On not being Southern
When I was seven, my mother took me to meet my cousins. We flew on a prop plane from St. Louis to Richmond, Virginia. My aunt and two cousins met us at the airport. Tom, the cousin who was my age, looked at his mother and said, “Is he a Damn Yankee?”
I looked at my mother and said, “What’s a Damn Yankee?”
And so my relationship with the American South began.
I knew enough to know I was not a Southerner. We identified as Midwesterners. Though we used a plural form of “you,” we always said it in two distinct syllables: “you all” and never, ever “y’all.” True, my parents tended to serve more bourbon than scotch at parties, but most of the men drank the beer brewed by either Mr. Busch (Budweiser) or the Griesedieck Brothers (Falstaff).
Also true that, like our Southern cousins, we knew never to drink gin in the winter (this was before martinis made their comeback), or to wear white after Labour Day. We knew what dance cards were, and girls knew how to unbutton their white kid gloves when they wanted to smoke. We understood that girls from certain families made their debuts, and others did not.
When it came to race relations, things got a little murkier
Though Missouri entered the Union as a slave state in 1820, we were told that no one on either side of the family tree had ever owned slaves, and everyone had fought in the Union not the Confederate Army during the Civil War. Not that we were exactly freedom fighters. It meant we were that northward-tending, Midwestern kind of prejudiced.
Though we used “Jew” as a verb, my father said he had many associates of the Jewish faith whom he respected. However, there was a difference between a Jew and a kike, a distinction, he insisted, they made themselves.
The Ku Klux Klan was just plain wrong. Period.
I believe my father loved the South, though he had an odd way of showing it. He would tell stories about Arkansas in dialect, and sometimes sing old songs from—I hang my head in shame—minstrel shows. He had committed a number of the comedy routines of Two Black Crows to memory, and he thought Amos and Andy were about the funniest thing ever.
Two of his best friends lived in Gurdon, Arkansas, and his business often took him to Mississippi and Louisiana, from which he would cart home boxes upon boxes of pralines. He loved grits, fried almost anything, and corn bread.
Meanwhile I was determined to become a Yankee, and fixed my gaze steadily to the North—Chicago was about as far north as I could imagine at first, but as I learned more about geography, I found out there was all kind of land north of Chicago—Canada even.
In winter I longed for snow. In summer, I dreamed about the Northern Lights. I realized I would have to wait to go to someplace like New York City, or even better New England, where the real Yankees lived.
And in fact, I ended up in Maine.
But the South does not give up easily. I entered my first collection of short stories in two competitions, and it won one of them. the southern one. As proud as I was, I kept wishing I’d won the one in Iowa. So even though none of my stories was set in the South—remember, cousins, St. Louis ain't the South—and even though I had settled in northern New England, I began to be associated with southern writers. To make matters worse, I was accepted for a residency at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, right across the road from the all girls college my mother had wanted to attend but could not because of the Depression.
I drove down in an old Volvo with Maine license plates, and I feared for my life. Here I was all Yankee-identified, with long hair and old leftist tendencies—at an artist colony, no less. Not all that far up the road from Lynchburg, where Jerry Falwell preached. I felt myself to be in some kind of incomprehensible trouble and didn’t sleep well for a number of weeks. People joked about my fears. “You don’t have to worry until they actually light the cross. That’s when you start running.”
Then I found myself in a group that included a truly crazy writer from southern Mississippi and a Jewish woman who’d been raised in the South—laughing. I mean we laughed hard—at every meal—so hard, people at other tables were annoyed with us. Disruptive laughter. Laughter on the verge of tears. And then it occurred to us. There was a terrible grief in our laughter. A grief about the vast gulf that still existed between North and South—even in the 1990s—even among artists and writers.
When I’d tell my fellow writers about my Yankee fears, they’d counter with stories of how they’d been humiliated at Harvard and NYU for their accents, for ideas they didn’t even hold to but were assumed to have. They spoke about the jaundiced view of southerners that people have who only know the South through the New Yorker or the Chicago Tribune. People who in fact don’t know the South at all.
The pain I felt was due to the split in my own heart. I was raised in a city divided in two by the Mason-Dixon Line, that imaginary boundary that separated the Union and the Confederacy. Though a slave state, Missouri had sharply divided opinions about slavery from the beginning.
I had spent most of my life fleeing to the North, where I never really felt I belonged. I think of the time in Boston when I overheard two black women up from the South, speaking to one another on a bus, and I started to weep. I hadn’t heard such beautiful English in years. Memory.
That other mother tongue.