Yes, We Are
Originally posted July 21, 2004:
This is in response to myrch
's observations on Tennessee
"Shitty food, poor English, country music... I mean, this is what the entire South is like."
Yes, we are.
I am a Tennessee native. Western Tennessee, to be precise--home to such meccas of sophistication as Memphis (home of Elvis!), Jackson (home of Casey Jones and Carl Perkins!), and Boliver (home of that guy from Walking Tall!) I grew up, literally, in the middle of a cottonfield, the last remnants of a family farm that has been rented out to various local farmers who take the cotton every fall to the local gin, in the nearest small town, population 800.
The population is much bigger now than it was when I was a child, though I'm not sure by how much. When I was in high school the Madison County School district made the "painful" decision to rezone their school systems, and immediately residents began moving North to the first incorporated district in Gibson County, where I went to school, in droves. They didn't want their children going to school with all the blacks.
That town, where I went to school, had an excellent K-8th grade school, and school money (that I never saw when I was in school there) started pouring in from all over the place once the rich suburban white kids started moving there. The town became overpopulated, and suburbia took over the outskirts of what once was a downtown with a mainstreet two blocks long with a stoplight at either end (both just hazard lights now). They flocked to the high school too, and as a 12th grader, in an English class that literally could not get enough money from the school board to buy new textbooks, we were so overpopulated we had to borrow used, 20-year-old textbooks from an elementry school 3 counties away.
The Gibson County School Board members were all arrested for fraud and the commissioner was jailed for 25 years the year after I left.
Gibson County High School has the highest teen pregnancy and highest drop-out rate of any public high school in West Tennessee.
(It does not, however, have any blacks.)
My childhood was spent surrounded by green things. My grandmother has three gardens which she has tended every day of the summer and most of the spring, every year of my life. She has a garden for tomatoes in the front yard, another for soybeans in the side yard, and the biggest garden of all in the back behind the smokehouse, the well house, and the barn: there, year after year, she has grown corn, huge corn stalks, high as an elephant's eye, like the ones in Oscar Hammerstein's dreams; squash, soybeans, green beans, shelly beans, lima beans, sweet peas, tomatoes, sweet potatoes, regular potatoes, strawberries, watermelons, pumpkins, cabbages, cantaloupes, melons, beets, red onions green onions, red peppers and green peppers, spinach, collard greens, and mustard greens.
She doesn't get a break in the early spring or late summer and fall either. In the spring the trees in the orchard, the trees spread all around our lawn, bear fruit: plum trees, pear trees, cherry trees, and apple trees. In the late summer, the blackberries and the muskodines grow ripe on the vine. All must be picked and plucked and cleaned and cooked or eaten raw or made into jam or preservatives and canned. In the fall come the persimmons, dropping off the trees all over the place and leaving a thick gooey mess on the bottoms of all your shoe soles if you don't watch where you step. And the walnuts, which will drop right on your head if you bounce too abruptly in the tree swing. And the pecans, which are hardest to find and crack open and chop up, but which always provide us enough for pecan pies galore throughout the entire holiday season and usually well on into the new year.
I asked my grandmother once why she spends so time in the garden, in the fields, chopping and hoeing and bending over and sowing.
"It's fun," she said.
The cotton gin hasn't run the last couple of years. In the depression Medina had two cotton gins, as well as a busy packing business that was destroyed completely by a huge fire. When I was young the cotton gin opening was always the sure sign of fall, and all the cotton trailers would emerge from somewhere and surround it like bees at a hive. They were always bright colors--bright blue, bright red, bright yellow, rarely just white or brown--and always, when they were at the gin, they were filled to the brim with fluffy white cotton. Thinking about it now it must have been awful to be an asthmatic in that town, or in any other of the dozens of small towns in Gibson County who had a gin in the center--the relic of economic surety back in the days of plenty. The prosperity is gone--main street is a drab and dinghy affair. Someone painted over the 50-year-old mural that had been on the wall of the local bank with a cheap layer of whitewash. No one really cared. The mural was of a debonair man, a William Powell prototype, drinking a coke.
