By: Shannon Ralph
I have a love/hate relationship with the South. I love her and she hates me. Or so it would seem.
You see, I am a born and bred Kentucky girl. The South is in my blood. It’s who I am. Or, at least, it is a large part of who I am. I am also a wanna-be writer, a clueless mom, a trying wife, an imperfect daughter, an annoying sister…oh yeah, and a lesbian. Hence, the hate part.
For people born and raised where I was born and raised, the South gets under your skin. In your blood. In your marrow. Being Southern is so much a part of your identity that you can’t possibly imagine yourself as anything but Southern. Even after having lived in Minnesota for 18 years, I am still a Southern girl at heart.
And there are many things to love about the South. On a recent visit home to Kentucky and Tennessee for a family reunion, my wife, children, and I basked in all of the wonders that make up the South. Krispy Kreme donuts. Mountains. Real gravy and biscuits. Bluegrass music. Silly banjo-heavy dinner theater. Brief and gloriously powerful storms. Front porches. Backwoods country roads. Country music. Saying grace before dinner. Sweat. Lots and lots of sweat.
There is a lilt and a music to the Southern way of speaking that is absent in the ubiquitous Minnesotan “You betcha.” And a friendliness that is far removed from the passive aggression that has been rebranded as “Minnesota nice.” It is an honest friendliness. A genuine affability that envelopes you and holds you in a tight bear hug from which there is no escape. I was called “honey” more times than I could count. And everyone talked to my children as if they were the fruit of their very own loins. It was refreshing, to say the least. It felt like home.
Only, the South isn’t my home anymore.
This sad fact has been hammered home time and time again since returning from my trip to the South. The news of late coming from the South has been less than enjoyable. The photos have been less than flattering. From Kentucky clerks refusing to issue marriage licenses to Confederate flags blowing up my Facebook feed to Southern politicians equating GLBT parents with child molesters to threats of secession to black churches burning, the South is at war with the rest of the country. And with itself.
I feel like I need to defend the South—I am the South—but there is no defense. Just as they have decade after decade after decade since the beginning of this nation—on slavery, on desegregation, on civil rights, on a women’s right to control her own body, on GLBT rights, on gun control—the southern states are coming down stubbornly and sometimes violently on the wrong side of history.
And this wrongness is reflected in all statistics you read about the South. Southern states consistently rank among the lowest states in stats related to education, graduation rates, employment opportunities, and general quality of life, while ranking near the top on issues such as poverty, teenage pregnancy, drug abuse, and gun violence.
In many ways, being a Southern liberal feels like being madly in love with a drug addict. You adore them as, all the while, they slowly destroy the very fabric of what you love. As with the drug addict, I plead with them. I beg them to see the error of their ways. I wonder when—for the love of God, when?!?—will they learn their lesson. When will they set aside pride and stubborn fear of those who are different to embrace the diversity that makes them great? When will they realize that history, though essential to who and what we are as a people, is not the same thing as relevance? History allows us to see our mistakes with a clear lens and to not repeat them. History is not meant to be gripped tightly with an iron fist and dragged into the present. History is for museums.
I do not mean to characterize all Southerners as racists and bigots. That is so far from the truth that it is laughable. There are good people in the South. Intelligent people. Witty. Kind. Progressive thinkers who love the South as much as I do. I am related to a few of them. Grew up with a few more. And I went to college with a great many of them. But the bigots and rednecks always seem to outgun (literally and figuratively) the good people of the South. Their cry is louder. Angrier. More easily heard above the din.
When I first came out a lesbian, I decided that the environment of the South, though the only environment I had ever known, was toxic to my identity. I broke up with my beloved homeland. I left. For years, I felt guilty. If I had been strong enough, I could have stayed. I could have made her better. If I loved her fiercely enough, she would have changed. I am sure these words have been spoken thousands of times at Al-Anon meetings the world over.
Then I became a mother. Initially, I mourned the fact that my oldest son was born a Midwesterner. Never would he be a Southerner. At the time, this brought me a greater sadness than I can express in words. Over time, however, I have come to accept the fact that my children are born and bred Minnesotans. I embrace the Midwest and its values of hard work and personal accountability and self-determination. I love the “live and let live” attitude that I find here.
But I still yearn for the South.
I made the decision years ago that the South will never again be my home—I have been too battered and bruised to go home—but it will always be my heart. It will always be the blood that pumps through my veins and the marrow that fills my bones.
This is not an attack on the South. It is a plea. A painfully personal prayer for change. A prayer for the progressive, open, inclusion-minded people of the South to stand up bravely and make their voices heard above the fracas. Those are the people who can change the South.
Those are the people who can change the world.
Photo Credit: Meghan Patterson