An Englishman in the American South
Five Southern states in 11 days: scattered views from the old world.
The Ubiquitous Andrew Jackson
He did get himself involved in some pretty momentous events. The man saved the Union from the British, sort of, depending on how you read the Battle for New Orleans. He won back the country from the pompous elites of the East Coast, returning it to the people, though that was a time when "the people" was a category only really consisting of white males. He fought for state rights but wouldn’t compromise national security, and most controversially, forged further expansion at the expense of Native American tribes. It was also during his era that the old battle lines of East vs West began to switch to North vs South, cementing a much fought over divide that hasn’t exactly gone away.
The one thing that still surprises about America as a whole is the lack of commercialisation everywhere, at least comparatively. Fed on stories of rampant capitalism, I washed up on US shores expecting the streets to be lined with consumer items. Supermarkets would be well-ordered temples dedicated to the art of stuffing yourself. The fact that it’s all quite normal comes as a bizarre disappointment. Or perhaps it actually says more about the UK now than the US. At sites like Graceland, where I expect to be assaulted by all manner of gifts, the collection proves oddly mundane. Much like the mansion experience, it’s calmer than anticipated.
One thing the South definitely has is music. Graceland is only the tip of the iceberg. New Orleans is obsessed with it, Memphis is obsessed with it, and then there’s Nashville, a city so consumed it goes by the moniker Music City. One straight shot on the Interstate, past another historic battlefield or two of course, and we’re in a city of just over 600,000 people that somehow manages to have a geographic footprint in excess of places ten times larger. That crazy amount of sprawl seems to be treated as a selling point. Far more so than our walk through New Orleans, it creates a collection of island communities surrounded by no-man’s land. Walk 20 minutes from the center and the downtown towers still loom nearby, but it feels like you've entered a different world.
The excessive sprawl impacts the beating tourist heart of the city. Head to Broadway and the stretch of honky-tonk bars is impossibly enticing in a gaudy throw-your-hats-in-the-air way. We found ourselves on a balcony overlooking pedestrian madness below, a couple of local beers in our hands and a decent band rolling through country classics behind us. Everyone seems to be a musician. From bar staff to taxi drivers, it’s a town made of music. The vibe, at least right there, is inclusive and energetic. But walk one street up in any direction, this was peak time on a Saturday night as well, and it goes deathly quiet. It’s a common occurrence around the South. Too much space and not enough people means only small areas ever seem to pack out with life.
With honky-tonking ticked off, and a car loaded with memorabilia, Andrew Jackson surfaced once more. The Hermitage, his old plantation, is hard to miss in Nashville; that is until you get right up close. Then remarkably discreet signage does what it can to either send you the wrong way or cause traffic collisions by encouraging last second swerves across lanes. With a bit of careful GPS navigation, we finally made it off the main road to his quiet retreat.
Nowhere did the contradictions of the South shine through as brightly as at the Hermitage. It’s part-shrine, part-historic monument, and full-on conflicted when it comes to the man who built it. The house, compact for a two-term President and the most famous man of his day, is wonderfully preserved, right down to the furniture and wallpaper. The grounds are littered with reminders of his deeds, good and bad. That he lived off the profits of a slave-worked cotton plantation and remained ambivalently quiet on the issue of slavery is not forgotten, or airbrushed out.
That is until you step inside a colorful, entertaining and hagiographic run-through of his life in the visitor centre. There the focus is on his glorious victory over the British, one misrepresented in subtle ways when it comes to scaling ladders, and certainly not on his ground-breaking two-term spell as President. That he remains the one Commander-in-Chief to be censured by the Senate is conveniently brushed aside, as is detail on an approach that drove Native Americans from their lands. He believed in freedom, championing the common man against aloof East Coast patricians, but as bumper stickers all over cars in the area attest, freedom isn’t free, especially if you have the misfortune not to be a white male.
This curious confusion between buffing unpleasant edges and showing vice with virtue carried over to the young man providing tours of Jackson's mansion. When questioned innocently on the fate of the orphaned Native American child Jackson took in, he launched into a strangely defensive statement using the adoption as proof Jackson’s treatment of native tribes was all above board. Out in the grounds the picture is more rounded. There the impressive audio guide is careful not to forget the many slaves that made the South of Jackson’s time tick. There’s a little bit of desperation in the constant references to his provision of medical treatment for slaves but the picture emerging is that of a man neither at the forefront of racist oppression, nor willing to do anything to stop it.
