Am I a Southerner?

Why do I think I’m a Southerner?
I don’t think it. I know it.

Trying to construct a definition of The South confuses even the most apt scholar. You get stuck like a wet shirt if try to develop a quintessential, all-encompassing definition. The urban South, the rural South, the new South . . . Which one to consider? Writing in the Encyclopedia of Southern Culture, Patrick Gerster, does as fair a definition of the South as I’ve come across lately:

[The South] is often viewed as a land populated by a succession of predictable stock characters — formerly a land of happy darkies with watermelon or banjo, sadistic overseers, coquettish belles, chivalrous cavaliers, vengeful Klansmen, and more recently a land of rambunctious good old boys, demagogic politicians, corrupt sheriffs, country and western good old girls, nubile cheerleaders, football All Americans with three names, neurotic vixens with affinities for the demon rum, Bible-thumping preachers haunted by God, sugary Miss America candidates of unquestioned patriotism, toothless grizzled “po’ white trash” and military “lifers” of considerable spit but little polish.

This stereotyped South is a country on the mental map of the national imagination, its citizenry a distillation of both fact and fiction. To many students of Southern culture, the South has sustained its measure of regional distinctiveness because of a long-held and abiding set of cultural values that Southerners believe clearly separate them from American culture at large. The South, in this sense, has done much to create and perpetuate its regional stereotypes owning to their usefulness in helping to shape a self-image and a regional consciousness. To them the South serves as both America at its extreme and as “Uncle Sam’s other province”.

One characteristic to be included in a definition of The South would be “adaptable”. Today’s Southerner plays whatever card is needed to win the hand. It’s a basic survival technique honed to a fine edge that takes years to get just right. The stereotypes exist and they’re not going away any time soon. And what’s more, pop culture portrayals of Southerners sell. Sometimes it pays more to be a cracker, a goober, dumbass trailer park trash or a redneck than to be an educated, well-read individual. It’s this duality, this Southern schizophrenia that confuses scholars.

Southern apologists would like to dismiss the traditional Southern characterizations as myth. But, truth is, the good old boys and gals, rednecks, belles, cavaliers, etc., they’re all still here. Family farms may have been sold out to corporate farms, but the yeoman still exists. Southern good old gals may have evolved but they’re still self-sufficient. They can change the oil on a pickup truck, repair a leaky faucet, replace storm windows, and lug forty-pound toddlers on one hip while giving a Labrador retriever a flea dip in a galvanized wash tub and only the dog gets wet. Southern women know when to turn off the self-sufficient-let-me-do-it persona and become seemingly helpless twits if it means getting what they want.

Emulating all types of Southerners has paid off nicely for folks throughout our history. Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind is a drop in the cultural bucket of Southern stereotypes. Billy Bob Thornton’s Slingblade, Oh, Brother Where Art Thou, James Dickey’s Deliverance, oh my what a list we could construct, Harper Lee, William Faulkner, Eudora Welty, Tom Wolfe, Clyde Edgerton, Doris Betts, Flannery O’Connor . . . and on and on. Southerners are portrayed as hayseeds, hicks, rednecks, white trash, revolutionaries, bigots, religious zealots, and holy icons that come in all sizes, races, religious preferences, and of course, both sexes.

Occasionally Southerners are portrayed as articulate capitalists with a social conscience and a college degree. In the 1970s, good old boys became pop culture as actors like Burt Reynolds, portraying Bill Neely’s character Stroker Ace in the movie by the same name, brought the image of Bubba to the big screen. W. J. Cash wrote about good old boys in earnest in 1941. Neely probably got his inspiration for Stroker Ace from Tom Wolfe’s 1967 Esquire essay about Junior Johnson, a Southern stock car racing hero. Today’s good old boy can be anyone from Bobby Earl who fixes your transmission and goes to church twice a week to a local politico with the District Attorney in his back pocket.

Rednecks, though, now they’re another breed. Southern comedian Jeff Foxworthy’s “You Might Be A Redneck If” routine seems to lump GOBs and rednecks together, but most of us below the Mason-Dixon line know the difference. Rednecks are mean as stumps, good old boys can marry your sister. Billy Carter, Good Old Boy Supreme, made a comment about the difference between rednecks and good old boys. Good old boys ride around in pick up trucks, drinking beer, and putting his empties in a sack. Rednecks ride around in pick up trucks, drinking beer, and tossing empties out the window.

