In my first few weeks of college, the question was inescapable—Where are you from? And while it wasn’t asked with the same intention as the microagression with the same words, I began to dread it like it was. Going to a very liberal school in a very Northern place means that when you say “I’m from South Carolina,” people look at you a little differently—either with pity, because poor black girl having to grow up in the south, or confusion, because I’m apparently way too liberal/reasonable/intelligent to be a southerner.
A desire to defend one’s home is absolutely normal. My jokes about Ohio have not been received well by people from Cincinnati and Columbus, and this I understand. Of course they can see the value in things like Cincinnati Chili and Cream of Wheat (both of which get a thumbs down from me). They’re part of their home, of memories of baseball games and grandmothers. These objects and locations help tell their story of their lives. And yet somehow, not only do they fail to see the value in my home, they don’t understand how I could possibly want to defend the place where I was born, where my mother and her mother before her were born—the farthest back I can trace my roots.
This piece is not trying to argue that the South is the best place in America (that’s another argument for another day). Nor am I trying to claim that all of our problems as a region are behind us and should be forgotten—that claim would dismiss the very real issues that the South faces today and has faced in the past. But the national view of the South is just as archaic as our perceived political views, and seem to be able to fall into one of two equally incorrect ideas—either a bucolic land filled with the genteel nature of the Antebellum South, or a place filled with rampant poverty, the entirety of the country’s racism, and Post Civil War inferior infrastructure that our country would be better without.
But neither of these ideas are fair to the modern South. They leave out our growing cities, our varied perspectives on our culture and the outside world, and the racism both present and past that the North refuses to face. Nor do they provide a clear and honest image of black Southerners. Either portrayed as slaves or second-class citizens, the general narrative of black people in the South is now extremely outdated and fails to consider our history. After WWI, many black Americans decided to leave the South, where many of them had grown up not far from the plantations they'd descended from, and move to the North and Midwest, where industry was growing. Many families were split in the Great Migration, with parts of families moving to cities that would one day become associated with blackness, like Detroit and Chicago, looking for employment and the promise of an escape from the racism and discrimination of the South. This is where the regional separation of many of our families begins--for example, half of my family went up to Michigan and is there still, and the other half stayed in Alabama, or moved to states like Texas and South Carolina.
Many young black southerners take on another migration today, looking for the same things some of their ancestors were looking for--opportunity, education, and less discrimination. I'll admit, I took this path too. I thought that if I left the South, I would leave behind the confederate flag on my statehouse, and with it, the poor education I and so many in my state experienced, the widespread violence against women, and the seemingly ever present poverty. After spending a year mourning the losses of kinsman at home and away, I was excited--surely the Midwest would be a safe place for me. And still, in the months that I packed up my bags to leave South Carolina, children and adults alike were murdered in the state that I was fleeing to for some of the same reasons that I was fleeing for.
And though I didn't have to be nostalgic for institutionalized racism like I expected, I quickly began to miss home--not just the food, (which I really really miss, someone please send me collard greens, fatback, an oxtail, anything) but also the dark humor of many black southern communities, which often stems from the oppression that we face on a daily basis. The group understanding of the importance of a cultural community that supports each other, either through family, religion, or community service. The diversity of our communities and cultures, and strength that many of us showed while we lived in places others called unlivable, were raised in places other people said they would never visit, and inherited the strength to continue on not only through our ancestry, but also through our fertile land, which served as the primary way for black people to make a living in this country for many years.
The South was instilled in me in my pantyhose and pound cake filled childhood. It became a part of me, with all its good and all its bad, and I've had to face that as a Southerner. But I think that many northerners (particularly white liberals) have not had to face the negative implications of their culture or their history. After all, if the south was the cause of all of our racism, would not things be fine today? Would black people in states like Ohio, New York, California, and Maryland still be alive? Surely these cannot all be exceptions to the rule.
Despite all of the things that people expect to be hard about growing up in the South (particularly after a tragedy happens in your home, one of the worst parts is having to deal with the responses of outsiders--both black and white--to your personal suffering. To your upbringing. To your story. I don't know how you do it, they say. I'd never go to the South, they say. Why don't you southerners ever fight back? Well, we are now.