We have met the enemy and he is us.
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.
You order iced tea and your server responds, “Sweet or unsweet?
A stranger strikes up a conversation with you at the produce counter and you don’t look for the manager.
It’s hard to find parking in the church parking lot on Sunday.
The ONLY dressing is cornbread dressing.
The “ballgame” means football.
Mama is a force to be reckoned with.
Men look forward all year to a weekend on a freezing lake in an outrageous contraption hoping to bag a duck or two.
If you visit, you have to eat.
And family is forever.
Blind-sided, thunderstruck, ambushed, stunned, floored flummoxed. Just flattened. By what’s just happened in our country – no, not what just happened – what just surfaced.
As my genteel cousin put it, “Surely not?” Exactly. Surely we are not the people screaming racist epithets, intimidating children, advocating jail for our rivals. We are not the people that believe silencing those who don’t look like us or believe like us will solve our problems. We are not the people who obsessed on the media’s 24/7 shouting matches, while shaking our heads about the ugly campaign. We don’t riot
in the streets after an election and burn the President Elect in effigy. We can’t be those people. And yet we are.
Until November 9, I carefully sidestepped awkward social and political conversations. After all, everyone’s entitled to her/his own opinion, right? And what does it matter really? Things will go on pretty much as they always have no matter what I do, right? So why risk damaging a friendship, causing a ruckus. Why be “that” woman? I really didn’t know what my friends, my neighbors, even some of my family, believed at a core level, didn’t really want to know, and didn’t share my own opinions. We coexisted; polite and superficial strangers under the skin. So when November 8 happened, we were amazed to find out who was living next door, or even in our own house!
It’s pretty clear we don’t understand each other. Perhaps we don’t really understand ourselves. Hopefully the 2016 election will inspire us to learn more about ourselves and our government and moreover, to become involved in our communities. We can learn to listen respectfully to each other with no other agenda. We can have discussions that don’t deteriorate into shouting matches. Ideas that challenge us are healthy precisely because they make us uncomfortable. They stretch us and keep us growing.
On the morning of November 9, I began a one woman listening campaign. I talked to neighbors on my morning walk. I listened to members of my church, to my family, to my Facebook and Twitter friends. And I heard some surprising things. Some not easy for me to hear. But my friendships were not threatened. In fact, just the opposite. After all, we all want to have our voices heard.
I know the fluttering of the butterfly wing in my tiny corner of the universe cannot influence world events. But just as one vote makes a difference, so does one honest conversation.
So let’s talk! Leave a comment. Tell us what the 2016 election meant for you. Who knows? We might not be as far apart as we thought. At the very least, we are sure to learn more about our own beliefs.
I was born in a very small North Texas town, and I was born a Negro…which became black…which became Afro/Black/African-American. But while American society came up with new names to call me based on my race, I just considered myself a Texan.
I remember as a child playing in the red dirt of my parent’s home town, eating Moon Pies, drinking grape Nehi or red cream sodas, giant pickles from a pickle jar, salt-and-vinegar chips like a home-grown Southern kid. I think it’s very telling that my earliest memories of living in the South centers around food.
Then we moved to Colorado and snow, which had been a novelty before but became a part of life. It didn’t take me long to realize that I’m not a huge fan of snow. My parents were surprised when we were showed homes in racially diverse neighborhoods. We wouldn’t be “blockbusting” after all.
Years later, circumstances and finances had me moving back to Texas and living with my parents. I was nervous at first, considering the stories my parents told me about growing up in the segregated South, but when I arrived and visited the small hometown my parents grew up in, I was shocked at what I saw.
A small North Texas town more racially integrated than some of the neighborhoods I left behind in Colorado.
After living in Colorado for 17 years, I came back to Texas. After living in Scotland for over seven years—I came back to Texas with my Scottish husband who loves it here.
Why? Because my roots run very deep here, unlike some of the politicians who have represented the state in recent history. Despite these “prominent” citizens, the people of Texas really are friendly, are caring, and do have common sense.
Living in Texas has made me appreciate history and especially the history of my family. History is nothing but a bunch of stories; some of it is fact, some of it is fiction, but it’s all about the story. Texans have been known to tell a tall tale or two.
The South is full of myths, legends, and stereotypes that mix in with reality and creates a wealth of inspiration for stories. But sometimes these elements turn into propaganda—for better or worse.
Is Texas perfect? Hell, no. Ever wondered why there are so many churches in the South? Because there’s a whole lotta sinnin’ goin’ on! You can’t take us at face value. You have to come and experience it for yourself.
So come on down to Texas. You may not have been born here, but like the bumper sticker says, you should get here as soon as you can.
Zetta Brown is an editor and the author of several published short stories and a novel. Her short story “Devil Don’t Want Her” is set in Texas and available as an ebook. She blogs about writing and editing at her Zetta’s Desk blog (zettasdesk.com) and has a featured blog at SheWrites.com called [REALITY CHECK]
There is a mystery surrounding Southern women. Many see us as different from other women somehow; mysterious, romantic, and well.. frivolous. But in fact, we are not so different. We drink green tea as well as “sweet tea,” we are as likely to stir-fry as deep-fry chicken and most of us haven’t had peach cobbler in years. We go to college. We have the same career challenges, relationship boggles, and unpredictable children as everyone else. We get the same diseases.
But the stereotype persists. And I get it; it’s highly entertaining; it’s funny. But it’s untrue. And dangerous. Read the headlines, people. We’ve got to learn to get along.
As Patricia Neely-Dorsey put it (this blog; 3/10/15) “I believe that we can bridge many gaps of misunderstanding across regional, racial, cultural, generational and economic lines by simply telling/sharing our stories.” http://patricianeelydorsey.webs.com I agree, Patricia. Our stories are a powerful agent for understanding and healing. They make us real. So let’s get them out there.
The mission of this blog is to promote understanding of Southern women through their stories. The first stories were of rural women of my grandmother’s generation. They were too poor and too tired to write their own stories, so most of what we know about them survives only in the memories of their grandchildren. The time to save their stories is running out, and my commitment to them has not diminished. But writing RealSouthernWomen has given me unexpected opportunities to meet wonderful, stereotype-smashing, real live Southern women with fascinating stories. Theirs are the authentic voices of today’s Southern woman. If you listen to them, you will understand who we really are.
The first storyteller is Lissa Brown, a New Jersey native who retired from the fast track in Washington to the mountains of Appalachia. http://www.lissabrownwrites.com Lissa is a real Southern Woman with a fascinating story to tell. She’ll be “guest-blogging” the next post.