Tell me what you think of when you hear ‘the South.’ I suppose you recall of the war for state’s rights. I would wager you think only of red states. Do you think of fried chicken and ‘good ole country cookin’? Do you consider the world that simultaneously created Ray Charles, Martin Luther King, Booker T. Washington, and Jimmy Carter? Or do you only remember segregation, racism, inequality? Can you picture the rolling Appalachian Mountains? Or do you imagine poverty? Do you remember the glory of the trumpets in New Orleans and the saxes of Savannah? Or do Katrina and Georgia flooding crowd out and dim those beautiful memories?
As talk of flooding precipitates the news, I am reminded of how the North views the world below the Mason-Dixon Line. I am reminded that the only pictures you will see of the modern day South are in times of disaster or outrage. When else will Georgia permeate the news or Northern consciousness? If you don’t agree with me, if you don’t see how the Union is still divided then tell me – why is it that Katrina has become synonymous with New Orleans? Why has a city with so much culture, heritage and vivacity been reduced to a simple hurricane? Why is it that my state, the last of the thirteen colonies, the origin of the Nobel prize winning President, and the home of the 1996 Centennial Olympic Games has been overshadowed by some water? Why is it that the vast majority of Americans have only seen the airport in Atlanta, yet do not venture out into the city?
I’m not here to answer these questions, merely to remind people of the beauty of my homeland before the rains came.
You want to know what I think of when I hear ‘the South’?
Sweet Tea and Sunshine. The feeling of sitting around a bar-b-q drinking my Auntie’s half tea-half sugar concoction and arguing over who actually let the hot dogs burn for the twentieth time. (My vote, my dad. I avoided all blame because I wasn’t ever allowed to touch the grill.) I see crowds at Chastain bringing their blankets, grills, and coolers, ready to listen to a concert in the cooling sunset breeze. I see baseball games as the bright lights of Turner Field seem to illuminate even the crowded highway.
Diversity and strength. The place that in a hundred years went from farms and slaves to segregation and cities to diversity and progress. I see a place where racial barriers still exist yet so does the capacity for dialogue. I walk down the street where you can find gay clubs, baptist churches, and Margret Mitchell’s home.
Complexity and simplicity. Coke and Cotton. Olympics and Tara. It is the birthplace of one most iconic American corporations that have stretched the entire globe. There is the city that hosted the world in a 100 year celebration of mutual cooperation through sports. I see fields of cotton, corn, soy, and peaches. I see the classical plantation, where all you want to do is sit on the porch and think about it all tomorrow.
Yes there are problems in the South. I will be one of the first to admit that. Racial politics still influence city organization, and poverty in some states seems third world in nature. I just get tired of questions such as, ‘So what was it like, growing up in the South?’ It was amazing. It was challenging. It was beautiful. I went to country fairs in the fall and the spring, and I spent my summers at so many barbeques that I refused to continue until the sauce finally exited my bloodstream. I encountered racism. sexism. homophobia. I experienced hospitality. warmth. generosity.
My rant has been a year in the making. I have met so many people that are so well traveled – they have been to heights of Manchu Picu and the depths of catacombs. They have shown reverence at the Taj Mahal, and they have partied in Europe such that Baachus would even be impressed. Yet, they have never been to the South. They don’t know what a plantation really looks like, and they never listened to a trumpet calling out to the Southern wind on a beautiful summer day. The closest they have come to southern hospitality is KFC, and they have no idea of the importance of a Waffle House on a Sunday afternoon.
I suppose I don’t understand that. I suppose I don’t understand ‘well-traveled’ Americans who have only seen my city’s airport. I don’t understand why the only time the South is considered is when FEMA is trying to redeem or defend itself. It’s a beautiful place. It deserves more consideration. So yes, my thoughts go out to all of my Southern brothers and sisters as the rains continue to come. But, my thoughts go out to all my Southern brothers and sisters as the clouds part, and you can again enjoy the warmth of our sun and a cool glass of southern sweet tea.