Madison Monday: On coming home and heading South

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On Sunday, I found myself at the end a 380 mile drive from Brevard, North Carolina to Madison, Indiana. Brevard is right on the border of the Pisgah National Forest, and in a broad valley of the Appalachians. You can order sweet tea everywhere and hear thick Southern accents. I saw folks on Sunday when we were driving out of town actually dressed up to go to church, which doesn’t seem to happen as often out here in Indiana (based on what I observe from watching folks go inside church, admittedly, rather than from being inside myself).

Madison, like Brevard, is a town that was passed by in the great interstate building project. You cannot get there just off an interstate exit, and so though we covered most of the 380 miles on interstate, the last 60 or so were on back roads, cutting up through Shepherdsville and Eminence, in Wendell Berry’s Kentucky. On the last stretch of 421, between I-71 and Bedford, I began to feel a little bit like I was back in North Carolina. You drive a windy road that follows the path of a creek bed. You’re closed in by hills on either side, and the houses along the road include trailers and farm houses, and probably some old log cabins that have been covered by vinyl siding. You can check the status of folks’ gardens there, built in the small patches of sunlight to be had beneath the shadows of the surrounding hills. There’s even a rebel flag hanging alongside the road. And this lead me to think to myself, “Have I actually left the South, or just traveled from one particular corner of the South to another?”

As a placist, someone whose very interested in places, I’ve spent a lot of time contemplating regionalism. Add to this that I grew up in the northernmost part of a border state, spent 6 years in Mississippi–“the most Southern place on Earth”–one year in Birmingham, Alabama, and now 13 years in southern Indiana, and you get a whole lot of conversations about what exactly constitutes the South. There are lots of ways out there of defining what exactly makes up the South. The Mason-Dixon Line (I confess, I have no idea where that is). The states which seceded during the American Civil War (and Kentucky did not, though we were at least neutral at the beginning of the war). I’ve heard people argue that the South begins wherever the kudzu does, which would leave out Kentucky and southern Indiana.

The wisest thing to say about all these debates is that there is, of course, not one South, but many different South’s. Arkansas is very different from Mississippi, and the Carolina’s are nothing like Alabama, and the South of Kentucky is not the South of Tennessee. I’m not sure if New Orleans is really Southern at all, or it’s own little microcosm marooned in the middle of the South, clinging tenaciously to the shoreline. Perhaps it’s silly to even group them all together at all. Perhaps what it means to be Southern is just what it means to be different from some imagined Northern norm. But even that Northern norm doesn’t exist, because being from New York City is certainly not the same as being from upstate New York or Boston or Maine.

In other parts of the country, people look down on the South, in almost all of its incarnations. The South is racist. The South is uncultured. The South is full of hillbillies. The South is conservative. The South is full of hatred, sexism, bigotry and intolerance. You can add to the list yourself, but the truth is never really so uncomplicated. The South is, of course, racist, because everyone who lives in a racialized society like the United States cannot help absorbing some of that racism along the way. The South has its particular form of racism just as other regions of the country have their own particular form of racism. Debating whose racism is worse seems like a pointless exercise in scapegoating. And in my experience teaching college students in Indiana, Alabama and Mississippi, I’ve found the students in Alabama and Mississippi are far more open and honest in their conversations about race than those in Indiana. In places like Birmingham and Jackson, everyone–of all races–sleeps, eats and breathes race. In a lot of places in Indiana, white folks can pretend race exists nowhere besides the television; the history of race and its current impact are rendered largely invisible for white people in small Indiana towns. Is that better or worse than having gone to a white flight academy in Mississippi?

Despite all the negative stereotypes associated with the South, I still claim a Southern identity. I was born in Kentucky–not far from Cincinnati, admittedly, but the river makes all the difference. Critical years of my misbegotten youth were spent in the Mississippi heart of the deep South and there I came to appreciate that the South may be many things, but uncultured is not one of them. Southerners are musical, literary, culinary, creative people.

Is Madison Southern? Well, it’s become fairly obvious that the essence of what it means to be Southern is like water that slips through your fingers. What’s the difference between calling a place rural and calling it Southern? If they serve sweet tea in Madison does that make us part of the South? If we have fried pickles (we do)? If we have a history of Jim Crow and segregation (we do)?

I guess if you forced an answer out of me, I would have to hedge and call Madison Southern-flavored more than Southern. Southern Lite, maybe. Benedict Anderson coined the term ‘imagined community’ to explain how nations are held together. Not everyone in France knows every other French person, but they imagine they are part of a community that includes all French people. Almost all communities are imagined, because we rarely know everyone in the communities to which we feel we belong. The important insight of Anderson’s concept is that communities are, of course, socially constructed. If you believe you are part of the community and culture called the South, and if enough people believe it, then in effect, you are.

In the end, parsing out what is and isn’t the South matters less than feeling that Madison is Southern enough to feel like something familiar, something rich, textured and complex in the way that I believe the South is. Something like home.

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