The New South polemics want you to believe that we Southerners are now a sophisticated breed, a geographic entity populated by Linux-writing Red Hats and corporate muckety mucks that embrace affirmative action and social equality. Those folks would like to dispel the notion of any remaining agrarian influences on Southern culture. They scream about the evils of cigarette smoke while attending colleges like Duke, which were built by tobacco money. Their sense of irony is as buried as their sense of humor. They scorn the typecasting and find redneck humor degrading. (Which is not to say it isn’t, but that’s not my argument, here.)

Seems to me, a lot of folks down here don’t seem to mind being poked fun at by comedians who stereotype Southerners. Especially those who write jokes about rednecks, white trash, tornados, and doublewide trailers. The people around here who laugh the most at these comedians are Southern white trash redneck trailer park folks. Rednecks laugh the hardest at Jeff Foxworthy and take no offense when they see themselves portrayed on stage. If they were offended, Foxworthy would be floating facedown in a bayou being served up as the main course in an alligator’s dinner party.

The Southern online literary journal that I edit, The Dead Mule, requires at submission that writers explain why they consider themselves Southern. It’s a tongue-in-cheek requirement because there are no wrong answers. Most of the answers to the question “Why do you think of yourself as Southern?” suggest a commonality of cultural perception of our region. Some of the replies typify what it means to be a Southerner:

“I was born and raised in Chattanooga, TN. Eight years ago, I moved to Columbia, SC and have been here ever since. We are one of the only states in the Union to still prominently display the Confederate battle flag on our Statehouse grounds. I used to own a pickup truck, but I had to sell it when my wife left me for a construction worker (seriously). I have a big, dumb dog that digs holes and eats flies. I’m a bourbon drinker. I’ve never had a martini. I’ll take Larry Brown over Salman Rushdie any day. My girlfriend’s family owns a Bar-B-Q joint. We had black-eyed peas and collard greens for luck on New Years. The entire city of Columbia . . . shut down for two days over three inches of snow.”

“I live in North Carolina, the northwestern foothills to be exact. So I was actually raised within two cultures, Appalachian Mountain and Southern. An interesting combination. My earliest childhood recollection is of holding onto the tail of an old red hen while my granny chopped its head off. But I let go too soon and it jerked headless off the stump, and went to flopping around covering me with chicken blood. But granny just matter-of-fact whopped it again and it laid down and died. Then we dunked it in hot water, plucked it, gutted it, and had good chicken and dumplings for supper.”

“I have never lived in a trailer house, but have two friends and a relative to lose trailer houses (one to a tornado and two to divorces). My mother and father were cousins. I once lost a VW to Kudzu and I can count more friends named Bubba than I have fingers and toes.”

“Why I think I’m Southern: For one, both my parents were born in Georgia. My paternal grandpappy was born in Southern Alabama. So, I have relatives from Georgia and Alabama. As Brett Butler says, “I’m so Southern I’m related to myself.” For two, I grew up in Montgomery, Alabama having moved there when Mama divorced Daddy when I was three. You don’t get more Southern than Bama! Right now, I’m going to graduate school at Auburn University, a place where football is a religion (but isn’t it everywhere in the South?) And, I’m not afraid to use my true accent around those hoity toity grad students and professors. For three, my sister isn’t married to my uncle, but I have plenty of double cousins. My mama’s sister married my daddy’s brother. My daddy’s cousin married my mama’s brother. Hey, they’re from [a small town in] GA. There are only about three or four families to choose from. You can’t blame ’em!”

As with most writers, these authors write in their spare time while earning a living at other endeavors. I have many more replies, but the ones printed above are a good representative sample. These writers earn a living as computer programmers, college professors, housewives, attorneys, farmers, newscasters… they are all races, religions, and social economic levels. And they are Southerners. No matter how hard we try appear suave, sophisticated, worldly folks, when the veneer is stripped away, it seems we all just want a pitcher of sweet tea, a rocking chair, and all of our family on the front porch wrangling over who gets to sit in the porch swing. Maybe that’s politically incorrect, somehow, but it’s culturally sound.