I am southern, and I am from the country. Our (mobile) home was surrounded on 3 sides by farmland and the other was a swamp. Everything was 20 minutes away, except for the corner store my grandpa’s brother ran. Blue jeans and boots and flannel shirts weren’t a grunge fashion trend for us, it was work clothes. My neck has been red from working in the hot sun all day.
- I’ve worked in fields, picking beans, checking watermelons, squash, zucchini, and cucumbers.
- I grew up on Johnny Cash, both Hank Williams (Hank III notwithstanding), Garth Brooks, Alan Jackson, and all the country music.
- As a kid (and maybe still as an adult), I have watched professional wrestling in just my underpants, sweating into the couch and cheering for Ric Flair.
- I have cursed General William Tecumseh Sherman for burning our beautiful homeland.
- I devoured Mark Twain’s colorful stories of life that hasn’t changed much in the 125 years or so since he wrote.
- I have celebrated my southern heritage my entire life. I thought I knew all about my culture and what that entailed, from tailgating (I’ve even done so at church after service) to cooking barbecue to bow ties and khaki shorts and red Solo cups.
That is,until a couple of weeks ago. A colleague of mine posted an article quoting Flannery O’Connor. In addition to confirming my fears and suspicions about ministry in the South, it also opened my eyes to a part of my culture that I had neglected: diversity in literature.
I went to a very sheltered private school growing up, and most of the reading we did was censored or filtered so that nothing offensive entered our impressionable minds. While I had read Twain on my own, I really thought he was the word on the brand of Southern Writing®. I have never read southern poetry, non-white writers, women writers, etc. As my studies progressed past high school, my focus shifted from culture to content.
Naturally, I became more concerned with dead old (white) men and older books as they pertained to my field. One of the texts I pass out to students is “On the Reading of Old Books” by CS Lewis…but I’ve never read old books that aren’t theology. This week, I hope to remedy that. I have picked up a couple of anthologies of poetry, the Collected Works of O’Connor, and am making an effort read one book by a southern author a month, whether fiction or poetry.
*I will also make a shameless plug here for reading John Green. Three of his earlier books, Paper Towns, Waiting for Alaska, and An Abundance of Katherines, all are set (or are mostly set) in the southeast, usually off the beaten path in “backwoods” towns and places. With his mainstream success and living in Indiana now, his newer books are set mostly in the Midwest, but his roots are indeed southern.*
How is any of this relevant, especially with the new violence and tragedy that is shaping our society? As certain as I was that my way of life was superior, I had huge blind spots – particularly in how I viewed those “other” than myself. Might I posit that we all reconsider what we know about our heritage and culture?
There is a show called “Who Do You Think You Are?” In this show, people (usually celebrities) take DNA samples and go through town records to discover who their family really was before recent memory. There are similar shows on BBC and ancestry.com has a DNA service so that you can learn where your genetics are originally from. It’s usually humorous to watch these videos, but it also shows how little we really know about who we are and where we come from. For many years, racism was thought to only be a Southern problem and deservedly so.
The Civil Rights and Jim Crow atrocities have no justification. But, with the internet and social media, the world has become smaller and we can see things happening across the world, we’ve learned that racism and institutional classism are everywhere and are responsible for many horrible things.
As I set out to re-learn my own culture, I’m making certain to also entertain a high degree of diversity that exemplifies that culture. There are French, Scotch-Irish, Caribbean, African, Haitian, Spanish, and other influences in South Carolina that were often ignored and overlooked in the time I was in high school and undergrad. These “others” (especially women) see so many things differently within the same space that I experience privilege. Understanding comes from broadening perspectives, and I urge you to do that in your not only in your reading and watching but also in your friendships.
Unity cannot happen until we recognize and celebrate our differences and work toward making sure those differences equal prejudice or injustice. Remember, Jesus taught us that the 2nd greatest commandment was to love your neighbor as you love yourself .