Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Conversations about the south

I hope you know about The Bitter Southerner.  If you don't, please head over there right now.  It is great reading if you are a lover of the southern United States.  It is great education if you live somewhere else and you are not exactly sure why anyone would ever live down here.  The premise of the Bitter Southerner is that there is an interesting, uplifting, artistic, strange, and inspiring south that people miss when they pass us all off as backwards, toothless and under-educated.  We are not all Honey Boo Boo, for God's sake.  The Bitter Southerner is working to dispel that myth.  And while I do not always agree with their articles, I have enjoyed everyone of them.  I am always left with something to laugh about, be proud of or think on.  Good stuff.

This week's installment leaves me in the "think on" category.  Filmmaker Gary Leva writes about his experience gathering footage, interviews and information for a 30 minute documentary "Old South, New South" to introduce a re-mastered release of Gone with the Wind.  It is, like all things Bitter, a great read, with beautiful photos to boot.

But I want to have a conversation about this article with someone who is new-er to the urban south.  Like I said, this is my homeland.  I know I wear blinders and I also know that I know this place better than many folks.  But the "South will rise again" business is really foreign to me.  I am aware that it happens "out there" in  places where I don't live with people I don't spend time with but I've never really experienced it as other than a joke.

I don't experience the urban south as populated with people who really think that Gone with the Wind is an accurate depiction of the Civil War any more than The Tudors was an accurate depiction of sixteenth century England.  Frankly, my dear, we're smarter than that.

I am sad to hear that Mr. Leva left our fair area with the feeling that we are still backwards, that we still have a long way to go before we've left the "shackles of the old" south behind.  His flip treatment in the scant last paragraphs of "a glimpse of the possibilities the future holds" were (unintentionally, I hope), trite and demeaning.  the crayon-box, "blind to color" stuff has got to stop.  Seriously, we need to get beyond that.

I think Leva's article is limited.  It has to be.  He only had a certain amount of space, after all, and a certain amount of time. AND. There is more conversation to be had about where the south has been and where it is going.  There is a nationwide desire to blame the southern United States for the ills of society at large.  As if, because of our (truly horrendous, painful, embarrassing, sickening...) history with slavery, war and Civil Rights, we are still the root cause of much of the nation's ills.

Leva went looking for a particular view of the south and he found it in particular people.  In so many ways, looking critically at the Civil War and its environs, debunking it and its mythology, smirking at rich white southerners with a death's grip on their questionable heritage actually does little to nothing to help the southern United States rise above the "shackles" of this terrible history.

Leva is trying to appeal to a broad audience, though I daresay it is not a southern audience.  There are so many more of us here that are not proud of the history of our time but embrace it anyway, as a conversation partner, as a point of reference, as a piece of the rich and mottled history that does make us the weird and quirky people we are today.

The southerners I hang out with, the ones I am proud to call friends and colleagues, own who we are.  We name the embarrassment and then we move on.  Racism?  It is on the front page of our paper every damn day.  We live it and we work on it, overt and institutionalized.  It is something that we educated southerners have been fighting-- outwardly, honestly and with great birth pangs-- for two centuries.  I do not believe that the people Leva interviewed for this article, the ones that demurely defended the confederacy or couldn't come up with an appropriate answer for why we still have monuments to "our" dead soldiers or why we hate Sherman so much, are good representatives, white or black, of the intelligent and difficult work being done to counter racism in the modern day south.

I prickle when I am confronted with the idea that southerners are still backwards and bigoted because slavery was our fault and the Civil Rights movement had to happen.  I think often that the southern US gets to be the scapegoat for a country that struggles with racism all over.  We just do it more loudly and with more press.

Yes, racism is still a problem here.  A big, rotten, stinking, sickening problem.  No need to deny it, and we don't deny it.  Nor do we ignore it or politely pretend it doesn't exist.  We are working like dogs to combat it and may have extra work to do because white folks down here tried so hard to win that stupid war 150 years ago.  We made our bed and most of us lie in it.  Every. Single. Day.  It is a painful and heartbreaking reality.

But racism is alive and well all over our beautiful and broken country.  All over.

The history of race relations in our country is massively complicated.  The southern United States is an easy target, especially in the shadow of Gone with the Wind.  I wish Mr. Leva all the best in his endeavors.  I also hope that the next time he comes to the south he looks for real examples of the work many of us do to name our history for what it is: broken and bloody, a pit from which we climb and the base on which we are building something stronger than what was there before.  There is intense beauty in the struggle.  That is a documentary I'd like to see.              

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