The Why: In Which I Defend Living In The South


By Kristen Chapman Gibbons.

Kristen is a creative mind who cannot stop communicating. Former Social Worker, Taught in Higher Ed for a decade, Married & happy with 3 kids, Appalachian & proud. Tweeting, writing, speaking & pontificating. You can find her blogging at http://www.kchapmangibbons.wordpress.com/ and tweeting as @KCGibbons.


[This post is cross-posted with permission from http://www.kchapmangibbons.wordpress.com/]

On Rachel Maddow’s blog, there was a question to all “blue dots.” Why do you stay in red states and do you ever want to leave? The question struck right at the issue most on my mind since the reelection of the President. It seems that writers (particularly from the Northeast) publish article after article along the lines of “What is wrong with the South?” Or, “Go Ahead And Secede Already.” They have been popping up like Honey Boo Boo references. Most of them are almost gleeful at the thought of dumping the South. (Because this is what Lincoln wanted ?!?)

Each time I see these articles, I get a little more angry. It would be dishonest to say that this isn’t a longstanding peeve for me. Bill Maher is a perpetual offender. The Simpsons, the media (old & new) and even my beloved Jon Stewart all take shots at the South regularly.

Now, let me be crystal clear. I get angry at all the hatred, bigotry and racism in the South every day of my life. But the jabs from other progressives are particularly hurtful. It would seem that with many red states trending purple (Virginia, North Carolina and Texas and Georgia soon enough) that this might be counter intuitive to winning elections, but the South is a dependable punchline nonetheless.

As I read through the comments of the Maddow blog post, a few themes began to emerge. There are two main groups of “blue dots.” There are those, like myself who stay because we feel an obligation, a connection and/or are immersed in activism. However, there were many more who expressed a desire to leave and be done with the whole struggle. I sympathize with those so isolated in their own communities. It must also be said without reservation, that I stay as a white, married woman with children. Even though I am not religious and a vocal advocate for equality, my circumstance is much more comfortable than for many in the lgbtqai community and for people of color. My friends in these communities have sometimes left because their safety was at risk and because no one deserves to be surrounded by people who hate them. I get this. I support these friends because I know what it means to stand out in any way in communities of cultural lag.

I left the Southeast for the first time for Grad School at Drew University in the early 1990′s. Previously, I had grown up all over the region because my father was a Baptist preacher. I was given a scholarship to Drew (one of two a year) due to my “minority status,” as Appalachian. I never once thought of myself this way, although my heritage and culture were and are very dear to me. It was a bizarre experience. By the end of my first semester, I went to my mentor determined to withdraw and head South. She was from Texas and told me she experienced a similar dislocation when first up North. She suggested I find a place to eat food I liked (had to go to Harlem for that), make friends with other immigrants and buy cowboy boots. In essence, she told me if people were making assumptions about my intelligence, then I should at least make them feel uncomfortable about it. I took her advice and finished the degree. Without a doubt, it was the loneliest time of my life.

Since my return, the South has changed in many ways, particularly in the cities. And like everywhere else in the world, the cities are where the growth is occurring. People are less religious, more open with regard to sexuality, gender and race and less tolerant of intolerance. Anyone who read demographic information from the election knows this is happening all over the country. The Millennials are different. Teaching in colleges the last decade, it has been no surprise to me the ways in which this generation differs from previous ones. In my Diversity class, I survey students the first day about many aspects of their socialization. Less than a third in any class I’ve taught in six years still attend the religious services they grew up with–and I live under the buckle of the Bible Belt. They are consistently more liberal about social issues. I didn’t need Pew to know this, although it is always good to have statistical evidence to back anecdotal information. There is also a rapidly growing Hispanic population.

This trend is bigger than one region, no doubt. But I believe it is also because there are many of us who have refused to abandon our own culture; the good (you are welcome for almost all modern music) and the bad (the racism, homophobia, etc.). If we all left, there would be no counter to ever pervasive right-wing yammer–on the radio, in the office and in the State Legislature. Young people raised here need to know that you can embrace where you come from and redefine it. Not so young people need to know it is okay to buck tradition, disobey the Church, distance themselves from the darker opinions of the past. Bottom line: We progressives are desperately needed.

