Steel Magnolias and Southern Identity

One of my pet interests is regional identity in the United States: what it is, how we get it, what it means, how it is perceived, and how it translates from region to region. For today, I’m going to talk about the South, the South I love and was raised in, and the South that no matter where I live or what I do, will always be close to my heart.

In college I took a course with a freshly-minted Ph.D. in Southern History; he was still idealistic, still enthusiastic about his material, and still starry-eyed at the thought of all of our impressionable young and not young minds (I wonder now, so many years later if he still has any of that left, and though I hope so, experience suggests not). The first question this remarkable man tossed out to us was: “What is the South?” Hands shot up; like that’s a hard question, right? I mean, the South is . . . .

. . . not as easy to define or explain or understand as we all thought. It’s a geographical region, sure, but do we include Kentucky and Delaware and Maryland and Arkansas? Do “Deep Southerners” consider these “southern” states? Some do, some don’t. And if there’s a “deep South” then where’s the not so deep South or the shallow South?Oh, so it’s no tlike that? It’s “New”South and “Old” South? Well, what does THAT mean? The “old”South is pre-Civil War? Agricultural, aristocratic, cultured? And rigidly opposed to abolishing slavery, long pants, the vote for women, and carpetbaggers? And the “new” South is post-reconstruction (the”reconstruction-era” South is a whole other ball of wax), right? Meaning what, exactly? We’d just lost the War of Northern Aggression (aka The Civil War to non-Southerners), and along with it a way of life that included a great deal beyond slavery (though that is all that non-Southerners remember), it included a way of seeing and of being.

For the South is also a mindset, a way of life, an understanding of ourselves and the world. Unlike the rest of America, the South knows defeat; we know it in our hearts and souls, so we don’t doubt that it is possible, and we don’t get quite as arrogant about some things as the rest of the country might. Are there some old traces of the “Good Ole Boy” networks in sherriff offices and in state and local governments? Sure, but these are dwindling; despite popular (non-Southern) opinion, the South is not a backwater clinging to a racist past, nor is the South a hotbed of incestuous morons, inbred to the point ofstupidity. Quite the contrary, the South boasts some of the more intelligent and best of our country’s cultural and political producers, including William Faulkner, Mark Twain, Robert Penn Warren,Tennessee Williams, and Truman Capote. Not to mention the fact that fifteen of our forty-three Presidentshave come from the South (compare to only five from New England).

We are polite, that famous Southern hospitality is no myth, and we are friendly to a fault, but don’t cross us, for under that magnolia-scented Southern (belle or beau) exterior is a steel-hard, rust-proof center that it’s best to avoid. That swooning Scarlett O’Hara might have advocated tomorrow, “for tomorrow is another day” but let me tell you, that was not about procrastination or weakness, that was about hope and strength and rebuilding from rubble and unblinkered tenacity. . . .That is a part of and the heart of the South that I believe is underappreciated.

I wrote this sometime in 2007 on Yahoo! 360, so it’s a retread.


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