Ramblings: Straight to the heart with a reluctant southerner

I’ve been thinking about writing a short post about Southern culture here on southbyse.com. But before I begin, let me state the obvious; that what is written in this is my take on some aspects of Southern culture. If you would like an academic breakdown, I refer you to the Encyclopedia of Southern Culture or the multi-volumes of The New Encyclopedia of Southern Culture, all published by The University of NC Press. Another great resource is The Southern Foodways Alliance.

Personally I am happy about the recent surge in popularity of Southernism. Sure enough it seems to be fashionable now to cook Southern, write Southern and dare I say, talk and sound Southern. In the past, I think many Southerners, myself included, would often hide our upbringing especially under professional circumstances, specifically among “mixed company”, i.e. northerners, mid-westerners, Californians and the like.

It’s something I call the ‘reluctant Southerner” syndrome. While I adore most of what the South has to offer – food, art, music, architecture, literature and the like, I still feel somehow compelled to be just a little uncomfortable when confronted with my Southern roots, in certain situations. If I never see another episode of the “Beverly Hillbillies” it would be fine by me. Or hear Paula Deen say for the umpteenth time, “just add a stick of butter, ya’ll”,  for that matter. Believe me, I will be okay with it.

However, my hesitation in owning up to my upbringing has improved over the years and I no longer feel like I must bear the disgrace for all the rednecks, hypocrites and/or bigots, that have stereotyped my beloved South.

I feel pride when I’m asked about where I’m from, my family history and tell the story of my 3-time great-grandfather, Captain Tristram Thomas (later made General), who led a small band of patriots at the battle of Hunt’s Bluff, seizing a British flotilla in 1780 during the American Revolution. I feel pride discussing my late dad’s technique for whole hog barbeque (Williamsburg County style) with a certified BBQ judge and seeing him hang on my every word. I feel pride seeing my own daughter take an interest in growing a garden and witness the beginnings of a true love of the land take hold in her.

One of my great grandfathers was a real American Revolutionary War hero. I probably would have bragged more if I’d known when I was younger. But he was a hero not me, so I’m not sure if this means that much. Makes a nice story though… we Southerners do love stories.

Living for almost 20-years in a town that was (and is) mostly inhabited by non-Southerners, yet is located squarely in the South, gives one a unique viewpoint. Twenty years ago I was made fun of (occasionally) for my accent, but I will admit that a few men I dated along the way (the non-Southern ones) mentioned they found my accent alluring. Of course this could have been a load of bull.

I also know a good many non-Southerners (some who married into my family) who, I believe, truly wish they were born Southerners. To their credit they try very hard to fit in and do a pretty good job on the outside, at least. They will eat grits and cornbread and enjoy them. They’ll drink canned beer or sip bourbon drinks on occasion, learn about local flora and fauna and some will even take on a Southern-inspired hobby – like bass fishing, duck hunting, or NASCAR. But you know what? While all those things are great (well, I’m still deciding about NASCAR) – they aren’t what being Southern is really all about.

And I have no clear-cut answer to that effect, ya’ll. I’ve read that being Southern “is all about tradition” and being Southern “is about strong family ties – keeping in touch with your kin… whether you like them, or not.” Other humorous definitions include these gems:

  • You can correctly use “fix” as a verb.  As in, “I’m fixing to go to the store.”
  • You say “yes ma’am” or “no sir” to anyone 5 years older than you
  • You measure distance in time, not miles
  • All soft drinks are referred to as “coke”, no matter the brand
  • You use the term “bless her heart” to mean both pity and insult, usually at the same time
  • Southern babies are named after a family member, even those long gone (but not forgotten!)

I have read detractors state that Southerners are inexorably fake and “they’ll show you all kinds of friendliness to your face, but then turn around and talk about you behind your back.” I’ve certainly had that happen, but no wait, that was one of my college roommates from New England…Ha!

Still, I think the following quote from author Jan Norris sums it up quite nicely:

“Being Southern isn’t talking with an accent…or rocking on a porch while drinking sweet tea, or knowing how to tell a good story. It’s how you’re brought up — with Southerners, family (blood kin or not) is sacred; you respect others and are polite nearly to a fault; you always know your place but are fierce about your beliefs. And food along with college football — is darn near a religion.”

So true. I’ll add, that to me, being Southern is about being genuine, true to yourself and your family, and taking enough out of history to either learn to never repeat it if it was horrible, or remember and honor it, if it was wonderfully good. Whether you are Southern, or not, what does “Southern” mean to you?