People always say I should write about Alabama. “You have such good stories!” they say, and perhaps they aren’t wrong.
I enjoy telling those stories. I’ve told some of them dozens of times, at places like Christmas parties or during slow stints at work. Sometimes it’s relevant to the conversation at hand, or someone asks for a repeat of their favorite. Sometimes, though, they just leap out on their own volition.
As a teenager, I often sensed that the absurdity of my experiences would make good stories one day. My mother used to tease me about it, saying I should write a book about my youth and call it ‘Children of the Cornbread’. It would be a dark comedy about a cynical, soft-hearted southern woman who wished to be a tough, morally-upright northern man.
Again, not wrong.
Some of those stories are worth telling. It’s just that talking about it and writing about it are different. Writing is more of a commitment. Repeating those old anecdotes is cathartic and entertaining. Chronicling them for the future is owning them. The moment I pour my energy into writing it all down, I’m bonding myself to it. It’s taken a long time to gather the moxie.
I think the hesitation partially comes from the inevitable question: why did you leave? You see, I live in Massachusetts now, not too far from Boston. If I mention my southerness, ‘why did you leave’ is the first question out of someone’s mouth. It’s usually curious, sometimes unbelieving, and always so earnest.
I guess you ask that question to anyone who crosses the country, especially to somewhere so different. It’s hard to answer that question, but harder to ignore it. And the answer is as complicated is it simple.
Allow me to try.
The south has its own soul. Of course, all places do. There isn’t a place on Earth without it’s own voice. In the south, it’s all about attitude. There’s a vibrant grittiness about it. The south is a brazen place, but also mellow. It’s the kind of place that seems sluggish and soft, but gets fiery when it feels like it.
That’s the part of the south that I still love. I grew up valuing its physical beauty and it’s unapologetic personality. It’s the sort of place where people are lively and outspoken, and where stubbornness is considered a virtue. It all comes bundled in a humble package, filled with modesty and laid-back charm.
You’ve probably heard all about ‘southern hospitality’, too. There’s this idea that southerners are friendlier and more personable than other Americans, both to their own and to outsiders. As a child, this facet of southern culture was was the most appealing, and to my young eyes, the most true.
I don’t believe in southern hospitality anymore, at least not as it’s told, but I can see the roots of the idea. Southerners are no more kind than anyone else, but there is a warmth to their most casual interactions. People are socialized to speak with strangers, make lengthy small talk, and ask personal questions. It’s the sort of thing New Englanders don’t have much time for. Southerners wave at passing cars and expect casual conversation with grocery store cashiers. New Englanders walk down the street with their eyes forward and don’t get too friendly unless invited.
A visiting southerner might think New Englanders are standoffish, but that’s not it at all. New Englanders say please and thank you, they hold doors, and they help people pick up spilled change. But New Englanders also mind their own business. It makes day to day interactions seem colder than those in the south, but also more sincere. I never feel like anyone is speaking to me because they ‘have’ to. If that grocery store cashier wants to chat, then they must actually be interested in what I have to say. After a lifetime of mandatory small talk, that feels nice.
The tendency of southerners to interact with such personal closeness creates a feeling of intimacy and brotherhood. I’d almost call it a form of tribalism – and with that, we’re moving into the problems, the place where the south’s strengths start to become weaknesses.
Being southern is part of someone’s identity. The region’s distinctness is part of it, along with an accent which I haven’t lost after nearly four years in New England. Everywhere I go, for now and for the rest of my life, I will carry Alabama with me. It’ll be there in my voice, in my penchant for chatting in lines, and in my love for heavy diner food. Most importantly, it’s in my past. Alabama is the backdrop for every formative moment during the first twenty-five years of my life. Every memory is steeped in southern sweetness.
As charming as it all may seem, that comes with great burdens. As I’m sure you know, the south has a troubled history, and Alabama is among the most troubled of the whole family. It’s the sort of thing southerners love to embrace, while also trying to hide and revise. You know the tribalism I mentioned before? The bold attitude and the tendency towards stubbornness?
