Making My Peace with the South

This weekend, I went back to the South. I was surprised at the feeling of love and nostalgia that came in waves when I made my way toward the land of pine and rolling hills.

You see, when I was a young adult, I couldn’t wait to leave.

I wanted to go far from the South and its smiling bigotry, far from its Confederate flags and monuments, far from its racial hypocrisy. I didn’t yet realize that the hypocrisy I so often associated with the South lurks in all corners of our country and also within each of us. And I didn’t realize that every time I travelled southward, I’d feel a twinge of elation, sadness, and homesickness all mixed together. This strange cocktail of feelings is the perfect way to describe the South, a region that is full of racial contradictions and often utterly uninterested in sorting it all out.

Here’s an example of what I mean:

About fifteen or twenty years ago, my father, a professional storyteller, was invited to a school in the South to tell African folktales. When he arrived, he learned that he was one of several performers on the program. Another was a group of women who sang a song that went something like: “Save that Confederate money, boys! The South shall rise again!”

If there was any proof that the South is out of its damn mind, it is this story. It was so ridiculous, so hilarious, so heartbreaking, that what could I do but laugh when I heard it? It was simply more evidence of the farce we already knew we were living in. Where else in the world would a person sit down with a straight face to schedule an African American storyteller and a Confederate apologist in the same program?

We Southerners are incongruous, you see.

The South birthed both the Civil Rights movement and perfected the inequality and violence that necessitated it in the first place. We are the home of Medgar Evers and Bull Connor, of white supremacist segregationist Strom Thurmond and Essie Mae Washington-Williams, the daughter he fathered in his 20s when he slept with a Black teenaged housekeeper. We are home to stereotypes of the sexless Black mammy and the oversexed Black Jezebel, of the feckless minstrel and the dangerous Black man who must be controlled through fear and lynching and incarceration. We boasted booming Black middle-class communities, and then destroyed them with white supremacist mobs, flooded them beneath lakes, or simply infested them with colorism. We are welcoming and warm and charming and also suspicious of outsiders and want to know who your people are and whether we knew your daddy.

Such inconsistencies drove me North for a period of time. Then I looked around and missed the flagrant hypocrisy and the total disregard for logic. Like a partner returning to a toxic relationship, I missed the joy and the unease of living in the South. I missed the pine trees and the forest moss, the biscuits and the grits, the undulating drawl that can stretch a single syllable into four or five if we put our minds to it.

The lynching memorial at the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, Alabama.
Each hanging metal sculpture bears the names of Black people lynched in a U.S. county.

I missed the feeling of being at home in the land of my ancestors, even though it came with the dread of being precariously perched on a tinderbox of racism that could ignite at any moment and engulf me whole. A few years ago, I visited the lynching memorial at the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, Alabama, and learned that nearly every place I’ve lived or visited in the South has seen a lynching. Since then, I gaze up at the sky-high trees and wonder both at their beauty and whether they’ve borne the weight of a Black body.

I am learning that you have to make some peace with the South if you are Black and want to return there. If not peace, then an uneasy truce. I was thinking about this idea over the weekend, as I drove through a quaint rural community with my uncle. We saw an old, tattered Georgia state flag.

I turned to my uncle. “The Georgia state flag still has a Confederate flag on it?” I asked.

He shrugged his shoulders and nodded, as though he had long grown used to these slights and long given up fighting them. “That’s just how it is,” he said. “You can’t get too worked up about it.”

The South is both my heartache and my home. It’s a paradox, I know, but I’m a Southerner, and contradiction is my love language.

In the face of trauma, I suppose we can fight or flee. In the South, you can fight, as Medgar Evers did, as Stacey Abrams does now, as Black people who have insisted on their humanity have for centuries. You can do so at the risk of your own life and mental and physical wellbeing.

You can flee, as Nina Simone did, as I did, to get a respite, to breathe, to remember who you are and that you are fearfully and wonderfully made. And to see that racism comes in many forms, some more silent and insidious than you suspected.

Or you can form a truce. You can build a life and go to work and pay your taxes and relish in the bright blue sky and the thick humid air. And you can exist in the land of your ancestors because it is the only place you can truly call home, even if you can’t always bring yourself to live there and even if you aren’t sure it really wants you there.

Many of us cycle through all these phases, sometimes in the same breath. We fight. We flee. We return. We accept. We interrogate. We love. We hate. We speak. We question. We rest. We flip the tables at the temple of white supremacy and we both bless and curse those who persecute us.

As I drove back to Texas, I found myself growing wistful as the wild and luscious landscape of the South grew smaller and farther behind us. (Though Texas was part of the Confederacy, I consider its culture distinct from than the South.)

This visit was the first time in my adult life I felt a sense of peace with the land of my birth and my raising. I suppose I have grown more comfortable with the both-andness of at all: The South remains a place where Black people must fight for rights, visibility, and equality, and it is also a place where Black strangers still smile and nod at each other on the street because we understand our fates are bound together.

I love this place even as I long for its change because the South is both my heartache and my home. It’s a paradox, I know, but I’m a Southerner, and contradiction is my love language.

6 responses to “Making My Peace with the South”

  1. texasaggiemom Avatar

    As always, your brave, brilliant words evoke so many feelings. As the descendant of quite a few Confederate soldiers I struggle to reconcile my desire to be an ally for justice and equality with the stained history of my ancestors. If I had to choose a Facebook relationship status for that conundrum it would be “it’s complicated.” Thank you for sharing your heart so openly, and for the reminder that good and bad can co-exist.

    1. Thank you for your words and this vulnerable post. The South reminds me that none of us is all good or all bad, but a mixture of both. To lean more toward good, we must choose wisely with our actions, as I know you’re doing in your allyship. Keep up the good fight!

  2. I’m so glad you got to go “home” for a visit. I too have ambivalent feelings about the South. It has produced horrors, but also MLK, Jimmy Carter, and my parents.

    My mom grew up in Savannah, GA, and my dad grew up 20 miles from Florida in Cairo, GA (birthplace of Jackie Robinson), as the son of a sharecropper.

    We travelled from KCMO to Georgia and back once or twice a year. The pine trees are awe-inspiring. The food is wonderful. And Southern culture is indeed distinct from Texas culture.

    I understand your comments about inconsistencies, too. My mom used to say both “All’s fair in love and war” and “The ends don’t justify the means.” Talk about confusing!

    Btw, Danny and I drove to Georgia for Danny to meet my relatives after we got married in the summer of 1976. Plains is between Svannah and Cairo, so we went through Plains while Carter was running for president!

    1. Great stories, Beth!

  3. Wonderful piece, Irie. So well stated.

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