A Brief Digression on Southernism (Book Excerpt)
A Brief Digression on Southernism
At the store where I avoided the swastika hip flask, I also passed up the opportunity to buy a flask or a lighter with an emblem of the Confederate flag. Since I faced the same non-temptation when I was buying cowboy-style belt buckles, this seems as good a time as any to address the question of local charm. There exists a certain class of travel writers who try to find, wherever they go, expressions of the neighborhood culture—talking to locals, reading road signs that are oh-so-typical-of-Eastern-Pawtucket, etc. The resulting description creates a diorama you could frequently sell in the local Cracker Barrel, along with Precious Moments figurines and old DVDs of Disney’s Song of the South. You have to be a great writer—William Least-Heat Moon, for example—to avoid making it sentimental, and to turn a blind eye to the South’s worst qualities.
Frankly, I’ve got no interest in any of it. I’ve lived in Tallahassee for six years—arguably the most Southern of Florida’s major cities—and I’ve never learned to enjoy its distinctives. I’ve never liked the unsanitary nature of “fishin’” or “swimmin’ holes,” boiled peanuts literally make me sick, and the popularity of funnel cake is precisely why you want to avoid going to Southern beaches: everyone’s overweight and toothless. What so many people call “Southern culture” looks suspiciously like rural poverty and ignorance in a tourist-friendly display case. I grew up poor and don’t find anything charming about it. And that, more than anything else, may be why I decided to focus my travel on big cities. The modern highway system is such that you can, in theory, travel the entire length of the country and never eat anything but Subway sandwiches. And the only sign you’d have that you’re in the South is that the gas stations start to sell Confederate flag merchandise.
So can I just say I find the popularity of Confederate flags completely baffling? Particularly when I see the level of self-deception involved. In one gas station, I saw a bumper sticker that showed such a flag along with the caption, “It’s Heritage—Not Hate!” And I wanted to write next to it, “Can’t it be both?” Because surely the Confederate flag is about a heritage of hate. And this is why its presence everywhere makes me cringe for the Southerners involved.
Let me see if I understand this: the Civil War was a war of deliberate treason in the name of slavery. Its proponents were the same guys who killed Lincoln. And they lost badly. And then went on to commit the worst series of lynchings in our country’s history while—as an almost literal sideshow—being the first hosts to the war on teaching evolution. And then, a hundred years later, the flag went up over every Southern state that wanted to resist dismantling Jim Crow. Could someone explain to me what part of this is worth celebrating? I could understand “Southern shame.” Or, taking a cue from modern Germany, “Southern embarrassed silence about the late 1800s.” Or bumper stickers bearing the Confederate Flag reading “Never again!” But Southern pride? I’m sorry, but I don’t sport bumper stickers that say, “My forefathers massacred dozens of Indians! Yee-haw!” And I expect the same level of self-awareness from people with their own history of atrocities. Until they come up with a Confederate Flag bumper sticker that says, “We Can Do Better!”, I’m avoiding the allegedly real South, even if it means eating at Subways all the way to New Mexico.