The south has a likable personality, when when mingled with it’s own ills, it creates a pervasive, self-perpetuating, often self-made cycle of defensiveness and despair. The south is poor. It is plagued with socioeconomic problems and suffers some of the worst statistics for things like drug abuse, crime, illiteracy, and poverty in the entire country. Most southern states struggle with education and unemployment. My own home county suffered a serious methamphetamine problem during my high school years, resulting in several alarmist, even desperate mandatory school assemblies and programs to try and protect us from the growing problem.
These issues may feel distant to non-southerners, but they cause real pain in a vulnerable place with an already turbulent history. The south is haunted by a legacy of defeat and humiliation, underachievement, and horrific social injustice. It’s difficult, because every southerner wants to be proud of the things that make the south unique and interesting, but facing the past can hurt.
Southern tribalism also creates a bizarre sort of emotional scarcity. The south is a friendly place for those homogenous with the culture, but in a community where your neighbors want to know everything from what church you attend to which football team you root for, falling outside of the familiar can be worrying. This, of course, is without approaching the more delicate topic of politics.
That’s the side of the south that I don’t love, and it’s the part that drove me away.
Here is where a southern exile usually gives some apologetic disclaimer before going into a series of lukewarm, non-committal anecdotes about home. They bite back their frustration or sadness and go on about how the south is full of good people, good memories, and natural beauty. They have to give this disclaimer, or their friends and family might think they’re talking about them.
I hate the spinelessness of it. Those disclaimers, while well-meaning, only distract and deflect from any unpleasantness that may come from criticizing the south. Should I open my mouth and criticize southern culture, I’m met with cries of ‘there are good people here’, ‘don’t generalize’, and ‘love it or leave it’.
It’s not that these arguments are wrong. But too often, they’re not made in earnest. They’re made because of the way southerners are trained to identify with the south itself. You see, many southerners want to defend their home like it’s a person, someone with feelings, who shouldn’t be generalized or put upon.
But it’s not.
I’m not trying to generalize the people of the south. I don’t think people should ever be generalized. However, the south and it’s people are not the same thing. There are good people everywhere, but if you need a disclaimer to feel right with yourself as an individual when the broadest and most difficult pieces of southern culture are criticized, then I hope you will ask yourself why.
For that reason, I’ve been a vocal critic of the south for most of my life, and it’s been largely out of love. After all, it’s my home. But it’s difficult to grow up and realize that your home isn’t what you thought it was, and what you hope for it’s future may forever be out of reach.
My mother-in-law spoke to me about this once. We were in the car, driving through scenic New England. She told me that when my husband and I badmouth Alabama, it made her feel like a terrible mother. Were our childhoods really so miserable that we had to attack our home, she asked?
I hate that she took it that way, because that’s not it at all. That is the hard part about being a southerner. It’s easy if you match your neighbors in beliefs and customs. If you belong, everyone is your family. It’s much harder to grow into different beliefs, different customs, or even different interests. As I became an adult, I found myself surrounded by those who didn’t share my values. I could find people who did, but they were scarce, and the pushback from mainstream southern culture was intimidating.
Ultimately, that’s why I left. I ended up in a world where I felt alone, where open criticism of the culture was not welcome, and where like-minded people were rare. I craved variety of experience, kinship with others of the same cloth, and freedom to express myself without frequent, exhausting challenges.
Simply put, I left because I had to.
There are parts of the south which will never leave me. Sometimes, I still crave the food. I miss pine trees and cicadas, and even the miserable weather. I still have my accent. My family and friends back home still love me, and I still love them. Alabama is burned into my soul, and nothing can change that.
When I visit now, Alabama doesn’t quite feel like home. It’s like going back to a house I used to live in. There are good memories, but I don’t belong there like I once did. When I look at the south I see something familiar, but which I struggle to identify with. That, I believe, will also never change.