Thursday, August 11, 2011

Being Southern

Being Southern is obvious. My accent, often lovingly referred to as a “drawl”, advertises my region immediately. 

Being Southern can be a real advantage in the work world, especially outside the South. People have told me for years that they just love to hear me talk (which is a good thing since I talk a lot!). Others have told me that they appreciate the graciousness, politeness, and the gentility that I bring to my job (well sometimes bring to my job). Still others, have been surprised when I proved to be a tough, successful negotiator.

But the ugly truth underlying all of this is that many think I am not as sophisticated, educated, or experienced as they are because I hail from the South. I’ve turned this into an advantage, but it is really sad and at times even makes me mad.

Last year I served on a national panel of experts in Washington, DC chosen because of our knowledge and experience in health policy. The panelist right next to me was talking about ideas that had been created “outside the beltway” and said “And, this idea came from Tennessee. Can you believe that anything creative really came out of Tennessee?”.  I was astounded, although not completely surprised because I often hear our region denigrated at conferences. I did interrupt him and in a joking manner reminded him I was from Tennessee. I laughed, as did the audience, but it wasn't really funny to me.

On a weekend trip last year with a colleague and some of her friends, a new acquaintance asked me what it was like to go to a dog fight. I looked at her quizzically and asked “what?” thinking maybe I had not heard her correctly. She asked the exact question again. Dumbfounded, I said “I don’t go to dog fights, I prefer a good cock fight”. You would have loved the look on her face! Of course, I immediately told her I had been to neither one, which I think actually surprised her.

I’ve done a lot of thinking about why others think it is ok to be so openly insulting of a region of the country that, more than likely, they have never been to and one which is so special to me. I won’t belabor that thinking here, but I believe it has its roots in slavery, the Civil War, and the poverty, poor health, and what is often considered “radical” conservatism many see in our region.

This is where the  movie The Help comes into this story.

I can’t remember when I have gone to a movie and laughed, cried, had personal regrets, and remembered the people I loved growing up that are now gone. I was transported back in time to the 1960's growing up in Memphis and the Delta.

The tears came early as I watched Aibileen lovingly teach her “baby girl” to say that she was smart, she was kind and she was important. All I could think of was Willie Belle helping my grandmother understand why I wanted to sit in the sunroom reading comic books instead of playing with local girls I barely knew. Willie Belle understood me in a way that even my family did not. Willie Belle was my Aibileen.

But not all of the memories evoked by the movie were fond ones.

I was reminded of a time that I, like most of the white women in the movie, lacked courage. The details are private because I was not the only player in the drama. But, suffice it to say that even today, perhaps 10 years after the event, I still feel guilty that I could not convince others to join me in making something right that had become very wrong. I was told quite strongly that I should not interfere because “I was not from there”. So when I could not convince the others, I stepped back and let it lay. 

There is a great moment in the film when a mother tells her daughter that “Courage often skips a generation” referring to the fact that her daughter was more courageous than she had been.  The irony is that this mother had just been courageous herself, showing us all that redemption is possible and it is never too late to live with courage.

I fear that Southerners will see this movie differently from those outside the South. Many of us will see it in a very personal way. It will evoke both fond and bad memories. It will cause many of us to reflect on our own lives and our contributions to furthering bad situations or helping to eliminate them.

Those outside the South won’t have the chance to see the movie this way. In a way, I feel sorry for them, as bringing my life to the movie enriched it so for me. I only hope that they don’t use this movie as one more reason to put space between us and them; to disparage the land, region and people I love..

Churches were prominently featured in The Help. Here is one of my favorites in Grace, MS
At the end of the movie, no one got up to leave until the final credits were over. Many of us clapped. Many were waiting for their tears to dry before they left the theater. I sat in my car in the parking lot telling Lee about my private lack of courage. And, I told him I can’t wait to get back to the Delta, where a piece of my heart will always live.

Maybe, just maybe, some day, I can say I am from there.

No comments:

Post a Comment