The Sickness of the South

As a native southerner, I have a love/hate relationship with my region. As a youngster, I had no real concept of what it meant to be southern, and as a teenager and early adult, I felt a deep resentment over how my region was presented on television and films. I remember a Jeff Foxworthy bit (that didn't involve his "you might be a redneck" schtick) where he described the average southerner's part in a film. Southerners, he said, were never the lead in a movie--they were the guys on the dock starting the boat engine saying "y'all gone be out awl day?" And if you had a part in a horror movie, you were dead before the opening credits finished rolling.

But of late, I've just gotten tired of my region's shit. There's really no other way to put it. I'm tired of our shit--the backward-looking love of a sick heritage is my primary beef, because I think it's the basis of the rest of the crap that's wrong with the American South.

And I want to make something clear here--when I'm talking about the South, I'm talking about more than just a geographical entity--I'm talking about a sick mindset that glorifies a society that was based on racism and ignorance and religious fundamentalism.

Maybe it's because of my current obsession with Kevin Phillips's American Theocracy--he lays out pretty clearly the connections between the rise of Southern evangelical power and the remnants of the Confederacy after the Civil War. On page 145, he writes,

Another southern historian, Charles Reagan Wilson, has detailed the foundations of "the lost cause" southern civic religion--an architecture of Christian and Confederate symbols held together by the clergy's postwar theology that reconciled defeat with the will of God and Confederate righteousness....

No one should be surprised, then, that Dixie has bred so many historians. It is said that when Southerners aren't going to church, they're cherishing old grudges, burnishing Civil War statues, or remembering something. The Southern Baptist Convention, in particular, has been shaped by what local people call "the backward glance."

Those local people are playing coy. It's not a backward glance--it's a stare, a longing, loving gaze to a time they imagine was filled with honor and glory. And it's no surprise why--kids who grow up in the south don't learn much about the Civil War in junior high or high school, and what they do learn is slanted to make the south look as good as possible. The effect of the Klan in the post-war confederacy is glossed over, the north is disparaged and reduced to caricatures of scalawags and carpetbaggers, and little or nothing is said about the swift gains post-slavery blacks made in the years under Reconstruction. In the last instance, in fact, the picture most often painted was that former slaves were on the whole loathe to leave their former plantations, and were perhaps worse off as freed people than as slaves. More attention is paid to the supposed corruption in the Freedman's Bureau and in the Grant Administration than is ever paid to the violence committed against freed blacks and the efforts made by former Confederates to reduce blacks back to the status of non-citizens.

And yet. And yet even though anyone who grew up in the area saw the long lasting effects of slavery and Jim Crow, even though we saw other regions of the country surpass us in test scores, we still reveled in our ignorance and our supposedly glorious past.

Enough is enough. The basis of southern "heritage" is racism and ignorance, and we see the effects of it every day. Southern states lead the nation in high school dropout rates and teen pregnancy. Racism, as I noted a couple of days ago in my post about Jack Strain, is alive and well. And evangelicalism, by telling its followers that it is okay, no, necessary to believe the literal statements of a religious book, even when it is contradicted by provable fact, only adds to the problem, because if you'll believe that the earth is only 6,000 years old, then why wouldn't you believe that an 18-day old fetus has a heartbeat or that homosexuality is a choice or that the faithful are going to be swept away to heaven while an AK-wielding, Hummer-driving Jesus gets medieval on the asses of the wicked left behind? If you believe one big lie, then you'll easily swallow a lot of smaller ones, after all.

Southerners have plenty to be proud of--we've produced the most vibrant regional literature in the US, we've made significant contributions in the worlds of science and medicine and music and many other fields. But we've done so against a backdrop of crippling poverty, racism, and deliberate ignorance, and it's time we as a region came to terms with that and started looking forward.

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