I’ve been thinking a lot about my southern identity since listening to the This American Life spin-off podcast, S-town. Being a southerner is complicated today. It’s hard to embrace my roots when so much of it is gnarled and bent up in a divided political climate. But I can’t help but to love those roots that fed me and gave me a safe space to lay my head, the roots that ground me.
Growing up I never identified as a southern girl. Even as an elementary schooler, writing “Alabama” on a sweepstakes entry to win Limited Too clothes, I feared I’d be judged by store owners for my divisive home state. At 10 and 11 I knew being from Alabama meant something.
I remember being called out for my accent on a trip to Pennsylvania. I remember my cheeks turning red hot, eyes welling with tears. I repeated my words carefully without rounding my vowels, cutting off each syllable so as to hide the small drawl my family taught me. I get asked today where my accent is, as if I’m hiding it, as if locating the accent would have lessened my worth in my new home state.
But the South is not just accents and overalls, dated beliefs and big families. It is all of those things, but if you take the time to look closer, the hard lines formed in tradition have cracks. The cracks are filled with history so deep we truly believe the adopted traditions swiped from others are our own. Our pride swells so big that fact sometimes falls to the wayside. And our beliefs are so strong we forget the value of another’s upbringing. Sometimes our “well-meaning” is really just our stubborn roots. We were taught that way you know.
Today I find myself somewhere in between. I’ve grown up and out in many ways. I have a hard time identifying with southern stereotypes, the characteristics my friends and family posses. But I cherish them. These identifiers help me navigate my place in this world by grounding me in a culture of hard working, nurturing, welcoming people. I may have lost most of my drawl, but I still possess the fruit of my upbringing, my roots.
S-town reminded me of the complicated characters that inhabit rural Alabama and seep into the politics and PTAs of the bigger cities. But I am one too, a southerner. I don’t fit the stereotype of conservative, judgmental, Bible-thumper, but even if I did I’m sure there’d be more to me than those adjectives. There would be a reason I was that way. And it would be everyone else’s job to dig just a little bit deeper just as the other side requires of the former.
I don’t really know where I was going with this, just that I feel all sorts of protective about my home characters after everyone got to see the dirty parts of southern culture in S-town. In these tumultuous divided times, may we remember to give the same second thought to misunderstood strangers as we hope others give us.