A question I’ve been asking my entire life and I’m not alone. A Google search will return over 175,000 hits. Sadly, while they promise to dispel the myth of the Southern Belle, most characterizations eventually come down to sweet tea, southern accents, good manners, football and looking pretty with little attention to intellect. In other words, the Southern Belle.
I never bought this, and though I tried to be a southern belle in my teens, I could never quite make it work. And frankly, I don’t know that many southern belles. In my experience, the Southern Belle is just someone we made up to avoid the southern reality.
I always knew there was something else, something achingly beautiful and tragic that southern souls are compelled to share in spite of their differences. An elusive fragrance in the air, a whisper in the trees, a ghostly sprit in the bayous. Ingrained in childhood, handed down through generations, clinging to us tighter than skin. An elaborately crafted mantle designed to hide something dangerous. Something I couldn’t name.
But I think I know what it is now. It’s our heritage; the legacy of the Civil War. A war predicted to last a few months, that raged on for four years, taking the lives of 620,000 American men, more than all the wars to follow combined; approximately 20% of them under the age of 18.
And at the end, for the South, there was bitter defeat and a legacy of shame, poverty and rage
Wounded and weary, fathers, sons and husbands, reviled and shunned,straggled home to homes and crops devastated in the path of the war, while northern soldiers returned to a hero’s welcome to homes untouched by war for the most part, with fanfare.
Salt in wounds already festering. And yes, the slaves were freed, but with no support, no access to the tools they needed to prosper. Free, but not equal. And so the war ended long ago but the struggle continues. No wonder there is such free-floating rage in Southerners. It is rage born of grief that has nowhere to go but inside.
State sovereignty is sometimes offered as a righteous rationale for the war, and it’s tempting to cling to this slender reed. But the Civil War was about slavery and all of us bear the responsibility for it. Slavery existed in all 13 colonies prior to the Civil War. My ancestors owned slaves. Black people owned slaves as did American Indians. But none of this matters. Slavery is wrong. Just wrong.
But before I get too sanctimonious I realize I cannot know what I would have believed, or what I would have done, in a time when slavery was the acceptable norm. I can only hope I would have had the clear-minded courage to speak my truth.
I take some solace in the knowledge that not all legacies of the Civil War were bad. The southern woman rose from its ashes. Left with farms and businesses to run and children to raise, they had to be strong to survive. They relied on each other; they formed strong communities. Their faith was their only source of hope through terrible loss and deprivation. They had to be resourceful to provide for their basic needs; they made clothing and quilts from draperies, feed sacks, scraps from worn out clothing. Together they birthed their children and buried their dead. Food was scarce, they had to raise their own; they became expert gardeners and didn’t flinch at killing a chicken or butchering a hog. They were recyclers before there were recycling bins. The land and its creatures provided their needs and so were respected; they were environmentalists before Greenpeace. They found beauty to ease their harsh lives in the things they had; a rose, a treasured teacup, a button from a favorite dress.
So it’s not surprising that southern women are strong, that they are passionate about family and community. That they are unapologetic about their religious faith and famous for their elegant quilts, their welcoming homes, their sumptuous recipes and lush gardens. That they value hard work and frugality.
These are the Southern women I know.
It’s true, you’ll know a Southern woman by her accent and colorful turn of phrase. She has good manners and she won’t leave home without her makeup. But she is made of stronger stuff. Much stronger.