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What does it mean to be ‘southern’ or a ‘southerner’? That question was posed to me last night via email from my good friend, Greg, who is originally from New York but relocated to Atlanta several years ago. Rather than answer him directly I responded to his email with the same question, “What do YOU think it means to be considered ‘southern(er)’?” My alias, ‘The Spirited Southerner,” is what initially sparked his question, but since he is a man of color from the great state of New York, I was curious if his interpretation of the term/s carried a positive connotation or otherwise.
My friend, Greg informed me his father is from Lake Hartwell, Georgia and his mother is from North Carolina. His family traveled to his parents’ hometowns often through the years so the south was not ‘new’ to him. In fact, he shared early memories of the area. He recalled the country stores with the screened doors, and driving down the two-lane roads where people would wave from their front porches, whether they knew you or not. His early impressions were that the folks down south were polite and friendly, open, very trusting, and very laid back. He was born in New York but actually moved to Atlanta from Virginia twenty years ago. Since becoming an Atlanta resident he came to realize two things of ‘modern day’ south. #1: Most of the people who are here now are from everywhere else BUT the south, so everyone is not as hospitable as he remembers. #2: Some of the southerners who were born here are not as openly hospitable because they’re more aware of the southern “transplants” that brought their more reserved cultures with them when they moved here. Southerners are still very forgiving folks, but to a certain extent unforgiving, which is a softer way of saying resentful of the past. He also shared with me that shortly after moving to Atlanta back in 1986, he had a business appointment in Gainesville, Georgia. This was shortly after Oprah Winfrey had aired a show where she visited Forsyth County’s city of Cumming, GA. In order to reach his destination he had no other choice but drive through Cumming and he was very wary of doing so. He made it a point to complete his business in order to get back on the road well “before the sun went down.” When asked if he feels ‘at home’ in Atlanta now, Greg’s response was “Absolutely. I really miss it when I go back to Virginia or New York and I’m always anxious to return home to the southern hospitality. I just wish it was more of it still around.”
As a native of Atlanta, Georgia for slightly more than 59 years now I have seen the south and ‘southerners’ change in many ways, while remaining the same in just as many others. But what constitutes the ‘south’? The division of the North and the South began when two surveyors, Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon, mapped out what is known as the famous Mason-Dixon Line. It was surveyed almost 2 ½ centuries ago between 1763 and 1767 in the resolution of a border dispute in colonial North America. However, it is most commonly associated with the division between the northern “free states” and southern “slave states” during the American Civil War-era, almost 1 ½ centuries in the past.
After the Civil War, the Mason-Dixon Line continued to be thought of as a cultural boundary regarding literacy, financial and industrial development, as well as social progress and racial integration. Well into the 21st Century we still refer to ourselves as ‘northerners’ or ‘southerners’. With northerners’ nicknamed ‘Yankees’, I remember my uncle explaining “the difference between a Yankee and a Damn Yankee is that Yankees just visit, while Damn Yankees move here for good.” It’s not enough that we have racial, age and class discriminations and discord in this country-we have regional divisions, as well.
While attending my book-signings and public events I am always surrounded by a multiplicity of accents. There are foreign accents from every country on the planet, just as there are obvious northern and of course, southern accents. While some northern accents may seem harsh or abrupt, bordering on loud and abrasive, there are some southern accents with the long drawl considered by many as irritating and less than literate. The northerners make fun of the southern accents while the southerners imitate their northern counterparts. Whenever there is a movie with southern characters they almost always are certain to ‘over-play’ the drawl, such that it grates on a true southerner’s ear-drums, akin to nails scratching on the blackboard.
In a recent poll conducted on the website of Atlanta, Georgia’s Fulton High School Alumni, the responses were varied yet similar to the question:
“what does it mean to be southern or a southerner?” For instance, Jean, who was born and raised in the south, spent 2 years in Boston. Even though they made fun of her every time she opened her mouth, she always tried to show them southern charm and respect. Jean believes being southern means showing respect for everyone, especially elders, saying “Yes mam/sir” and “No mam/sir,” and opening a door for others, especially ladies and seniors, which she says she never saw in Boston. Jean went on to describe being southern as smiling at others and saying, “hello,”-being friendly–even to strangers, and expressing appreciation by saying, “thank you.” During her stay in Boston she said folks just didn’t smile and heaven forbid if she asked directions. On the lighter side, she shared her idea of “southern” as iced tea and Sunday dinner, family spending time together and taking care of one another, helping friends and neighbors, especially when they are having hard times. And she adds, “Southern used to mean a little slower pace in life-I’m not so sure that is the case now, though.” She closed with saying, “Being southern is a good feeling in your heart that I almost lost in Boston.”
Another response to the poll was from Frank, who is also southern by birth. He says a Southerner enjoys all 4 seasons of the year, from the oppressive heat and humidity to the famous ice storms that can paralyze a city for days. And of course, it means running to the store to buy milk and bread anytime a weather report even mentions snow.
He further regards a Southerner as being tolerant of others, always polite and respectful. He describes a true southern man as “a gentleman who still holds a door for a woman, even in this day of feminist movements.” He adds, “A true southern woman still accepts small favors, such as a man opening a door for them, without thinking the worst.”
Mark Pollard is a well-recognized historian among the alumnae, and his knowledge of the Civil War and southern history is amazing. His response was so profoundly written, “We may leave the south to study, search for love, earn a living, seek adventure or opportunities, but a true Southerner always returns home, even if it’s only in a pine box. As anyone who lives in the South can tell you, it is a place of extremes and contradictions: we are known for our friendliness, but remembered for the Civil War, often thought of as hicks, but producers of bucket-loads of presidents, senators and noble warriors. The South seems to savor life a bit more than the rest of the country. I know that Moonshine is not something in the sky but out of a Mason jar and I know that all good Southerners have a hound dog in heaven.”
Yet another response came from Billy, obviously as proud a southerner you’d ever meet, who said in no uncertain terms, and I quote, “Being Southern is by the Grace of God.”
For the most part, these responses could easily be summed up by the infamous term “Southern Hospitality.” That’s the term used to describe the genuine graciousness and sense of welcoming that southerners extend to “folks who aren’t from around their neck of the woods.” Being gracious is making strangers feel comfortable while respectful of their rights to have opinions, and without causing a “ruckus,” even when a few feathers may have been ruffled. Hospitality and manners go hand-in-hand, and while it is possible to learn those traits as adults, they’re most easily instilled in children when raised to treat others with respect. That can be accomplished anywhere…not just the south. However, the true Southern Spirit of Hospitality only lives as long as we keep breathing life into it through our actions. That can only be accomplished by setting good examples for the many who are now “Southern by Choice,” having relocated here from other areas of the country…and the world.
There is one sure fire way to tell whether someone is truly southern at heart, and that is to offer them a big heaping bowl of buttered ‘grits,’ ‘crackling cornbread,’ or a ‘banana sandwich’. If their upper lip curls, the chances are they’re not southern by birth. But give them a chance-these dishes native to the southern region can quickly become an acquired taste. Hospitality can rub off, and given enough time, so can the drawl, as in “Yaw’ll come back now, ya hear?”
write by Boniface