The debonair men are gone from the town too. All who are left are an odd mix of farmers and the children of farmers who have been on the land for generations--like us--and the local suburbanites with their kids in school. The World War Two generation, the closest thing to an independent class I have ever known, with its ideals of hard work and its sense of community, and most of all, its vast, vast memory, has been dying out, and with it are dying the stories.
They are stories of a time when the South was more than just a conglomeration of fast food places and fast food churches and easy-to-digest conservative religion. They are stories of a time when the South was not defined by its political spectrum, but of a time when it was defined by community, hard work, and a love of the earth.
In my childhood I knew a man, Dr. Morris, who was the most venerated man in town. In the days before his retirement, he made house calls. He did not serve in the war; he stayed here as a wartime doctor at home. He delivered babies with his own hand, long before the days of extended hospital stays and "precautionary" C-sections.
My old substitute teacher, Miss Virgy, was the meanest and most dreaded substitute teacher of them all. She would walk right up to you and grab your ear amd yank it and make
you behave. She taught at the Medina Elementary school for nearly 50 years before she retired. On Halloween, because she lives right off main street in the center of town, Miss Virgy's home is always a prime target for being "rolled," or toilet-papered. Miss Virgy, after a few years, learned her lesson. And every year on Halloween she sits on her front porch with the porch light on, calmly holding a shotgun, sitting in her rocking chair, rocking back and forth.
My grandmother, who was born in 1919, is the only surviving member of a family of 7 children. She tells stories. One of her sisters was mentally disabled. I have heard mention of this sister only once in my life, when I was looking through old photos--but the sound of my grandmother's voice as she talked about her sister was unforgettable. I know, without my grandmother ever having said the words "I love you" to anyone in her life other than me, that she loved this sister the most of all.
My great-uncle, a war veteran, told stories of the war to anyone who would listen.
He would tell stories of the war, and then he would take out a violin, and play it. My grandmother would play too. She collects violins, and fiddles, and mandolins, and banjos, and even harmonicas. She keeps them all in the walk-in closet in her bedroom, and she likes to take out her fiddle and scratch out a tune--maybe "Listen to the Mockingbird" or "Amazing Grace." She knows the bluegrass songs. She grew up with them.
And so did I, even though I was trying hard not to listen.
Welcome to Tennessee.
I do not think of myself as a resident of the state I am in. I live in the best small town in America, I am convinced of it; but I am a Tennesseean at heart. You cannot escape your roots; I have tried, very hard--in fact I tried harder when I was actually living in Tennessee. I tried my whole life to get away from a place that was too small, too rural, too uneducated, too ignorant, too racist. But the moment I left I began a process of appreciating what I left behind. It started when I was driving up Hwy. 37 and realised that, just outside town, it had been renamed the "Bill Monroe Bluegrass Highway."
Surely not the same Bill Monroe my grandmother used to drag me to Lexington and all over West Tennessee to listen to, I thought. The one who used to guest star at fiddler's contests--and oh, how I dreaded, as a child, going to fiddler's contests, where all the bluegrass bands and all the gospel quartets and all the cloggers and all the would-be country singers would gather for miles around to play some of that old timey country music.
Yes. The very same. And on certain Saturday or Sunday mornings I will listen to the strains of bluegrass coming from the local radio station and I think, 'why did I have to leave home to appreciate what I left behind?'
A few days ago I drove around one section of town for over 45 minutes in the hope of finding what seemed like a very achievable goal: a place where you could eat food that wasn't a chain restaurant. I finally, after a long and exhausting search, found a little local Mexican place I never knew existed--but all the time, I kept thinking: how I wish I had food, raw
food, straight out of the soil, right from the vast expanses of my grandmother's gardens, and planted by her own hands.
When I was a child, she would entreat me, and sometimes threaten to switch me if I didn't help her hoe, and shovel, and fertilize. I often got whippings, and then I would cry and help her anyway. The long branches of a switch were usually stripped from nameless shrubs in the backyard--it wasn’t the branches that hurt, but when they were green, and leafy, and the long fronds made an arc in the air that you could hear as she swung—lord, how they stung. I have vivid recollections of her turning with a determined look on her face towards the back door, and I would know
exactly where she was going. Oh, how I hated my grandmother’s garden, and the dirt, and the toil, and the life it represented that I couldn’t wait to be rid of.
