Today, You Can't Leave the South, Even if You Try.
Story by Tracy Thompson
If Thomas Wolfe had tried to write “You Can’t Go Home Again” today, he might’ve felt the need to change the title. I am thinking maybe something along the lines of “You Can Go Home Again, But You Won’t Know a Soul.” Or better yet: “You Can Never Leave.”
I speak as someone who left the Deep South more than two decades ago and who has lived ever since on the Maryland side of the Potomac, just a smidge north of that invisible line Eudora Welty once described, the one “you couldn’t see but knew was there, between the South and the North — you could draw a breath and feel the difference.”
This is a moveable line, as we all know, but as best I can tell these days the local portion hovers somewhere between Fredericksburg, Va., and the Woodrow Wilson Bridge, which crosses the aforementioned river between Alexandria, Va. and Oxen Hill, Md. From Blue State, heavily Democratic Maryland, home of public transportation and a red-carpet rollout for Obamacare, I can almost see the campfires of Red State, gun-toting, Republican Virginia.
In Maryland, gay couples can get legally married. In Virginia, gay marriage is illegal, and the state attorney general is intent on reinstating a law defining oral sex as a “crime against nature.” Maryland inspects abortion clinics; Virginia inspects women who want abortions. (Boy howdy, do they ever inspect them: In Virginia, women who want abortions have to get an ultrasound, I guess to make sure that they are not keeping something unusual — say, a pet hamster — in there. That’s the milquetoast version of the law; as originally written, the law required a trans-vaginal ultrasound. The Virginia General Assembly’s righteous zeal to know as much as possible about certain perceived threats to the public weal makes the National Security Agency looks like a United Methodist Women’s tea.)
In short, Maryland may be technically below the Mason-Dixon line, but it is not Virginia, and the Deep South it most definitely ain’t.
I’m just one of countless Southerners who decided that the only way to understand the region that haunted them was to leave it, to go elsewhere and gain the perspective that comes only with distance. For nearly a quarter of a century now, I’ve lived just north of what I’ll call the Eudora Line. But lately, though, it seems that the Deep South is catching up with me. And I’m starting to wonder if younger generations of Southerners will be able to put any distance between themselves and the South, even if they wanted to.
You can leave home these days, but thanks to our globally connected media world, home need never leave you. Cycling furiously on my recumbent bike at the gym, I look up to see some talking head on CNN with the Atlanta skyline in the background — buildings I know by name. My Facebook feed keeps me up to date with people I went to high school with in College Park and everybody I ever worked with at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. I watch the Washington Nationals play the Atlanta Braves while texting with my brother-in-law down near LaGrange, Ga. In approximately 1.5 seconds, my smartphone can calculate the exact route and highway mileage to my childhood home, and in about the same time I can get a bird’s eye view of what it looks like these days on Google Earth.
If being a Southerner means being born homesick, being a Southerner in the Internet Age means being constantly confronted with the means and the opportunity to pay a little virtual visit to Mama’n Them. This urge to pay a virtual visit to someplace you used to live is by no means a Southern phenomenon, I’ll grant you, and though it’s possible to document clear regional variations in the way people use the Internet, I can’t think of any way to prove that transplanted Southerners keep closer tabs on their native region than, say, transplanted Californians.
But I bet we do. After all, we come from a region in which the traditional agrarian concepts of community were bonded, cemented, soldered, cohered, fused and glommed together in every possible way into something unique by a whole list of historical forces, among them a history of racial oppression (imposed or felt), evangelical religion, decades of practically no foreign immigration, musical and culinary traditions, and the shared belief that even though outsiders may judge us to be inferior goods, we knew in our hearts we were better. The Southern concept of “community” is the core, the beating heart, of Southern identity. It would stand to reason, then, that for us, the concept of “internet community” would be as irresistible as a hot box of Krispy Kremes.
And just as hard to stop indulging in. It is so painless, online, to annex new territory and expand our psychic city limits. So easy to “friend” that girl who sat behind me in calculus class; so neighborly to post a virtual “howdy” to my brother-in-law’s old high school buddy from LaGrange. Or there’s this: Somebody I have never met, who used to work two floors down from me at the AJC 30 years ago, sees something I have written and sends me an e-mail link to a blog post written by somebody else about Lewis Grizzard, which prompts me to send the blogger my own e-mail comment — and the two of us proceed to engage in a lively e-mail debate about whether Grizzard was a great American humorist (the blogger’s point of view) or a guy who pissed away his considerable talent pandering to redneck stereotypes (mine). The blogger is a tenured history professor, and I, presumably, also have other things to do. Yet here we are, discussing a newspaper columnist who has been dead for nearly two decades. It was a great exchange, I enjoyed it — and yet, in terms of time-wasting, friends, this ranks down there with calling into radio sports shows. And yet people who call in to sports radio talk shows to make inane comments are doing this because they, too, are participating in their own little community. The human drive to connect is as primal is the need to breathe; the only difference about Southerners is that we tend to have a better grasp of this fact than most.
