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The South

14 February 2010

Last night, a dear friend of mine and I went to see a showing of Gone with the Wind at the Varsity Theater. It was nice event: drinks and popcorn provided, buffet of Greek hors-d’oeuvres at intermission, and the classic film. There was one issue. An entire line of 50s-ish people sitting behind us, laughing at Scarlett O’Hara’s plight and casually looking down upon the South.

This is the perfect example of a group of people referred to at “Yankees”. Not all people from the Northeast merit such a title; there are many decent people from that area of the country. “Yankee” refers to a person who assumes superiority over Southerners on the sole value of being from the Northeast.

If there is one thing that a Yankee (by this definition) should never do, it is see Gone with the Wind around Southerners. This is a precautionary step for their own safety. Gone with the Wind is the Southern version of the Homeric epics of The Iliad and The Odyssey , told from the opposite direction. It is the tale of a civilization gone with the wind. No one wishes to return to the days of slavery and the days when the Ku Klux Klan ran the South. But underlying the story is a spirit that lingers on in the heart of every Southerner, black and white, male and female, rich and poor. Critiquing the film is healthy; ridiculing and misunderstanding it is offensive. The biggest misconception about the Civil War is that it was fought over slavery–this is the genius of Abraham Lincoln and a proof of the fact that “the victor writes history.” The Civil War was fought over the issue of states’ rights, the South tired of being pushed around by the industrialized North that then–like now–saw itself as superior. And people often forget what Sherman’s March and Reconstruction (with its carpetbaggers) did to the South, degrading us in the minds of history forever.

Portrayals of Southerners are nearly always that we are uneducated and unsophisticated. I, for one, am sick of this. By making broad, sweeping judgments about people they don’t know, Yankees are actually proving themselves to be the uneducated and unsophisticated ones. Just because I talk slower than you doesn’t mean I think slower.

I here-below quote a blog entry I wrote this summer in Arles, France, that seems quite apropos:

As many of you may know, I have never been extremely proud of being from the South. It’s never been a part of my identity as I understood it, and I’ve occasionally been quite ashamed of it because of all the negative things that being from the South can mean. Two things, though, have changed that during my time, of all places, here, in France.

First of all, as I wrote a friend a few days ago (edited for people who might not understand certain usages), “being around so many Northerners here on my program has made me realize that I really am proud of being from the South, and that it’s a much bigger part of me than I thought. It’s not that I dislike Northerners, or that I am a fan of the [excesses of the] Old South, or that I don’t get really frustrated with people from the South, but things like walking a girl home at night because that’s what boys are for, or greeting everyone you see (which they expressly don’t do in Europe), or taking time to enjoy life”…it’s that spirit, those manners, that way of seeing the world that I’ve begun to discern within myself and which, in turn, color the way I see the world, in a way I haven’t been aware of until recently.

The French have a concept that we don’t talk about so plainly in the States, but applies very neatly to this realization: le paysPays often refers to a nation, but it is also used to distinguish between the regions of France that really represent different countries, and were as such until the the King of France begun to exert much more control over the nation. Paris and Arles represent two different pays in that they really seem like cities in two very different countries, in language, in food, in customs, in dress, etc. The same thing can be said of the States, where the North and the South (to give the two largest examples), though politically and economically united, really are separate countries. It’s not that the South is better than the North or vice versa, but it’s that we are different countries, each with our pros and our cons.

The other factor is that the culture of the South of France is very much related to the culture of the American South. People speak slower and do weird things with their vowels. People are intensely linked with the agricultural areas surrounding them. People walk slower (or really, rather, stroll) and don’t really respect timetables, often because it’s too hot to rush. Food is, in a large way, the root of all sensibilities. The further South you go, the more la dolce vita applies. Southerners in both countries know that the purpose of life is to enjoy it, to celebrate it. And, in another very strong way, both areas experience a cultural (and sometimes, political) domination at the hands of Northern metropolises.

A lot of people on my program have been talking about how much they love the lifestyle that we are leading here, wanting to take some of the more salient of the customs back home with them. I am, clearly, amongst that group of people. But realizing that this lifestyle is, in many ways, the epitome of the lifestyle that I have grown up with has been a fascinating experience.

One Comment leave one →
  1. 14 February 2010 18:41

    I urge you to come visit me, you would love it. I’ve always been “southern,” born and raised in NC, but raised by New Yorkers I can’t say I knew what it meant until I came to Mississippi. Yes, there are unfortunate traces of history that are embedded in the culture of the deep south, but I think what I have been most surprised by is the feeling of an urgency for progression and a move away from the things which so many people look down on the South for; no one would know this until they experienced it. That being said, I think one of the best parts of the South IS the history. It’s beautiful down here, and I have never met nicer, smarter, more honest people. You need to come tour Ole Miss, you would fall in love. Nice post, miss you babe

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