I’m a Southern woman, born somewhere along the line between Budweiser-drinking, lake-fishing trailer trash and ambrosia-serving, leg-crossing Baptist. I was raised poor, by a single parent, but I have a master’s degree in poetry.
I’ve always straddled the line between indulging the stereotype of the fantastical Southern belle or else the nit-headed hillbilly, also a stereotype. Fulfilling, resisting or balancing those two very narrow roles afforded me as a Southern woman feels very much like being caught between a rock and a hard place, when I like to think of myself as more of a feather.
When non-Southerners imitate my accent, it more often than not hits my ear as mocking. For some reason, they always go to the ridiculously thick, syrup-drop drawl affected by one Ms. Vivien Leigh in her portrayal of Scarlett O’Hara. First of all, Vivien Leigh was British. I just found that out this year. And second, I don’t sound like that.
But how can I be angry? Many Southerners, myself included, have been complicit in shoving the hoopskirt-and-staircase version of Southern culture down the rest of America’s throats for generations. We do it out of a deep insecurity, whenever we want to feel superior – genteel, mannered – to counterparts who have ridiculed, patronized and dismissed us. In order not to be seen as one thing I’m not (hillbilly), I’ll put on airs of another character I’m not (belle).
With the recent resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement, and the subsequent reconsideration and removal of Confederate and Jim Crow monuments, some Southerners are feeling threatened, thinking they’re getting a whiff of that old condescension we’ve suffered so much.
I love my region, and I’m as stubborn and rebellious as they come. I was at a bar in Charlotte, North Carolina a few years back when a bartender heard my accent and asked me where I was from. I balked. I’m from here, where the hell are you from, asking me? Now, I smile. Bless your heart. Our big cities, and our small towns too, draw people from all over. Migration isn’t new. How do you put someone in their place when they're standing in your house?
It can be difficult to manage, as individuals and as a people, changes as they are happening. Especially when those changes see and touch a sore point of wrong-doing. Especially when it feels we have no clean, clear, singular identity to claim. One dangerous tendency may be to reactively cling to the most drastically defiant symbols we can think of, even if those symbols are attached to the most hateful, unholy acts and attitudes mankind has ever brought to bear upon itself.
My mama would call that acting ugly.
There’s a difference between tradition and sentimentality, history and cage. It is important to note that these statues are monuments, not historical markers, meant not just to chart, but to commemorate - to lift up as shining examples of our best values and hopes come to fruition in one single person or event.
The Confederate monuments throughout the South are not examples of our best values and hopes. Southern history will never be clean, but that doesn’t mean her descendants should roll in the mud. As favorite Southern son Rick Bragg said, “I do not need a statue or flag to know that I am Southern. I taste it in the food, feel it in my heart, and hear it in the language of my kin.”
Confederate statues represent the South or modern Southerners living today no more so than Scarlet O’Hara makes a representation of me. At least, with her vanity and self-centeredness, not a good representation, I hope. It’s time for us to let go of old, false idols, and to commit to embracing and displaying the new best of who we are now, as complicated and varied as that may be.