Thursday, June 25, 2015

What it means to me to be a Southerner

I may currently live in the Netherlands, but I am an American, more than that I am a proud American. I am more than just a proud American though, I am also a proud Southerner. I was born and raised in Nashville, I have hiked most of the southern half of the Appalachian Trail. I have spent decent amounts of time in most of the South's big cities and many of its small towns, I have experienced my homeland in almost every way it exists and I love its variety and all of its virtues. Don't get me wrong, I know that it isn't perfect, but I also know how close to perfect it can be.

The thing is that the South has a self esteem problem. I lived in Seattle for a while and I was somewhat shocked at how negatively the South was viewed. Many people outside of the South seem to only think of it is an uneducated, ignorant, racist place. There are pockets of those faults in the South, there can be no doubt about that, but there are also areas facing those same issues in every other part of America. Not only do some individuals from outside of the South gloss over their own problems while associating those same issues with the South they also ignore all of the great things about the South. We have an amazing literary, musical, and artistic heritage. No other part of America and very few in the world can claim a culinary tradition as rich and wonderful as the South. Very few places on Earth tend to be as warm and friendly as the South. Still most people think of us as hillbillies who do nothing but make moonshine, walk around barefoot, hate minorities, and marry our cousins. This makes it hard for Southerners to find something to be proud of.

So we rebel. I am not talking about the act of the states succeeding from the Union, but I am talking about the biggest thing the South ever did, breaking away and forming its own country, as something that many cling to as a source of pride. Sure, you can make fun of us but we have already shown that we are willing to set out on our own and make our own way in the world. We decided we didn't need the rest of America and we put our money where our mouth was. We are rebellious, we see ourselves as self sufficient, we are risk takers, and we have the history to prove it. Many take extreme pride in that, because it is seen to be the truth, because it pisses other people off, and because we have not been allowed to be proud of much of anything else. Our pride is just as rebellious as our actions.

The problem is that the thing we take pride in is very complicated. It is all of the things mentioned above, but it is also inextricably wrapped up with slavery and racism and religion and many other things. You can not in an honest fashion remove slavery from the Civil War, the Civil War would almost certainly not have happened if not for slavery. Yes, other issues were also at play, but slavery was, by far, the primary issue.

This is a problem for a lot of Southerners. We want, we need, something to be proud of. The thing that many choose to be proud of has a lot of problems and so they have decided to ignore or deny those problems and focus only on what makes them proud. This is not an honest way of looking at the issue. When we look at the Civil War honestly it becomes something much more shameful than we would like it to be. This is, in all reality, a problem for the South.

I think I have an answer though, it isn't an easy answer, but I believe it is an effective one. We need to find something new to be proud of.

If the South put the hard work into changing the way the South is seen by the rest of the world, if we made it our primary goal to eliminate racism, through not only laws but by looking at our personal actions and beliefs as well, if we made sure that everyone truly had equal opportunities and was equally welcomed everywhere, then we would have something to really be proud of. In taking on this challenge we would have to face our past, all of it, the good and the bad, We would have to also take a good, hard, look at our present and figure out how to make things better for all Southerners. When I say all Southerners I mean all Southerners including all races, nationalities, skin colors, genders, and sexual orientations. We can, and should, be willing to admit to the racism in our past, the racism that still exists, and to do everything we can to eliminate it. If we do this no one could talk bad about us any more. They would have to face their own problems with race and other forms of bigotry and work to eliminate those. They would then probably wind up seeing the other wonderful things that exist and have always existed in the South. To borrow a phrase, if we did this then the South would truly rise again. Not as the old South, but as a new and vastly better South, and we wouldn't just rise, we would exceed and would become the leaders for the entire country. We could help all of America become a better, more welcoming, more fair, and more equal place. This is what Southern pride should be about, not a past where we have to cherry pick things to be proud of.