Tuesday, July 21, 2015

From the South

I considered myself quite cosmopolitan growing up. Most of my extended family lived in two rather rural towns and I lived in a city. Well, it was actually a suburb, but I went downtown frequently. One of the schools I attended was in a rundown area just south of downtown. I saw lots, probably more than I should have, and the vibe was very urban compared to those small towns.

My family also traveled around the country quite a bit. We were in New York City for the Statue of Liberty rededication in 1986. We walked the streets and rode the subway. It was exciting and different. I saw the Chrysler Building! That was important because Miss Hannigan expected the floors to shine just like the top of that building. We rode the ferries and walked up all the steps to the crown of Lady Liberty. We stayed with family and went to places away from the beaten path in addition to the regular tourist high spots. I was excited to hear Chattanooga make the list of exotic places for new immigrants as part of the rededication ceremony, but my New York family cheered for Brooklyn instead.

We went to Boston and Philadelphia and Washington D.C. and Maine. We hit all the major historical places and every trip came with a history lesson. We read maps, navigated, and were expected to dictate routes from a young age. Later we traveled West to Yellowstone and San Francisco and the Grand Canyon. Most of our vacations were attached to national parks or historical sites and I thought I was knowledgeable about the world or at least the United States.


In high school, my band was invited to march in the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade. I was excited, but also blase about the trip. I had been to New York before. It would be fun to go again, but I did not consider it the trip of a lifetime because it wasn't. I had been there and done that.

We were a large group of teenagers who obviously were not natives to NYC. Perhaps we merited more attention than your average tourists. It didn't take long for our accents to out our origins and I was horrified by what followed. Time after time, strangers on the street would ask about the availability of plumbing at home. They would ask whether or not we had electricity and about our shoes. They would ask if we had ever been in a city before and what it was like seeing multi-story buildings.

I don't know if they were kidding or serious. Maybe they were just being jerks. I was a self-conscious teenager and I couldn't imagine why they were asking these things or even joking about it. Why was it assumed that we were bumpkin hicks or thought funny to question us as if we were bumpkin hicks? I was mortified. What was worse is that my classmates reacted to this odd line of questioning by turning on the twang, full-blast. The refrain of "New York City" from the old Pace Picante sauce commercials would ring out whenever we were questioned. I wanted to crawl away and die.


The idea of the South being full of stupid and backwards people is not new, but it still shocks me. I have lived here my entire life and you will find the full range of people that you find anywhere else, but there is a link in the national mind that equates Southern with ignorant.

About a year ago, there was a controversy over the Oak Ridge National Laboratory offering a class to help local employees lose their accents. It was ultimately cancelled but it sheds insight on the general problem. 'You might be smart enough to be a nuclear engineer, but you sound stupid so let us help you neutralize your accent.' It was deeply offensive to many people to have the federal government come to the heart of Southern Appalachia and offer to help switch-off the local dialect. While I do not think the class had malicious intent, it touched both the pride people have in their origins and the wounds people carry from being judged by a stereotype. 

Believe it or not, my accent is of middlin' strength. I am a practitioner of code-switching although it is mostly unconscious. When I am around my rural family, my accent becomes much richer than in my day-to-day city life. To my own ears, I do not sound particularly Southern, but when I leave the South, I become intensely aware of my accent. My origins are signaled as soon as I open my mouth and I know it is likely I am being judged by my diphthong.


When I was a child, we ate a variety of food when eating out: Italian, Chinese, Mexican, whatever. It was pretty middle-brow "exotic" restaurant food. At home, we ate whatever my mother put together, although she would make an Italian dessert if it was to be had. There wasn't necessarily a theme. But at my paternal grandmother's house, we ate Southern food. Food like greens with hamhock, purple hull peas, fried chicken, fried pies, tomatoes, watermelon, sweet corn, skillet-fried round steak, catfish, and cornbread dressing. These are the foods I associate with the South. We all ate them.

As I grew up, I learned that a stereotype exists that connects black people with fried chicken and watermelon and it is offensive. I, being fairly conscious of not wanting to be offensive, would never make any offhand remark about any such stereotype. I received the knowledge and filed it away, but inwardly, I was confused. Why were black people especially connected with these foods? In the summer, we, my white family, would sit outside under the trees eating watermelon almost daily. On Sunday, the fancy meal usually contained fried chicken. We all ate these foods. I pondered this odd stereotype for years, never quite grasping why it existed.


One of the odd facts about America is that the South is known for Jim Crow and racists, but most of the more significant race riots happened in the not-South. This puzzled me. If the South was the place where the racists were, and by national acclaim it most certainly is, why did the North host the riots? 

When I was a junior in high school, I read Richard Wright's Black Boy which gives a stark picture of growing up black and poor in the Jim Crow South. In it Wright works for years to escape the South and migrate north. When he finally arrives in Chicago, he does not find the racial paradise he expected. The situation is superior in many ways--discrimination isn't hard-coded into the law--but he still finds the old racial attitudes which hinder him.

For me this was the key to understanding why the riots were a generally northern phenomenon. In the South, the racism was expected. The people were bowed down and a social order existed which was hard to buck, but, in the mind, there existed a Promised Land where, if you could just get there, all would be set right. The North was that Promised Land for many black people in the South. The most industrious, striving, and ambitious people in the South broke free from the limitations of home and migrated North. They wanted to make a better life for themselves and their families and would not accept the limits of society. It is a similar story to those who migrate from other countries into the United States. Only those willing to lose it all will make the journey. These people left their homes only to find the same ole problems in the Promised Land.

I think this is the spark for the riots: the absolute rage at finding similar attitudes and limitations even if they were not officially part of the law. The fact that the South had fewer riots is not evidence of racial harmony, only of expectations. When you expect it to be bad and it is bad, you are not surprised. When you expect it to be good and it turns out poorly, you get angry.


After pondering these things for years, I think there is a link between the Great Migration and the food stereotype. When these people moved North, they weren't eating "black" food, they were eating Southern food. The population that received them looked upon their diet with scorn and linked it to them racially instead of regionally. I am convinced that the South is not the source of this stereotype because it doesn't make any sense. Why would white Southerners mock black Southerners for eating the very same foods? Why would eating fried chicken be cause for distinction when you, yourself, are eating fried chicken?

I have been reminded of these old trains of thought in these past few months as the roles of race, region, history, and memory have been brought to the forefront of the national conversation. A few months ago, I read an article about how food binds and separates people in a way that other signifiers do not. It is almost Eucharistic how we can be joined through the experience of food if we are willing to open ourselves to the hospitality that regional food traditions offer. At the same time, food is a status-signal. We align ourselves with our preferred groups by the foods we choose to eat and the foods we mock. We can stab at the very core a person's being by deriding the foods he associates with home and family. I understood a very small taste of this derision as I tried to reason out why the foods of my grandparents' home were part of a nasty stereotype.


When any group of people are subjected to being judged by stereotypes, they react in a variety of ways. Sometimes there is passive acceptance of oppression; sometimes there are riots. Sometimes people try to pass as someone else and erase the vestiges of home; sometimes they purposely embody the stereotype. Sometimes they try to move past history, and sometimes they cling to an old flag.

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