Please don’t think this is a martyr move. I love living below the Mason-Dixon for many reasons. Here is a short list:

  • My family (99%) of them are still here. I see them several times a year…cousins, aunts, uncles, grandparents and other relatives. Family is still a high priority here.  (It was rightly pointed out to me that this sentence is both bone-headed and inaccurate. Of course people the world over value their families.)  We don’t scatter as much as other Americans.
  • Way of life. One reason I hated living up North so vehemently was because it is all about work. We value leisure here. That is why we sit on porches.
  • Friendliness. I know this freaks people out at times and others think it is all a show. For me, banter with strangers makes society less hostile. Southern people aren’t known for their hospitality for nothing.
  • The land. Whether it is the beach, the mountains or the foothills–many of our ancestors came here for fertile land and freedom. My people are from Oconee County, South Carolina, which borders North Carolina and Georgia. When I see the Smokies, I breathe deeper and feel the power of the landscape each and every time.
  • Culture. Encompassing music, food and all else this word conjures. If I want to hear a banjo, I only have to drive a few miles. And if I want good biscuits and tea that is sweet, there is a meat and three down the road.
  • Faith. I sincerely believe that things are and will continue to change in the region. It is my hope that we can hold on to some of the aspects that distinguish us and still continue to evolve on social and religious issues. It may take longer than I want it to. It will surely take longer if me and all my fellow liberals flee and join the sneering ranks.

Perhaps it’d be a quicker evolution if our progressive peers would dial back the haughtiness. Each time people from the South are portrayed as dumb, inbred, more racist than all other Americans, fat, lazy, and backward, it makes it that much harder to change opinions. These stereotypes have long lives and only nurse resentments from another time in history. Recognize that both historically and presently, the United States is not all it can be without the South. Lincoln did.

Yes, we use more resources from the Federal government and also like to complain about it. Yes, we have a persistent strain of racism in our history and in 2013. Yes, we speak a different dialect. Yes, our students’ test scores are lower. Yes, we have more poverty. Yes, we are more overweight because we REALLY like butter. But, we did give you rock n’ roll, blues and country music. We are teaching some of you how to relax (because you keep coming here to retire). We can claim The Highlander Center, Molly Ivins and former President Carter. And as poor Notre Dame found out, we give you kick ass football.

The South contributes a lot to the country. We are not a lost cause. And to Stewart et al: feel free to mock our politicians mercilessly. Most of them deserve it. Just leave the rest of us out of it…we need to keep our anger focused on injustice.

** Link to Maddow Blog post from 1/17/13: http://on.msnbc.com/Sef4bE


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6 Responses to “The Why: In Which I Defend Living In The South”

  1. Amanda

    This is such an important perspective to have out in the open. It reminds me of the maps that were circulating online the other day, they were showing the segregation by class in residential neighborhoods. The more we draw lines and divide different things, whether it’s ethnicities, socio-economic groups, religions, or political views, the less chance we have of ever finding common ground. I don’t know the love of place like you do, but my husband does. Living here in the Adirondacks, vastly more conservative than the PNW where I grew up, there is soul-deep peace in putting down roots on beloved land. Thank you for this post.

    Reply
  2. Dee Thompson

    Thank you so much for publishing this. It expresses almost perfectly why I love living in the South, and I get so riled up when non-southerners put us down, or view us all as redneck idiots.

    Reply
  3. Nancy Mott

    I so agree with you, Karen. And do so even though with fewer reasons: my children left the South and all settled North, I grew up North; I don’t find the North unfriendly and manage to find folks to chat with even in NYC. BUT I too tire of Northerners’ patronizing attitude toward the South.

    And a lot of Northerners are unfaithful to their own history. Slavery for example benefited the entire country. As South Carolina Civil War diarist Mary Boykin Chesnut (who read Harriet Beacher Stowe and biographies of John Brown multiple time), while slavery impoverished the South, the North grew rich on it. Had Lincoln made slavery a war option earlier, emancipation would have died a-bornin’ and the Civil War would not have been fought. Even today racism continues to be an issue in the North as well as the South. And it must be remembers that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., predicted that integration will become a reality in the South before it is in the North.

    Additionally I’m a partnered lesbian. As such a experience the disadvantages you mention *not* having to deal with. My Church has recently provided a blessing for same-sex couples; yet to get it to be half-way accepted must make clear it in no way is intended to be the same as marriage. So we LGBT couples, thankful as we are for progress, nevertheless realize it’s up to us to honor our own marriage commitments, with or without religious and civil sanction.

    In spite of all this, where else is it so important to be and to live if one’s life is to make a difference?

    Reply
  4. Kristen

    Thanks for all of your comments. It means the world to me that something I’ve needed to say for so long–gets heard.

    Reply
  5. Lauren

    I moved out of a red state to a purple state, but have many friends and family behind. I admire all those who stick around and are activists for change. There’s a great blog by some Oklahomans who write on the same subject, ok4rj.org, that you would probably like. In some ways I think blue dots in red states have the most important jobs of all. There’s a chance we’ll move back south someday and I’m glad there’s a growing community of feminists and activists waiting for us!

    Reply

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