I grew up believing that I was surrounded by a bunch of redneck, country-bred dirt-poor Southern Baptist fools. I was going to grow up, move to New York, be rich and famous and glamorous and never think twice about the South again.
But not anymore. Not after you have been driving around town for nearly an hour looking for a single item of food, about which you can say, ‘I know where this came from, I know how and where it was grown and cooked for me.’
You start thinking not only of food differently, but of your childhood differently.
My grandmother never planted flowers in her garden until I asked her to, the summer I was a junior in high school. Why didn't she ever plant flowers? I said. "Well, Aja, I got plenty of flowers already, growing wild out yonder." And she did, along with a patch of cultivated irises by the front drive, and a single, beautiful patch of roses and buttercups. But my grandmother at first didn't see the need for a flower garden. It wasn't practical, and didn't fit in with what I am starting to realise has always been her lifetime philosophy: make do
Tennesse bordered Kentucky during the civil war. It is a long rectangular state that borders 7 other states, and it functioned both as a great big huge wall, and as a gateway to the rest of the South. So it hosted wave after wave of invading troops from the North. People think of Pennsylvania as the spot where the most crucial battles were fought; they think of Kentucky as the spot where the most emotional battles were fought; they think of Georgia and Alabama as the sites that saw the most destruction. In truth more battles were fought in Tennessee than in any other state except Virginia.
The only battle my family has ever fought has been over land. I think that says a great deal about my family, and the backdrop of the South that no one who was raised in a land of shopping malls can truly understand. My mom wanted to plant trees and extend my great-grandfather's vast lawn. Her brother thought it should be extended in the opposite direction, and used to plant more cotton and soybeans. "Take care of the land," he said, "and the land takes care of you."
My grandmother, my uncle, my mother, were raised on the land. To them the maintenance and upkeep of the land and the ability to pass it on to their children is the greatest gift you can give. My mother has said to me more than once in the last 5 years, "I don't have much to give you, but you'll always have your own home." In O Brother, Where Art Thou
, Tim Blake Nelson says the line, "a man ain't nothin' if he ain't got land," and the first time I saw that movie that line gave me chills
because it resonated with me so much, with my own experience, with what I know of "my people," back home in Tennessee. As a little girl, I loved the Anne books more than any other book series, and all of the stories of L.M. Montgomery, and what I love most of all, looking back now, was the way that Anne and all of Montgomery's heroines are so informed by and immersed in nature--the geography of the land they live in, as well as the natures of their communities. That is how I grew up--in a place that was completely suspended from the advances of time and progress, surrounded by rows of billowing cotton on 4 sides, clear blue skies, and a vast green lawn sheltered by 60, 70-year-old maple and oak and walnut trees.
A lot of people who have never lived on the same plot of farm land for generations don't understand how anyone in Tennessee could have an identity when they appear to show strong loyalty only to the UT football team (GO VOLS!), Billy Graham, and the American military. But the South, not just Tennessee, but the South in general, clings to those things because they engender a renewed sense of loyalty and community that the South simply no longer has. They were united, and they were destroyed by it. They were taken over by weak Northern carpetbaggers and subjected to a period of devastating “Reconstruction” which completely changed the face of Southern economy and left them forevermore beholden to the North, to the gracious conqueror.
One of the very first memories I have of my childhood in the South is of smiling politely and shaking the hand of a person, an adult that I secretly hated, and letting her pinch my cheek in her patronizing way.
There is a reason that this is one of the first things I learned how to do. To “growl and submit” as Solzhenitsyn wrote, is truth. When you are stubborn, as the South has always been, they break you.
And oh, how the South has been broken.
On into the 20th century, the South continued to be bossed around by the North, as agriculture gave way to industrialization, and the slave economy of the South became the monopolistic big business of the Rockefellers and the Carnegies. They were bossed around in the 20’s, when northern textile industries flocked to the South because of the cheap labor available there, the Ku Klux Klan burgeoned into a national organization, and millions of blacks moved north to Chicago and other urban areas to get away from the oppression.
