Lately I’ve been questioning whether I am still a southerner. This may also involve questioning whether the South is still the South or just another identity group like model-train enthusiasts or sadomasochists.
I always thought I was. I grew up in Arkansas, in a family that had been there for a hundred or more years. I say “fixin’ to” and “might could” and “y’all” (always plural, never ever singular), and I call that heavy black thing you make cornbread in a skillet. I actually asked for one for my 18th birthday, and I still have it, along with my mother’s cornbread recipe. It seemed to me then a mark of being grown up. I’m not, however, a purist about never washing it.
I once, to my everlasting regret, voted Republican in a statewide primary race, having let others convince me that it would ultimately help the Democrat in the race. It didn’t, and I soiled my political soul for nothing. Otherwise I’m as yellow-dog a Democrat as they come. I like that other yellow hyphenate, too, the Yellow-Shoe Press, aka LSU, and their exceptional poetry series.
I always felt my spiritual home was more Boston than Charleston, but I don’t think I could stand the winters.
I’m lukewarm on barbecue and get a taste for it about once a year, if that. I can live without the blues. Greens, too, for that matter. I am the child of modest privilege, white, the daughter of a lawyer and a teacher, both well-educated, who provided me with vacations on Hilton Head and private high school and college and, most importantly, exposure to books, music, and art from an early age. We left the dinner table to look up words in the dictionary that we didn’t know, and a typical weekend afternoon might find us all in different rooms, companionably reading our books.
My grandfather was Bear Bryant’s first football coach, but I’ve lived in Tuscaloosa, the Bear’s lair, for over twenty years and have attended only one football game in all that time.
So when the debates begin: pulled pork or ribs? turnips or collards? Bama or Auburn? Cream gravy or red-eye? I sometimes feel sidelined, and I ask myself, to paraphrase an old song, Is I is or is I ain’t a Southerner?
I’ve never chopped cotton or killed a hog. I have never fried one single thing, animal or vegetable, in all my life, though I have been in kitchens and carports where frying took place. I don’t hunt, fish, camp, or even tail-gate. I haven’t been saved, not even once. My religious status would be best described as lapsed Episcopalian. I do not consider Jesus a close personal friend.
I also feel no affinity to the new southern hipsters, who knowledgeably debate the virtues of the different kinds of regional barbecue, collect primitive/self-taught/outsider/folk art, drive long distances into the backwoods to listen to blues music, call themselves locavores and corner you at parties to proclaim the wonders of swiss chard Picked Yesterday by Local Farmers in Your Own Community. Seems I’m neither old-school nor new-school in my Southernness.
My husband, a New Yorker by birth, said that this was the only region in the country you could live in where you’d even think about writing such an essay as this. That’s where I’m writing from.