Wednesday, August 12, 2009
It Is Still the South
I have a love/hate relationship with the South, that is the southern states of this nation. Everyone knows that I have a special relationship with the South. I was born in Little Rock, Arkansas, and I still visit there and rural Union County for family, reunions. I love the literature, the food, history and the culture. I go back and forth in my mind with the decision of if I want to retire to Arkansas or another southern city.
While I was at my cousin Angie’s house in a suburb in Little Rock, we had a conversation about the mindset of southerners. The topic came up about what we had discussed on the first night of the reunion down in Strong at my cousin Cynthia’s house. The towns of Huttig and Strong have combined their school districts because of decreasing enrollment. They got a new superintendant of schools, a white woman from Mississippi; they said a racist. Why did they call her that? Because she “reportedly” said in reply to why she did not move into the house the school board provides the superintendant, “It still has a nigger smell in it.” You see, the former superintendant was black and had lived in the house. When they finished telling us this, I kept waiting for the punch line. You know, the rest of the story. I finally said, “Okay, and she’s still there?”
“Yeah, she’s there.” “Uhmm, well if that was California, she would have been gone, quick and in a hurry.” My sister gave me a look that said, cool it. It would be no use in discussing it further or asking too many questions. They would have said, “Well, our kids have to go to that school and answer to that woman” or “ We can’t afford to send our kids to private school like you did.”
Okayeee, that’s when I said to myself, It’s still the South. Despite integration, and in some cases they are more integrated in their school system than in Oakland, California, my residence, and other northern urban cities. Despite integration and great strides made by African Americans, it is still the south and therefore a southern mentality. Let me explain. There is a certain mindset in mostly rural towns in the south that still plays out as if it were still the old south, pre integration, before the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
There is open, blatant segregation in terms of economic and social issues. A government official was traveling through rural Florida a few years ago and stopped to have a bite to eat and beer at a local tavern. He sat down and ordered the beer and was told by the bartender that he might be happier on the other side. The other side was the bar for blacks. This official was outraged. Separate facilities in the new millennium? Gasp! But the people in that ass backward town, both black and white did not see what the problem was. Blacks were equally complicit in upholding the separate but equal. “They like Country & Western and we like the Blues and R& B”. “That’s just the way it is” is what I heard from a friend who grew up in one of those ass backward towns in Florida. That’s what I mean when I say, it is still the south.
Oh, and there is the case of separate proms in those little ass backward southern towns. Every spring you read about it. There was an article in the New York Times recently chronicling this in a little town in Georgia. No, you aren’t going to find this in Atlanta or any city of significant size in the south; it is those ass backward, still living in the 1950s, narrow-minded, provincial towns where black and white agree to do this. “It’s tradition” or “It’s always been this way.” But what do you expect, it is still the south?
Oh, yes, things have changed. The schools are integrated and blacks like my uncle are supervisors on their factory or mill jobs. There are even interracial romantic liaisons; the townspeople in that little Georgia town admitted the kids date interracially, which makes the whole idea of separate proms even more ludicrous, but they are all complicit, again citing tradition. I was told that they just stopped having black and white homecoming queens down in Huttig-Strong. These little ass backward towns usually have a high school population of less than 100 students, some far less and they want to keep Jim Crow alive?. And remember the madness in 2008 in Jenna, Louisiana with the nooses and all? I’m told by folks who attended the march that the town is so blatantly delineated by economics. My church member said the whites have nice homes all through town and then you cross the railroad tracks and the black people live in dilapidated homes that should have long been condemned. But that is the south.
In 2006, I visited Savannah, Georgia on a literary retreat. One morning a group of us took a walk downtown to a tea shop for breakfast. I was walking along taking pictures of the moss wood trees and beautiful scenery of this magnificent, historical city, soaking it all in, window shopping on a beautiful spring morning. Suddenly, we came upon a big window front and I stopped dead in my tracks. I could not believe it, it was a real live Confederate store. I mean, there was everything, flags, clothing, memorabilia, war materials, everything Confederate. I was standing there speechless. The other three women stopped and looked at me taking it all in. One was from Georgia, the other from Florida and the other from Texas. Clearly, this was nothing new to them but this was an eye-opener for me and a reminder that no matter how nice the people appeared, or how beautiful the city of Savannah is, it’s still the south. And lest those in Union County, Arkansas where I just came from thought they lived in a “we are the world” existence, there was a Confederate flag hanging high and proud on the road down in Felsenthal where we had our fish fry that Friday, reminding me of where we were. Well, I’ll be damn, it is still the south.