Wednesday, August 12, 2015

What is Southern heritage? What is worth celebrating?

What is heritage? It's a thing that can be inherited. Heritage is valued objects and qualities: cultural traditions, music, art, natural landscapes, historic buildings and a particular, shared history that come from previous generations.

Following up to a previous blog, I've been thinking a lot about what being from the South means to me, what heritage that it is a part of it that I want to celebrate.

The first thing that comes to mind: food. Stereotypical, I know. But there is no better comfort food than Southern food. Barbecue, biscuits and milk gravy, fried chicken, sweet corn on the cob, chicken and dumplings (dumplin's!), breaded and fried catfish fiddlers, burgoo... okay, not the healthiest cuisine in the world, and since leaving Kentucky, I've changed my daily diet rather significantly. But I still indulge in those Southern foods every now and again, usually when I want to celebrate something - and always when I visit the region. Going into a soul food restaurant on the West Coast makes me feel at home - waving a Confederate flag does not.

The second thing that comes to mind: music. Everyone from the Carter Family to Bessie Smith to Loretta Lynn, from Elvis Presley to Fats Domino to BB King, from Dolly Parton to Rhiannon Giddens, Southern Culture on the Skids to REM to the B52s to Government Cheese. It's country, bluegrass, gospel, rock and roll, rockabilly, blues, zydeco and on and on.

The third thing that comes to mind: our way of speaking. It's not just our accents - it's our cadence, our choice of words, our narratives, our poetry, our manners - it's what we say and how we say it and our intent behind it. If you've read William Falkner, Tennessee Williams, Maya Angelou, Richard Wright, Robert Penn Warren, Eudora Welty, Flannery O'Connor, Carson McCullers or Alice Walker, you experience this.

The fourth thing that comes to mind: our violent history. The white settlers drove out the native people of the region - and some Indians on the trail of tears took the African slaves they owned with them. Every Southerner wants to claim native American history, but not ancestry that drove out native Americans. Our ancestors were slave owners and slaves, and the time of slavery was never a universally-happy, simple time; rather, white Southerners wanted black Southerners to work in menial jobs, cook their food, entertain them, and take care of their children - but they wanted them otherwise completely segregated and subjugated, living in poverty, and were willing to undertake violent means, even long after the Civil War, to ensure that status. Some of us choose to be in denial about that history, some of us choose to sanitize, even glorify, the history, and some of us would like for it to be acknowledged, remembered, and taught in school - unfiltered.

The fifth thing that comes to mind: how we think of family and community and class. Every culture on Earth will say family is important, and the South is no different. But there's something particular about family and community and South, the way religion permeates it - even if you are Atheist, you cannot get away from religion in the South. There is so much prayer. The only place I've seen people praying that often has been in Afghanistan. Also, how you are related to other people in the community matters - who your blood relatives are, what families you are related to by marriage, and on and on. There are family aristocracies even in the tiniest, poorest communities that can hold a person back from jobs or social advancement. I learned the term trash from my black friends back in Kentucky, who used the term for people that, whether they had money or not, and no matter their racial identification, lacked propriety, decency, tact and grace. And, of course, there is our sports culture. The only place where I have seen sports treated the way we treat it in the South - like a religion - is in other countries where soccer is King. Entire communities here will shut down for the "big game," which might be American football, might be basketball, might be a softball game. And it will be talked about long after that game is over.

The sixth thing that comes to mind: the influence from African slave culture and of segregation. Our food, our music, our way of speaking, and how we think about our history are all affected by African slave culture and segregation. You will find a history of segregation and subjugation in other regions of the USA, but you will never find such infusing the food, the music or the way of speaking to the degree you will find such in the South. There's no way to experience our culture without seeing the deep infusion of slave culture and influence of segregation.

That's our beautiful and ugly, gentle and violent, welcoming and hateful, inclusive and exclusionary. I love it, I hate it. I accept it. And there's no way you can say the Confederate battle flag represents all that, and all of the people of the South - it does NOT. I want a symbol for ALL of the South.

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