They were bossed around in the 30’s when, in the wake of the devastation of the Depression, the federal government created the Tennessee Valley Authority, which provided electricity to 3 million people at the expense of displacing nearly 3500 Tennesseans with little to no compensation, in the second-largest dam project in U.S. history.
They were bossed around in the 50’s when they were forcibly desegregated. They were bossed around in the 70’s when the government struck down miscegenation laws. They were being bossed around in the 90’s when NAFTA slowly but surely started killing off their small towns and local industries. They are being bossed around now as “activist judges” attempt to interfere once again with their moral codes.
Before the U.S. Civil War, the South had given the United States ten presidents. Since the U.S. Civil War, it has given the country only two—and one of those two was educated in New England.
The rest of the country asks, why
is the South home to so many rednecks and conservative right-wing nut-jobs? The answer is in the soil. In the water that powers the hydroelectric energy that powers our reality tv.
If you live in California, or Vermont, or Idaho, you still have a very definite sense that this land is your
land. The land is free—the land belongs to everybody. Right? But once you have had someone come to your soil and invade your homeland and fight for the right to take it over and tell you what you should do with it, you can’t ever see the land the same way. I don’t believe that any single person who owns land in the South, who was also born and brought up on that land, thinks of it as something that belongs to anyone else even in a general patriotic principle sort of way. The land is not a shared commodity, not something that exists as both yours and mine in a friendly theoretical way. The land is what Southerners have fought for, what Southerners died for. The land is all we have left. The land is the last bastion of defiance for a people who have been powerless for a century and a half.myrch
mentions the South and its fascination with Native Americans. The South understands the Indian in a way no part of the rest of the country can. The South has seen its land invaded, and has had its culture redefined for it, in ways that, in terms of U.S. history, only the Native American experience can begin to parallel.
The South, historically, has always balanced its animosity of the Other with a fostered sense of community resilience. With the advent of suburbia, McWorld, Disneyfication, and the urbanized lifestyles engendered by a corporate and fast food culture, that sense of community resiliance is dying off in the South. All that remains is the fostered sense of community resentment. Whatever your feelings on country music, with its strong themes of the working man waging a daily fight against the upper class and the world of corporate business, is among the most democratic and overtly populist messages being espoused in America today. Add to that its constant preaching the gospel of the South's 'comeback,' it is both generating and generated by the South’s own sense of community.
Tennesseeans are among the nicest people on earth--though not, as my grandmother has always informed me, as nice as the people in Mississippi. In Tennessee, people tend to speak of Mississippeans with a kind of reverence. I’ve been to Mississippi but twice in my entire life, but the hospitality, the generosity, and the size of the collective heart of its citizens is as legendary as its poverty. Why is it that the undisputedly nicest
state in the country is also the poorest and the most notoriously racist? Why do these things continue to co-exist in a nation that prides itself on its equality? These two things are hand-in-hand for a reason, and the reason is that the destruction wreaked on the South in the Civil War left it with no way to cope other than to cling to the one scrap of dignity left it: its defiance.
Since it cannot defy the government, it can defy the Others in its midst: black people, homosexuals, liberals, Yankees. It defies their presence, the humiliating history they carry with them, and the ever-constant awareness of defeat that their presence symbolizes. And to defiance is joined the teeth-gritting philosophy my grandmother has: make do
Making do is all Southerners have really had the power to do, for a hundred and fifty years. They have had no political power whatsoever; they have been boxed in politically, boxed in economically, boxed in socially, for the last hundred and fifty years. The South has been beaten down, and beaten down, and beaten down, and out of the devastation of the Civil War the South has been “reconstructed” as a culture that has been put entirely on the defensive.
Southerners are ridiculed for their accents.
Southerners are ridiculed for their work ethic (how many of you knew that the term ‘redneck’ originally referred to a farmer who’d spent all day in the field with the sun beating down on his back?)
Southerners are ridiculed for their educational standards. (Sure, go ahead, make fun of us for not knowing how to read. Then go back to your universities and have fun reading William Faulkner, James Baldwin, Flannery O’Conner, Richard Wright, Tennessee Williams, Eudora Welty, Harper Lee, Alice Walker, Toni Morrison.)