Relying on slavery both made the Southern economy and undid it. Signs of that undoing were everywhere. In Georgia, where we swung by to jump onto a Walking Dead location tour (because we’re that cool), it’s easy to see why AMC chose to shoot a post-apocalyptic horror series there. Out in the countryside it already looks like an abandoned wasteland gradually being reclaimed by nature.
If that sounds bleak, it’s because it sometimes appeared that way, but renewal is out there. On brief glance much of the South can look like a beautifully decaying graveyard, a memorial to something we shouldn’t really be memorializing, but that’s to generalise horribly, and to ignore the areas of hope. The music centers boom and tourists cannot be kept from New Orleans. Then there are places like Birmingham, Alabama, a small industrial city that looked to have died with its industry. Existing for iron, the future went down the drain when metal left in the decades after the Second World War. So what has it possibly got going for it?
Quite a lot actually. Added to the itinerary mostly because it’s named after the second biggest city in my homeland (admittedly not even a place most people are all that excited about going to in the UK), it turned out to be the surprise of the trip. Everything they say about Southern hospitality proved true when we abandoned motels for trusty Airbnb. We ended up with Ashton, a host who couldn’t have gone further out of her way to make us feel at home while pointing us to all the hip places. Birmingham is a city in the midst of revival. It’s quiet, but parts of it feel like the hipsterish café culture of North London, in a good way.
They’ve also made the most of lost virtues. The abandoned Sloss Furnaces is no collapsing ruin. Now a National Historic Landmark, it’s open for people to walk around, used for live shows, and turned into what I can only imagine is the most terrifying Halloween night ever. Strolling around in the beating sun, it would be easy to understand if everyone simply hid indoors, but there were plenty of people out jogging, cycling and even, heaven forbid, walking. Gentrification brings its own problems, but it certainly seems to be a city embracing itself. Wandering around Ashton’s apartment, her love for Birmingham comes through in several posters. That pride helps explain why it’s recovering.
There’s still room for improvement, however. For a city nearly three quarters African American, most of the people in the restored areas enjoying beers and pizza were white. It seems old divides do live on, though walking around Sloss, the explanatory signs assiduously detailed the treatment meted out to African American workers.
The Civil Rights Institute in the heart of Birmingham goes even further. Walking step by excruciating step through the persecution and then the movement to right almighty wrongs, it’s a devastating rebuke to systemic abuse, and a moving memorial to the people who fought back against a rigged world. Perhaps the most important section comes right at the end, after the landmark battles of the '50s and '60s have been won. Here it’s made clear that changing laws does not automatically create a fair society. Despite significant progress, if anything the battle is harder now, racism much more of an insidious undercurrent. Unfair laws provide a rallying point that simply isn’t there when trying to right broad economic and cultural wrongs.
For an outsider, race relations are usually the first thing that comes to mind when the South is mentioned. It seems astonishing that anyone would fly a Confederate flag, a symbol that usually means one thing alone in the UK. I suspect it means the same to many Americans as well. And yet there they were on cars and outside houses, a symbol of a way of life that is no more. Driving around, there were several faded billboards advertising the Sons of Confederate Veterans organization. It’s a sign of the ongoing disconnect still lingering that these societies exist in the same place where someone has built a Civil Rights Institute. If countless people over more than one century have failed to reconcile such different worlds, it’s hardly likely a stranger from a strange land visiting for a week and a half is going to have any great insight, but a divide of some form is immediately apparent.
That’s no note to end on as it paints an image not in keeping with the positive feelings we both came away with. The negative stereotypes associated with the South are there, though it’s a far hazier and confusing picture than my broad preconceptions would have it. It’s also a beautiful place steeped in history good and bad, a land of postcard backdrops, rocking music scenes, ridiculously good food, and unexpected signs of rebirth.
Plus that Southern politeness spiel is no myth. When we arrived in Senoia for the Walking Dead tour, our inability to handle time zone changes meant we missed the tour bus. A kid in the gift shop ran a full mile in the burning sun to help us, and then despite holding them up, everyone seemed delighted when we finally boarded. The guy we sat next to even said as much. Show the same accidental tardiness in the UK and you’ll most likely meet with silence and angry glares. There is much in the South I could get used to. If only it wasn’t so hot.