The Dirt We Live On

Growing up southern can be a frustrating experience. The south is not simple. It’s complicated. It’s at the same time diverse and intolerant, culturally significant and unappreciative.

There’s a lot of uneasiness that comes with living in Tennessee. It’s easy to look down on the south as a wasteland and a place of cultural inferiority that has idly sat still for fifty years while society around it changed. Mississippi has its startling poverty, Alabama has its trailer parks, and the south in general has its abundant racism that, apparently, runs rampant (along with strange foods and weird accents).

Most of it’s true. No, all of it’s true. But it’s the wrong question to ask. I still see Confederate flags raised on flagpoles on lawns. I’ve known a great deal of racist, backward, bigots in my time. People still say “ain’t” all the time. But that’s not the whole story. The question is not “does this happen in the south?”, the question should be “is this all that happens in the south?”

I grew up in what could be appropriately termed a “typical southern small town”, believing I was constantly surrounded by backward, country-bred, rednecks. A pickup truck without a confederate flag lisense plate seemed rare. My friends in high school listened to Alan Jackson. While at the local community college, I had a heard an acquaintance complain that he had to attend an Art Appreciation class. I asked, jokingly, if he’d learned to appreciate art. No, he said, “I still think it’s a bunch of worthless shit for fags.” When I was sixteen, I saw a black kid get stabbed, pretty much because he was black.

I’d like say these events were a-typical, but they weren’t. I could cite a long list of similar ones. Or, I could stop there and leave the conclusion that the South is a wasteland, an island impervious to the advances of culture that goes on all around it. Staying, pretty much the same as it was fifty years ago.

But that’s selling the south short. It’s much more complicated than that. The south has a rich cultural history and deserves not to be written off by a few stereotypes or loud rednecks. It has problems, and they are clear to everyone, but to dismiss an entire region as brain dead and backward is a bad mistake. It’s easy to look at the South and see Nascar and bigotry, but if that’s all your seeing, you’re missing a great deal.

In my college years, I moved from my “typical southern small town” to the small city of Knoxville, and saw that my “typical southern small town” was not the only way of life in the South. Knoxville, of course, is no cultural mecca and it presents its own set of frustrations. But for its part, it’s taught me that the South, despite it’s history and despite itself, is not a total wasteland.

The south is not simple. It’s complicated. It’s at the same time diverse and intolerant, culturally significant and unappreciative. People point to the poverty in Mississippi, overlooking the prosperity and racial diversity of Atlanta. When Atlanta is mentioned, it’s often in conjunction with the phrase “Atlanta is not the real South”.

There is a South beyond the bizarre accents and crazy lingo. There are thinkers here. The South owns the dirt that produced William Faulkner, Flannery O’Conner and James Agee, Scott Joplin, Elvis Presley and Michael Stipe. It can be an ugly place with an uglier history. And sometimes it’s not easy living here. But I live here, and live here happily, as do millions of people who are not backward, country-bred, rednecks. And sadly, it’s taken me a long time to learn to recognize that.