Claire Fullerton: Whistlin’ Dixie
Southern Legitimacy Statement
I come from Memphis. I claim ownership to her nuances, which I wear like a badge of honor. And it’s not so much that I come from Memphis as I come from her ways and means. There’s something about that low-slung city on the Mississippi River that has been trying to pull herself up by her boot straps since I was in my teens. She is eccentric, nostalgic, and proud. She’d like to be progressive, but her musical heritage defines her: Al Green, The Staples Singers, Otis Redding, Albert King, Elvis, Aretha, Alex Chilton; the list goes on and on. Music is part of the wallpaper in Memphis, and I knew from a young age that I had to be a part of it. Nine years and five formats as a music radio DJ didn’t shake the R&B out of me, and I’m most pleased to say I did them all at once. I am now among that strange breed of cat known as a transplanted Southerner, but there’s nothing that will more firmly ensconce a Southerner in their own Southerness quite like moving to a disparate land. It was Memphis’ music that got me out to the wilds of California; I’m in it now, but not of it because the thing about being a Southern transplant is one foot stays firmly planted at home.
I stood at the counter of my local grocery store exchanging pleasantries with the cashier, as I am wont to do, and this time it only took twenty seconds for the nice lady to ask what I’m always asked out here in Southern California, “Where are you from? Are you from Texas?” You have to pity the poor people in California; they don’t know any better than to assume if someone has a Southern accent, they’re from Texas ( as if the state of Texas counts as a Southern state, which I say is questionable because everyone knows Texas is its own animal.)
I’m a transplanted Southerner who hails from the Mississippi Delta, and although I am now long in another region, it is no influence on the armor I wear around my Southern DNA. It is its own protective shield, a source of self-identification, and I see the world and its people through the focused lens of my Southerness, which couldn’t be more convenient, for it simplifies everything.
The truth is, I have a rote template of civility that divides the workings of the world into how you do, and how you shouldn’t; what is tacky, and what is acceptable; what you can wear before five o’clock, and what is only appropriate afterwards. But keep in mind all this takes a back seat to the most important issue, which is when to send flowers versus when to bring food. I stand very firm on this one, so much so that when a tragedy struck a neighbor last year, it created an untenable quandary between me and my friend from California. She was convinced that sending flowers from our local florist was the way to go, while I was unyielding in my belief that going over with food was the only option.
Sometimes I am flat exhausted with the weight of my Southerness, but not enough to consider putting it down. Would that I were capable, I’d lay it down gladly at the feet of my single girl-friend, who insists she wants to “keep it real” with her newly acquired paramour, who appears to be at variance with her romantic schedule. She claims she doesn’t want to play games, and it’s not that I don’t understand the principle, it’s just that my perfectly mannered Southern mother drummed into my head that calling a man for a date goes against nature, a tenet to which I can’t make my friend adhere.
And oh, the convenience of my Southern superstitions, they set such wonderful parameters. You’d never catch me with a hat on the bed, an opened umbrella in the house, spilled salt on the table (for I have perfected the discreet, left shoulder throw), nor would I consider starting the New Year without laboriously cooking black-eyed peas the real way. Although I’ve patiently explained all this to my husband, I’m not convinced he truly understands, but he’s a Yankee from Chicago, God bless him, and I decided long ago to forgive him.
I’ve been a transplanted Southerner for so many years that I’m used to it, and believe me, I don’t look around California for any support. Luckily, I have a bevy of girlfriends down South, whom I call when in need, and I promise, I had reason to call one of them anyway– it wasn’t just to tell her that I went to a luncheon last week, where the hostess wore a cocktail dress with cleavage down to here. It set off fifteen minutes of unbridled laughter, not that I meant to be catty. It’s just that my childhood friends and I have a particular sense of humor that we employ as a way of being in the world. It is insular, tacit, and immediate. It’s an attitude that binds us and reminds us where we come from. I make no apologies for this, nor for the fact that I have become a walking Southern cliché; you can take the girl out of the South and all that, but I can go one better: I’m actually proud to be a Southerner, and when in doubt of life’s paradoxes before me, there’s a little tune that resounds in my head that sounds a lot like whistlin’ Dixie.