Deb Jellett “Southerness”
Another essay from Ms. Jellett. Read on, this one’s important.
It’s a 50’s scene, me, my father and a new tricycle in front of a Christmas tree heavy laden with tinsel, ornaments and lights. Strings of Christmas cards are draped across the wall behind and a nativity scene sits on the clunky coffee table. My father is down on one knee and smiling a lopsided grin that reminds me of Elvis. He is wearing a natty bow tie and his thick, dark curly hair is swept back. It amazes me how handsome he is. I am sitting on the trike in a pink lace dress and patent leather shoes. There is a pink bow in my blonde hair. The dress was my mother’s idea. The trike was a present from my father.
I grew up in Mobile, Alabama. I left, rather fled, the South, as a young adult, vowing never to return. And now, in retirement, I have done what I said I would never do and have returned to the South. My feelings about being back are mixed, confused. Both the South and I have changed, for the better, I think. I used to say I was from the South, not of the South. Now I am not so sure. I just have to find the right kind of South, the right kind of Southerness. The angry red line Word (word processing software) puts under that word tells me it doesn’t exist. But I know better.
I have always been a little (sometimes a lot) ashamed of being from the South. I grew up with segregation. As a child, I saw hooded KKK men openly standing in the streets with collection boxes. In the pre-mall days, my grandmother and I took the bus downtown to shop. We sat in the front and the blacks in the back and there were separate lunch counters and water fountains.
When blacks moved into a neighborhood, whites moved out. The KKK launched random, often vicious and sometimes fatal attacks against blacks, Jews, liberals. There is much that is reactionary, negative about the true South, Dixie – rampant xenophobia, fear of the unknown outside world, institutionalized racism, cultural sexism and religious intolerance.
As a young adult, I did purposefully run away from the racist South. But I also put distance between me and the mythical South, the “Gone with the Wind South”, the white middle class, mint juleps on the veranda South. The South of Tea Party, country club Republicans and stately red brick Baptist Churches where most people could not, can not, distinguish between opinion and truth. A South where women are put on pedestals, sidetracked and encouraged to be cute and sweet.
Most middle class whites embraced, still embrace, a lost cause mentality and the myth of the Old South, its gentility and civility. A masquerade of Mardi Gras, cotillions, lavish entertaining, gentile ladies and gallant gentlemen and reenactments of Civil War battles. And they pretend that it is the delusion, those myths, that are what is important, special about the South.
The heart and soul of the South can be found, not in a white middle class myth, but rather closer to the land and the people who worked it. The rural, farming culture of the South, the attendant isolation, poverty and ignorance, combined with a tendency towards religious fundamentalism and, paradoxically, superstition, defined the Old South. Enslaved blacks outnumbered whites in many places. And there was an inherent fear amongst whites of revolution, retribution. In the wake of the Civil War, poor blacks and whites were dumped into a vast melting pot. The so called Reconstruction was a non event. The South was defeated and alarmingly poor. Competing for scarce resources, poor whites and blacks became combatants and the KKK slithered its way into existence. Violence against blacks was the byproduct. But the perpetrators of racist violence were in the minority. The creators of nastiness usually are. They are just a lot noisier.
Alongside the racial violence, there existed a quiet, rural world of blacks and whites, poor honest, churchgoing, salt of the earth people who lived in separate compartments, but existed in the same realm. People who worked hard to coax a living from the land. Blacks and whites who read their Bibles every day, if they could read, and who knew the importance of community. Poor, decent people who took care of their own. It is that South that produced my father. The Bible was the only book I ever saw him read.
When I was growing up, ‘Separate but equal’ was the mantra. There were black schools, black churches, and black neighborhoods. The only blacks I encountered as a child were maids and cooks and chauffeurs who were dressed in starched uniforms, had separate bathrooms in their employers’ garages and who disappeared back into their own world at night. On a trip to California in the 1950’s, I was amazed to see blacks and whites eating in the same restaurant. My father approved. My mother did not. It was 1967, thirteen years after Brown vs. The Board of Education, when my public high school was integrated. Two black students. Two. Segregation insured minimal contact and perpetuated itself by the lack of understanding and the fear it brought.
The Southern waters have been muddied by the rise of the black middle class and the influx of Hispanics who compete with poor blacks and whites for low paying jobs. But it is still true to say that the kind of Southerner you become is determined largely by where you find yourself on the social and economic scale at the beginning of life.
When the Depression hit, my father’s father had ten children, was dirt poor and living one up from a sharecropper in Mississippi. On that other plain, my mother’s family was prosperous and middle class, ensconced in a massive custom built brick house, guarded by ornamental lions, on a two acre corner lot in Mobile.
My father respected anyone who worked hard. My mother formed the privileged view that blacks and, ironically, women should know their place. My father had a hard won understanding of how complicated being poor was and how hard it could be to gain traction if you lacked the resources or support. And how important your family, your church and community were in the struggle. My mother was of the “pull your socks up and get a job” school of economic theory. My father had feet of clay. My mother had a primly perfect air. My father barely got out of high school, but built a successful timber contracting business. My mother graduated from a private girls’ college and worked for less than a year outside the home. My father respected the value of education. My mother took it for granted. My father’s family remained largely blue collar. My mother’s sisters married professional men and produced children. My father was always uncomfortable around them. I am the “rogue” cousin. The Liberal. The sometimes Catholic.
My father had a foot in both plains of Southerness. He played golf at the country club on Saturday and swapped dirty stories with toothless Cajun woodcutters on Monday morning. Men who worked hard and drank harder. Sometimes he had to bail them out of jail when the liquor ran riot. When I was about ten, we received a fundraising flyer from the NAACP. My mother threw it away. Daddy retrieved it and, making me promise not to tell, sent them some money, giving them his business address.
As he said to me many times, “A good man is a good man. Doesn’t matter what color he is or where he comes from.” What a man did told the tale.
My mother was invested in the white, middle class version of the South, in the myth of its gentility and order. And she, with love I am certain, imposed that world on me. It didn’t stick. My mother’s South always seemed to be more about what you couldn’t do than what you could do. My South is my daddy’s South.
And I don’t know if that is because I am a perverse, rebellious creature or if the tenets of my father’s creed seemed more positive, just and equitable. I like to think the latter is true, but I am not certain.
I do know that minutes after that Christmas picture was taken, the pink dress lay in a heap on my bedroom floor and dressed in my cowgirl’s outfit I went out the door with daddy and rode that trike until mama made me stop. And he smoked cigarettes that mama had banned from the house. We were in it together.