the original kStyle blog.

Sunday, October 31, 2004

My Window to the South

I have a small window open to the South, through which small interactions happen, polite conversations, exchanges. I'd like to open a full door, to let a big Southern breeze in, to try and understand that sweep of warmer states draped with Spanish moss.

My mother lived in Charlotte, NC until age 12. Her parents, natives of Fall River, MA, relocated for her father's job. My mom holds fond memories of Charlotte and, on occasion, wistfully longs for that friendlier place. It's difficult, though, to glean any substantive understanding of the South from her, as her memories are wrapped up with childhood and haunted by harsh Catholic school nuns. My grandpa's take on the South is that everyone voted Republican and He. Was A. Democrat. That and he really loved the work he did there, supervising the textile dye lab, getting his hands wet in the chemistry. He never much enjoyed the dye sales job he had later, up North. Grandma doesn't talk much about the South per se, only that she was afraid of the "colored people" in town (forgive her, she's from another generation), that she could feed the whole family at McDonald's for a quarter, and that she shook JFK's hand when he campaigned in Charlotte. (Grandma likes John Edwards, too: handsome politicians are her thing, apparently.)

We northerners often speak with disdain, disbelief, or dismissiveness about our southern cousins, but we know, deep down, that they hold the key to national politics. This nail-bitingly contentious election has us frozen liberals looking to the land of magnolias and mint juleps with curiosity, trying to understand what goes on inside the southern mind. Public radio's documentary program, "Inside Out", recently produced the much-publicized "A Southern State of Mind" for these reasons.

But what of our personal interaction with the South? Do you have any? I, for one, have very little contact with any real-life residents of Dixie. Perhaps, to heal the red-blue, Mason-Dixon division, we need more real contact, personal contact, across that divisive line. I find that real-life contact with southerners only opens more mysteries. (I'm not counting the relocated southerners, converted to liberalism, who make Massachusetts their homes. These people are invaluable for clearing up the mysteries of the South. They are our true national ambassadors and every northerner should have one such person on her advisory committee.)

As for my interactions with southerners living in the South, there was the smart Georgian author, a nurse, a brilliant scatterbrain, seeping self-consciousness about her southernness through her very pores. The first time I tried to contact her, the phones were out. When she got a hold of me later, she was mortified: the things I must think about the South because her phones were out! (This was silly, of course, as anyone who saw the unpaved northern road I grew up on could testify.) She explained that the slow southern drawl, seen (she thought) by many in the north as a sign of stupidity, was originally a sign of wealth and ease: we have allllll daaaaay to chat. (She also let me in on a secret: many southerners use this soothing accent to lull northerners into complacency. We assume the southerner is stupid, let our guard down, and the southerner can strike. Most useful in negotiations.) She was distressed that the South was pro-Bush ("we've always been Democrats") and even more distressed by the French bashing going on in her town. I began to think that her ideas of northern perceptions of the South reflected her own reservations about her home. (In addition to her trunk of advanced nursing degrees, she wrote the occasional article of feminism and country music. Brilliant, brilliant woman.)

Over the last few weeks I've had to call several companies in the South to request photographs for our books. You know what? Everyone was extra-nice and super-helpful. What's going on here, I wondered. Why is everyone being so nice? So...so hospitable? We're not even paying them for usage! And why are these kind people probably going to vote for an evil president? The cognitive dissonance made my head ring and the world spin. I have to wonder, too, if my contacts hung up perplexed by my cheery good manners despite the clipped consonants and speedy speech of my northernness.

Finally, today, I spoke with the single most cheerful, helpful, customer service representative ever. She had a perky drawl and excellent professionalism. (She works for AT&T Wireless, so give her a call and say hi!) She helped me find a new phone and a new phone plan, she chatted pleasantly with me, and seemed genuinely pleased when I wished her a happy Halloween. And then I remembered all the other customer service reps with Dixie shining in their voices, and I wondered why so many call centers are in the South. It could be partially because the cost of living is lower, and partially because, well, can you imagine the conversation with one of us? We're rude (but at least we vote Democrat and love the French, eh?).

As all these little mysteries churn in my mind, one conclusion emerges: we need to understand each other better. We need to stop shouting out own rhetoric and to start listening to each other's reasoning. We need to avoid thinking of each other as "them" and start thinking in terms of "us".


Blogger Ann said...

People in the South are probably no better or worse, on the whole, than people in the North. Likewise, Republicans as individuals are no better or worse than Democrats.

The problem I have with southern states, and the reason I don't intend to venture past the Mason-Dixon line any time in the near future, is because of their oppressive laws and socially conservative politics. The court system of Alabama recently upheld a ban on the sale of vibrators, for heaven's sake. And the Texas redistricting scandal was corruption, pure and simple.

1:35 PM  
Blogger kStyle said...

I know what you mean. After writing down my random thoughts on the South, and reflecting a bit, this is the conclusion I've reached--

There is, I believe, a dangerous political divide in our country right now, and the chasm seems to widen daily. And I think that beneath the political divide lies a cultural divide. I don't think the cultural divide can be ameliorated without the two sides meeting, without northerners and southerners talking and getting to know each other.

2:45 PM  
Blogger Ann said...

Exactly. Well said.

5:20 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Here's a blog:
I include this because her roots are in the south, and she occasionally posts about that. she's quite interesting--she's in slactivist's camp, in that she's leftist and religious. I don't have time to search her archives, but she wrote a post about yankee disdain for the south awhile back.


3:44 PM  
Blogger kStyle said...

Thanks for the link!

10:13 AM  
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8:51 AM  

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