Southerners are ridiculed for their music—even though the vast majority of American music of all kinds originated in the South. Folk, bluegrass, gospel, blues, jazz, ragtime, country, rock, rockabilly, swing, Cajun, and the dubious genre of "contemporary christian," all were born in the South. Memphis, Nashville and New Orleans served as the epicenters for musical revolution after revolution. We have given the world Scott Joplin, Louis Armstrong, Elvis Presley, Patsy Cline, Hank Williams, Ricky Nelson, Johnny Cash, and NSYNC and Britney Spears. Every last drop of American music, from Rhapsody in Blue
to the Squirrel Nut Zippers, has roots somewhere along the way that began in the South, with the possible exception of Jewish Klezmer music and various flavors of rock. (But that’s okay, because the birthplace of American rock is the South, too.)
Southerners are ridiculed for their religious beliefs.
Southerners are ridiculed for their politics.
Southerners are ridiculed for their political leaders.
Southerners are ridiculed for their moral codes.
Southerners are ridiculed for their backwoods culture.
Southerners are ridiculed for their love of good food.
Southerners are ridiculed for their love of the land, and for their love of the guns that help them protect that land.
In the face of all that ridicule, in the face of overwhelming defeat from every corner, is it any wonder the South has turned hatred of the other into a crucial part of its identity?
In America's history, the development of Tennessee and Texas as states are very closely linked--they achieved statehood at the same time, and the nickname "the Volunteer State" comes from the fact that the vast majority of fighters at the Alamo followed Davy Crockett down from Tennessee. In Tennessee, as in Texas, there has always been a very strong love for the underdog and a distrust of the Establishment. Add to that the dogged defiance that every Southerner has in his bones, and you have the environment for a breeding ground of exactly the kind of conservative, anti-government rhetoric that Southern conservative strongholds have spawned in the last 20 years.
Through the rise of Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority, the growing political activism of the Southern Baptist Convention, and the American Family coalition, the cry, “The South will rise again,” finally, at last, has a resilience, if only in politics, that it has not had in decades. If you, too, were born and bred in the South, odds are that no matter what
the flag is supposed to represent, a part of you would be proud to see that gorgeous Confederate ‘X’ hoisted up the local courthouse pole; and your pride would probably have scant little to do with your political opinions.
It is not a coincidence that Texas, Tennessee, and Virginia, the states with the most violence and bloodshed in their history, have become the most rabidly conservative states in the Union. Conservative rhetoric caters to an innate distrust of the Other, and when the Other has torn apart your land from one end to the other, that inherent resentment roots right down in the very soil you have fought over. Even after the memories and the first-hand accounts have died out, that resentment is sewed continually, and it is raised and cultivated and nourished right along with the love for the land.
I had to leave home, to go away from the South to understand, even though I was always more liberal than anyone else I knew, the ways in which I had cultivated that resentment myself. And I had to go away from home in order to understand the true love of the land, the way my parents and grandparents understood it.
When you talk about the South, you are always talking about the land. Southerners support the war in Iraq for the reason they support any war against The Other—to threaten us means to threaten the land, and the land is all that matters. The land is larger than North and South; the land represents individual freedoms, and the right of those who have it to work it, claim it, use it, nourish it, love it, live off it, learn from it, grow with it and from it. The land is what the Other has never yet managed to take. The land must be defended. The land is ours. Not yours. We are not sharing.
The land is ours, not yours, because you have already taken everything else there is to take.
I convinced my grandmother to grow a small garden the first year, to devote an entire plot of soil just to flowers for once, and not to things that were strictly for eating (who wanted to waste all that space on a bunch of vegetables anyway—I mean, really).
My grandmother took a lot of convincing. But she has allowed that garden to grow, and flourish, and become beautiful, every year since. It has taken her a lifetime, but she has slowly moved beyond making do. She has finally allowed herself to enjoy—to cultivate beauty along with the tools of survival.
Her flower garden is beautiful, and so, with her prejudiced attitudes and her defiantly conservative viewpoints and her fierce independence, and all the other things that make her Southern to the core, is she.