t spend much time pointing out that minority cultures have always identified more strongly with their cultures than majority cultures have, but it did get me thinking about being Southern. I don’t think Southern white people feel “bland” at all. I think this is because “Southern” has become the default nationality for white people in the South. I think that’s also true for many Southern minorities of my own generation.
My wife’s from Michigan. When we started dating she asked me where in Europe my family had come from. She explained that her dad’s people were German and her mom’s were Italian. Many of the people in her grandparent’s family still speak Italian. The question sort of floored me. Because no one had ever really asked me that question before in the South. After a little while I just said that I was Southern. Later on she pointed out to me that being Southern is much more important than anything else to people down here. And I think she’s right.
But you asked what that means to me and I think that’s a great question. The first thing that comes to mind is that you’re kind to people when you don’t have to be kind to them; there’s a greater awareness of other people during the course of a day. It’s a stereotype that everyone in the South is friendly, but it’s also true. As a second part of that, I think there’s a broader understanding of your family’s history than in other places. I had a professor who swore that you could tell whether someone was Southern or not by whether they could tell you a story featuring their great-grandparents or another relative like that who had been dead for two generations before they were actually born. Now this also ties in with another thing that I think is distinctly Southern, an appreciation for stories, but I’ve found the family angle to be true. So much so that I’ve become convinced if you walk up to a complete stranger and say, “Tell me a story about your great-granddaddy,” and he or she does, then you know they’re Southern.
There’s also an understanding of your physical surroundings, the names of trees, animals, lakes, fish; Southerners have a better grasp of place. You can see it in the fiction and non-fiction; I can see it every time my dad goes for a walk outside. He knows every tree, can point to it and tell you characteristics about all the trees. It’s a more rural culture. This is fading somewhat, but I think it’s still true.
I think the South allows the extremes to flourish better than other regions do. The men are more masculine and the women are more feminine. If that makes any sense. Yet, at the same time we’re all pretty eccentric and we welcome our eccentricities. Crazy aunts and uncles are embraced down here, and everyone who is Southern knows exactly what I mean. It may be a more conservative culture, but, and this is a key distinction, on an individual level I think that people are very tolerant of other individuals. Finally, I think the South is more tribal than other regions. I can be anywhere in the world and if I meet somebody else from the South, I’m predisposed to like them. I went away to college at GW and I can remember that feeling of comfort I immediately felt when somebody elongated their vowels or answer a professor with yes, sir, or yes, ma’am. People from other regions don’t feel that way. They’re too competitive to feel that way–places like Long Island, islands of commerce that exist, it would appear, only to make sure everyone else believes that you have more money to spend than you actually do, don’t really exist in the South.
That feeling of comfort. Yes.