In a houseboat kitchen in Sausalito, just across the Golden Gate Bridge from San Francisco, a California woman put her hand on my wife Kiya’s arm and said, “You are such a Bodhisattva for staying in the South.” Her eyes were soft with compassion, or something. I felt Kiya stiffen. “Bow up” is how we say it when we’re “talking southern” at home to preserve our culture. Kiya is from Kentucky and Oklahoma, and I’m a quirky mix of North Carolina and Philadelphia. Kiya is fierce about people who are ignorant about the South and sometimes feels honor-bound to advance their education. “It’s where we live,” I said quickly. “It’s where we live.”
The woman nodded sadly, but Kiya and I both knew what I’d said. The cuss words were there, but silent. I could just as well have said “HEY! We don’t come to your home, look around scornfully, take a Bette Davis drag on our cigarette, and spit, ‘What. A. Dump.’”
One Halloween when I first came to Texas, I saw a young woman wearing a rebel flag T-shirt, a bandana around her hair, and fake bad teeth. “What are you dressed as?” I asked.
“A southerner,” she replied. I had to go stomp around a little about that. I thought of the many different actual southerners who have graced our culture with their fire, their culture, and their passion. William Faulkner, Eudora Welty, B.B. King, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin, Jimmy Carter, and the Rev. William Barber II, the force behind progressive protest in North Carolina: southerners all, many rooted in faith and powered by the culture of the black church.
I grew up white in North Carolina. At eight years old I didn’t know much about race, but my training as a white person was increasingly attended to. One day, while driving me to school, my mother pointed out the window at a two-story dun-colored building and said, “That’s where the little black children go to school.” I’d never before wondered where the black children were. They weren’t at Mulberry Street School, where I was, and where my mother taught.
I remember once pointing out a woman walking with an umbrella in the hot sun. “Look at that lady,” I said. “That’s pretty smart.”
“We don’t call her a lady, honey. Just a woman.”
I remember now a tightness, a shame in my mother’s voice, as if she were passing on a value she didn’t like. When the public swimming pool was integrated, my mother took us swimming. We’d never been swimming there before, but we went that day, the only white family there. I remember seeing a joyous tangle of dark-skinned children playing under the sun and in the water.
I rarely had to think about race, and now I know those other children in the pool that day had to think about it every day of their lives. I try to remember the lessons those children taught me, but my whole world is designed to lull me back to sleep. These are painful memories now, as I have the awareness of the seething ocean of history and white supremacist structure underlying those moments.
There isn’t any way to talk about growing up in the South without talking about racism, and now, white folks are waking up to the knowledge that there isn’t any way to talk about growing up anywhere in our country without talking about racism. It’s built into every corner and cranny of our reality: who has land, who has money. It’s in housing, lending, education, policing, everything.
Looking at the map online of “sundown towns,” there are far more in Wisconsin than there are in South Carolina. In Texas and Georgia, though, there are whole sundown counties. Counties in which you are in danger after dark if you don’t have white skin.
How can I love the South? I do, though. God help me.
I love the eccentricity without irony. I love the storytelling tradition, the good manners, smiling at strangers on the street, and saying “hello” to people you pass. That, I believe, is something from black culture that white people have learned, as is “the little chat,” a way of being polite that demands that the cashier at the grocery store asks after your mama and you answer. There are wonderful people, relationships, activism, and power there. So much of black culture is rooted there.
So much Southern culture is black culture. How can a white person be a good ally for black safety, art, power, and liberation if you have contempt for southernness?
My South has a pungent flavor mix: pride and shame, depression and defiance. People in the small town where I raised my sons would ask, “Why are you living here?” with an almost apologetic acknowledgement that the place didn’t have much to offer. At the same time, they would claim with pride that “their people” had been in the town for generations.
My personal experiences of people’s prejudice are being mercilessly teased and bullied about my accent, more by adults than by children, when we moved to Philadelphia when I was ten. Others bought into the national imagination of the South as ignorant, racist, and uncultured, even though others are finally realizing that racism is everywhere, in the very fabric of the whole country. People have said to my adult face: “I hear a southern accent, and I think ‘stupid.’ I can’t imagine, for example, being taught math by someone with a southern accent.”
People want to take certain things from the culture: storytelling, emotional and physical responses to singing in worship, the call-and-response gospel style, while at the same time holding on to stereotypes of southerners as hee-haw hicks. I can’t tell you how many Unitarian Universalists have expressed surprise that there are UU churches in the South, or how many people have made expressions of distaste as they say, “Well, I could never work down there.”
I tell them that being a minister in the South is intensely rewarding because our churches are often one of the only places progressives, LGBTQ folks, blue collar, and white collar people can mingle because, in that place at least, you can question, you can declare who you are, you can work shoulder to shoulder with people you might never see outside of that church. The church is crucial, needed, essential.
The lady on the California houseboat asked about being gay in the South and being liberal in the South, and we let her know that the South has long been blessed with plenty of gay folks, and plenty of liberals. I think we have the best drag queens, but I know that’s a matter of opinion. I got to tell her about the times I’d been in the hospital in the South, and how no one had batted an eyelash about Kiya sleeping in the room with me on the chair. I thought too about the small UU church I served where two straight women started the town’s Pride parade.
When I reflect on being a UU and a proud southerner, it’s those moments, and those people, and those complexities that I lift up. Too often my culture gets reduced to an over-simplified image. It’s a multilayered, multifaceted place.
How can I love the South? I do, though. God help me.