The South I Knew


In Texas, it's all big.

There are some who will insist that Texas is not a true part of the American South. Its historical identity as, for a brief time, an independent republic, its blended Mexican and cowboy culture, its prosperity relative to most other former states of the Confederacy--there are many reasons to consider Texas more Southwest than South. And yet, Texas was very much a member of the Confederate States of America, and the last slaves to be liberated, two months after the rebels surrendered to the Union, were Texas slaves (an event enshrined in the African-American holiday known as Juneteenth). Texans disparagingly refer to Northerners as Yankees, enthusiastically embracing a patriotism that both celebrates American identity and stubbornly insists on defining it militantly and rebelliously.

The only part of the South I've experienced on a personal level is Texas, more specifically, Dallas. That's even more problematic than calling Texas representative of the South, for Dallas is a hard-driving, profiteering, super-modern city with little, if any, charm. Dallas was the first real city I ever lived in, and I hated it, mostly because Dallas drivers made a sick joke of the Texas highway motto: "Drive friendly, the Texas way." I spent three years in Dallas, and there is nowhere on earth I've been happier to see receding in my rearview mirror.

During my Dallas years, I did have frequent occasion to travel outside the city, often to and through other states of the South, and there I experienced something much more like the famous hospitality the region is known for. Most of the Southerners I met were fellow Methodists who, though much more conservative than their Northwestern cousins, are still about as liberal as Southern Christians get. I knew many who were progressive leaders, in fact, though they tended not to belong to the huge churches that have consolidated so much power in Southern Methodism. They were eager to open their churches and homes to seminary students like my wife and me, doted on our toddler, engaged us in conversations, and found much in common with us. In fact, they were much like people I've met all over the United States: friendly, generous, sympathetic.

In all my travels through the South, I don't remember once seeing the Confederate battle flag prominently displayed, nor do I have any memory of anyone expressing resentment over the outcome of the Civil War. I did, on the other hands, find Southern patriotism to be far more aggressive than what I had grown up with in the Northwest, particularly around national holidays. The Southerners I knew were fiercely patriotic, proudly displaying the stars and stripes. There was never any sense of them wanting out of the United States; if anything, they wanted very much to remake it in their image, and seemed to be gathering the electoral clout to do just that. A year after I left Texas, an Arkansan became President; eight years later, he was succeeded by a Texan.

Southerners are proud people. There is no equivocation in their patriotism or their sense of heritage. They are proud to be Americans, just as they are proud to have once rebelled against America. Their pride is big, powerful, loud, pushy, shameless. It's embodied well in the creepy Bunyanesque robo-cowboy statue called "Big Tex," whose mechanical jaw, waving hand, and amplified "Howdy!" have spooked many a small child visiting the Texas State Fair. It's a patriotism that has no room for irony, that says what it means and means what it says. It's a full-throated rebel yell co-opted by the American bald eagle.

That makes it a hard thing for Yankees to understand. Here in the Northwest, we're far more in love with individual expression than with collective flag-waving. To Northeasterners, Southern patriotism seems coarse, naive, unsophisticated. None of us gets the stubborn insistence on heritage over sensitivity, the deep denial required to believe the symbol European racists, legally prohibited from using the swastika, use to represent their virulent opinions, and which was born out of a war founded on preserving slavery, is anything but a slap in the face to any African-American confronted with it--and that's putting it mildly for those old enough to remember Jim Crow, who know how quickly that slap can turn into a burning church or a body hanging from a tree.

I like to think our Yankee opinion of Southerners is, itself, grounded in ignorance. In my three years in the South, I never met one person I considered a racist. The Southerners I knew could not help but see African-Americans (and, in Texas, Hispanic-Americans) as fellow human beings, fellow citizens, because, thanks to the forced integration and empowerment of the 1960s, they had daily experiences of living and working with them. In the Northwest, it's possible to go for days and even weeks without encountering a person of color. If some Southerners still harbor racist feelings, they can't afford to act on them: persons of color are too big a segment of the Southern economy to treat them with anything but respect.

The South I knew was pragmatic about its past, and that's why I think the Confederate flags will come down quickly now that there's no way for Southerners who hold political office to deny what they represent. They know where their power lies, and they'll do what they need to to consolidate it--including folding up those bloody banners and putting them back in the sock drawer where they belong. Then they'll be able to turn their attention back to regaining control of the White House, while holding onto control of Congress.

Although, given how quickly the Confederate flag issue was pushed from the headlines by the marriage equality issue, that could prove difficult. Southerners may have made peace with civil rights and integration for persons of color, but they've got a long way to go with accepting the gay presence in their midst. All the attorneys general and state court judges that have issued opinions calling on county officials to refuse to marry same-gender couples have been Southern. It's going to be interesting watching this play out. When Southerns choose to be bigoted, they do it big; denied their traditional target, they may well start taking it out with more vehemence on a new one. They'll have to watch themselves: if this is the line they choose to draw, it could cost them national power for many years to come.

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