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THOMPSON: The pride and misgivings of being from the American South

June 03, 2019 - 12:00 PM

 


OPINION


I am from the American South…a fact that has always allowed me a measure of pride…and a certain sense of misgiving at the same time.

It might be difficult for some - especially Canadians who might lack much history or contact with Southerners - to absorb the seeming contradiction of the cultural entity that is the South.

I can - without reservation - assure you that there are thousands of places in the South where the hospitality extended to you is beyond what you might have ever experienced. Those places - in Florida, Georgia, Tennessee, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, South Carolina, North Carolina, Virginia and Arkansas - make you feel at home.

A quick word…there are entire books written about the South and most cannot even quite agree on what states are Southern. There are fine points…the Old South, the New South, the Deep South and the Solid South…that determine what passes for Southern. And there are some states that are dismissed readily by others…who still consider themselves Southern.

I am no less guilty of this seeming random selection than the next Southerner. Note, for example, that someone else - even from my own family or a friend I grew up with - might include Texas or West Virginia and omit Kentucky or Arkansas…with no apology. It is an amorphous and highly subjective topic to say the least.

There are obvious incongruities in my South. For instance, the Alabama legislature - mostly men and mostly white - last month passed a law that would put a doctor who performs an abortion in prison longer than a man who rapes a victim. Like me, you might be outraged at such an obvious miscarriage of justice.

However, if you were at dinner on Sunday after church - which is really lunch in Alabama - you would have fun and more good food than you can imagine. Your hosts, who unfailingly answer “Yes, M’am” and “No, Sir,” to your every question, display impeccable manners and authentic charm, might very well support officials who made abortions - under almost any circumstances - illegal. It is the Bible Belt…and religious beliefs strongly influence politics for better or worse.

Three African-American churches were burned to the ground earlier this year…a 21-year-old son of a local deputy sheriff was charged last week. A South Carolina man was sentenced to 10 years in prison after he tried to hire a white supremacist - for $500 - to kill his Black neighbour, hang him from a tree and burn a Ku Klux Klan cross in his yard. There are more than two dozen self-described anti-Muslim hate groups in the South…all growing under Trump’s presidency.

The juxtaposition of good and evil is not unique to the South…I’ve seen it all over the world in countless countries and cultures. Still, this complexity can make it difficult to fully embrace a place and its people.

Sadly, the stereotype of a beer-swilling, ignorant redneck sharing a single-wide mobile home with someone who might be a cousin lives on. The stereotype is reinforced when you actually witness it.

Believe me, most Southerners cringe when they hear about the racism and bigotry of those who live alongside them. A huge number of us hate that injustice still exists for people of colour…and we are not content to sit back and hope the ignorant among us mystically change. We don’t let a legislature of all white men decide what’s best for women…without a fight.

Southerners represent huge contingents in the Southern Poverty Law Center, the American Civil Liberties Union, the anti-Defamation League, Planned Parenthood Federation of America and scores of other organizations that exist to protect human, civil, women and gender rights.

Things are better today, of course, than they were in the 1950s and 1960s when I was growing up in Florida. But that’s not to excuse travesties that happen today. We still have a long way to go. Racism is a nationwide problem rather than an issue just for Southerners. After all, America has a president that in no way reflects the ideals of America…and he’s from Queens, New York.

But in the South…my South…respect and politeness are neither superficial nor based on the colour of your skin or how fat or skinny your wallet might be. Kindness doesn’t masquerade behind niceties…it is real. The vast majority of Southerners extend kindness and hospitality to people regardless of race. And when you give your word on something…you can - as we say in the South - “take it to the bank.”

The guy who cuts my pasture and maintains the lawn on the farm in Florida while we’re in British Columbia…has never had a contract…he shows up, does what he said he’d do and we pay him. We shook on it years ago. Handshakes and your word don’t wear off in my South.

Two cultures have existed in the South…since there was a South. On the one hand you have a culture of refinement with manners second to none…while on the other you can witness hateful racism and bigotry.

One huge misperception many people harbour is that racism is more rampant in the South. In fact, there are more hate groups elsewhere…and Black friends have long told me that while states might have borders, racism does not. Some tell me they even feel more comfortable in the South…because racists there don’t hide their feelings as much. I understand, but there’s little comfort there.

What does give me comfort is the fact that my South can keep elements of its culture - hospitality, great food and manners - without tying them to a history of hatred and wrong doing. I have had people from states far from the South - even Canadians - assume I might share their narrow-minded or racist views.

This is a relatively common misperception. We should remember, for example, that most of the Neo-Nazis and Confederate wannabes who marched in Charlottesville last year were from places like North Dakota, California, Nevada, Ohio and Washington state.

The irony is pretty thick. Non-Southerners came from great distances to preserve and celebrate Southern culture when, in fact, they fought Southerners who had voted overwhelmingly to remove a Confederate statue in a public park. The lesson: Don’t assume a drawl and genteel manners equal a Rebel flag and a desire to return to the good ole days.

I’m a Southerner…and an American. People who have racist beliefs - no matter where they’re from - don’t get to define my South. Like so many places…the South has both good and bad in its history…even today. But one thing I know, you can celebrate being a Southerner - holding things like your word, your gracious hospitality and your manners in high regard - and never once consider a long-lost fight against the United States and racism as your legacies.

— Don Thompson, an American awaiting Canadian citizenship, lives in Vernon and in Florida. In a career that spans more than 40 years, Don has been a working journalist, a speechwriter and the CEO of an advertising and public relations firm. A passionate and compassionate man, he loves the written word as much as fine dinners with great wines. His essays are a blend of news reporting and opinion.


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