But for the expatriate — even a next-door kind of expatriate like me — there are perils. During these virtual visits you may find that home does not feel so homey anymore. Your old high school class president, a McGovern Democrat back in the day, has morphed into a hard-shell Republican who gets all swoony over George W. Bush. That crazy, wonderful features writer you knew at the AJC has finally succeeded in drinking himself to death. The rental car parking lots at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport have metastasized to obliterate the shady backyard where you and your best friend use to play on the swing. You reveal yourself as an Obama Democrat in some online political gabfest and suddenly a whole bunch of chatty people with whom you thought you could have a friendly disagreement shut up and disappear.
Up to now, what has been loosely referred to as “the duality of the Southern thing” has generally meant the phenomenon of feeling simultaneously proud and ashamed of being Southern, especially when dealing with, or attempting to explain the South to, people who are not Southern. It’s what I feel whenever the topic of “Here Comes Honey Boo Boo” comes up, and I have to dredge up and explain whole layers of reactions. (Yes, the way these people eat is appalling. Yes, kiddie beauty pageants are stupid at best and a form of child abuse at worst. No, even though we share a last name and are from the same state, my family and Honey Boo Boo’s are not related. On the other hand, they seem to love each other, they’re not snobs and I’d choose them as neighbors over some high-income, highly educated twits I have known. So there.)
That’s the old Southern duality thing. Add social media and the 24-hour cable news cycle to this, and what I have are constant pinpricks of homesickness, combined with constant reminders of what it is about the South that drives me crazy: Georgia Rep. Paul Broun, perhaps, speaking on NPR in a melodic drawl that makes me homesick, while at the same time what he is saying makes me want to punt his sorry ass off a cliff. Or folks like the Rev. Charles Stanley and the Rev. Creflo Dollar, hard at work parsing the Bible into fine-grained itty-bitty bits, verse by tedious verse, stupefying new generations into obedience to The Word and reminding me of those thousands of hours I lost in Sunday School. Wherever I go, I tell you, the South is there also. There is no escape.
And for me, this ability to access what amounts to a live video feed of the most mundane of goings-on back home is accompanied by a nagging sense that I am there only as a hologram: ghostly and unreal, wandering through a place that differs subtly but profoundly from where I grew up. I am gone but not gone, and the whole time the South has been doing what it always does, which is to morph overnight into some new variation of itself. If I were to go home again for real, would I still know anybody there? And if I did, how long would we be able to stand each other?
And yet I do go. At least once a week, I visit my childhood home in my dreams, or drift off to sleep mentally revisiting some scene I last saw half a century ago. This inability to let the past be the past may be also a peculiarly Southern affliction, a reaction to the fact that this so-called conservative region has seen more sweeping social change than any other in the country, and thus everything is always about to disappear. Or maybe it’s just that all Southerners, even those of us who have done all we can to stamp it out, are fatally afflicted with some degree of moony sentimentality which makes it hard for us to shut up about how homesick we are. Thomas Wolfe wrote about “the way the sunlight came and went upon a certain day, the way grass felt between bare toes, the immediacy of noon.” For Jimmy Carter it was “a closeness, almost an immersion, in the sand, loam, and red clay that seemed natural, and constant.” Alice Walker rhapsodized about “feeling the soil between the toes, smelling the dust thrown up by the rain, loving the earth so much that one longs to taste it and sometimes does.” For me, it’s the sense memory of cool clumps of red Georgia clay under my feet in early spring, when I was a 5-year-old following in the wake of my grandfather’s plow. It’s the shadow cast by the magnolia tree under a full moon, the exhausted sound of cicadas in August, the exact feel of that balky window crank on the glass louvers of our old front door, the background hum of the hassock fan, the hot smell of summer rain.
I miss it, or at least I used to. But now, thanks to the wonders of cable and cyberspace, reminders are with me 24-7 on Twitter, YouTube, Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest, half a dozen blogs and Verizon Fios On-Demand, not to mention iPhone text messages. Generations of Southerners have learned to understand the South only by leaving it — if not for good, at least for a while. It’s a region almost humanly impossible to comprehend except from some kind of remove; even Flannery O’Connor and Eudora Welty, those noted homebodies, spent significant portions of their young adult years outside the South, and would be the first to tell you how vastly improved they were by the experience. They didn’t realize, I’m sure, how privileged they were, to live in a time when it was still possible to leave.
For them, and for generations of Southerners — young writers seeking perspective, black sharecroppers looking for a place to earn a decent living, historians in search of a university where they didn’t have to worry about the United Daughters of the Confederacy — the pressing issues have been practical: When can I leave? How can I do it? Where do I go? How much money will it take to get there? For future writers and historians of the South, the challenge is more existential: how to miss a place that seems never to go away.
Okay, so if you still haven’t read Tracy Thompson’s “The New Mind of the South” (click here to buy it), then you probably don’t have a real understanding of how Hispanic immigrants are changing the South — and how the South is changing them. Next week, we bring you a beautiful story — the creation of photographer Greg Miller and the writer Peter Short — about the homegrown Southern mariachi bands who tour our region, playing to audiences of immigrants and learning to please the gringos at the same time. As Short so beautifully puts it, “Tradition and culture sustain themselves not through purity and absolute preservation, but through introduction and acceptance.” At the BS, we’re all about that.
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