As a well-trained Southerner, I always maintained the habit of saying yes ma’am or sir to my dental school faculty and patients. Instead of the reaction I was used to back home (which was no reaction at all, since saying ma’am or sir anywhere south of Maryland is about as automatic as saying “hello,”), I would often receive a confused and borderline offended glance and a high-pitched “What did you just say to me?!”
Inevitably, my face would turn crimson and I would hurriedly explain that no, I wasn’t being sassy, and I wasn’t in the military, I was just from Alabama. I don’t have a strong accent, so until they heard me use those terms of (what I considered) respect, they typically didn’t know I was from the Deep South.
Once they found out they were dealing with a Bible Belt girl, the reactions became extremely…mixed. A few of my teachers or classmates were delighted to hear that my family in fact did often have to run the air conditioner on Christmas Day, and I indeed participated in a debutante ball in high school.
Others furrowed their brows and directly asked me if my family was as racist, uneducated, and obese as the rest of the South. Charming, right? I should also mention their lack of self-awareness…a native New Englander who had often teased me for being from such a “racist” part of the country, when discovering that I was moving to Atlanta, told me she would be terrified to live in a city where she “would be a minority.” Not. Joking. If this interaction doesn’t concern you, it should.
I was teased and criticized for my religious beliefs or personal choices – they couldn’t believe I didn’t live in the same apartment as my then-fiance. “What about the expense of two apartments for some arbitrary social construct??” they would bemoan (pretentiously, because who the hell talks like that at a house party?). They assumed I was a die-hard Republican (Spoiler alert: I’m not) and I loved beauty pageants and sorority alumn reunions…well, ok, fine, that last part is actually true. (Delta-Tri until I die, betches!)
I was even teased for my educational background – somehow, a degree meant less if it was from the South. I had a dental school faculty member, right as I was walking into my first hands-on practical test of dental school and was already a nervous wreck, tell me that I probably “wouldn’t make it through the first semester, since New England schools were so much more rigorous” than what I was used to back home. I may or may not have had tears streaming down my face during the entire practical like an abashed child. PS – did not ace that test.
Needless to say, my first year in Boston was rough, and at times extremely lonely as I tried to find the right group of friends. I almost caved and quit dental school completely after my first year there. My personal pride, along with the support of my family and friends, were the only things that forced me to crawl back and fight (and pray and cry and wish and hope) for respect over the next several years, and unfortunately I didn’t always have the most optimistic attitude. By the way, sorry to everyone who had to listen to me whine for the past six years…and yet again in this post.
Now, I realize I’m airing a lot of my Boston grievances here, but it wasn’t all bad, I swear. In fact, by the end of my time in Boston I (kind of) loved it. I’m citing the harshest examples, and many of my faculty members and classmates were welcoming and supportive – or would only make fun of my naive redneck quirks behind my back, like we gossips do down South, so it was easier for me to handle. By the end of my time in Boston, I found some of the truest, closest and supportive friends and mentors I could possibly ask for. You know who you are.
I learned a lot about my OWN preconceived notions of the Northeast, and how many of those stereotypes of the “unfriendly northerner” are simply false. But unfortunately for a significant amount of my time in Boston, the Southern stigma of racism and stupidity remained. “At least you’re not from Mississippi,” they’d tease.
…No, but that’s where my parents and grandparents and great-grandparents live(d). Not to mention William Faulkner, Eudora Welty, John Grisham, and Tennessee Williams, among others.
“To understand the world, you must first understand a place like Mississippi.”
– William Faulkner
Unfortunately, the national statistics don’t help Mississippi’s reputation too much. The state is usually ranked as the poorest and fattest in the country, and #1 in the nation for illiteracy, failure to graduate high school, teenage pregnancy, and STD’s, to name a few of its titles.
It’s also one of the most beautiful, friendly, and diverse areas of the country, abundantly rich in the creative arts and well-versed in “Farm to Table” dining before it became a buzz-word in hipster New England establishments, where you pay $35 for sub-par fried chicken and watery mac-and-cheese. Quite frankly, I’m glad I don’t have to share it with those uppity Yankees (except for the ones I’ve invited, obvs).
Recently, I returned to Mississippi for my grandmother’s memorial service. I grew up going to Mississippi almost every year to visit family, or to get some sun along the Gulf Coast, but this trip was the first time since before I moved to Massachusetts. Despite the rather somber reason for the trip, I was looking forward to exploring the city a little as an adult.
I make it a habit to always find a local independent bookstore in every city I travel to, and Jackson was no exception. Thanks to Google, we quickly found Lemuria Books, which just happens to be one of the top-ranked bookstores in the country, and for good reason. While wandering this treasure trove of books, I found the memoir Dispatches from Pluto and immediately dove into the world of the Mississippi Delta.
The memoir is written by Richard Grant, a British journalist who buys a plantation near Pluto, Mississippi, with his live-in girlfriend Martha. The couple are used to city-living, complete with politically liberal echo chambers, specialty coffee and organic grocery stores; needless to say, they experienced quite the culture shock.
I was wary at first of reading a memoir of the south by an “outsider.” After my experiences with Paul Theroux’s Deep South, a NYT Top Ten Books of the Year and also a book I couldn’t finish due to its frequent stereotyping of the South, I wasn’t sure I could handle another non-Southerner writing about a place so near and dear to my heart (to anyone who has read the whole thing – does it become less pretentious later on? Does Theroux realize the error of his ways? I feel bad for giving up on it but it made me too angry by page 105 to carry on).
However, I was pleasantly surprised by Grant’s nuanced appraisal of his time in the Mississippi Delta. Instead of making blanket statements about racism or educational shortcomings, Grant took his time to become a part of the Delta culture, in all its humor and tragedy – learning how to hunt and avoid getting eaten alive by mosquitos, exploring the small and struggling towns and hearing all of the city’s gossip, and striving to understand the incredibly convoluted relationship between races.
Grant interviews a whole cast of characters – owners of bars and gun shops, church pastors and country club members, jail supervisors and school teachers – in order to gain a deeper view of what it means to be a part of the rural South. The entire thing is both familiar and exotic – though I grew up in a rural town in Alabama, the Mississippi Delta is on its own level, and I had no idea about much of its history. For example, Grant touches on the Emmett Till case and murder which has been in the book news lately with Timothy Tyson’s new book, The Blood of Emmett Till, and with Till’s accuser recently admitting that she lied. This is a major moment in history that I had barely heard about until this year.
Although it’s partially a travelogue, it’s also a memoir and a social experiment as Grant and his girlfriend immerse themselves into the social life of their new home. As the couple struggled to assimilate, I found myself relating to them and remembering my own first days in New England as I also struggled to find my place and overcome my prejudices toward Bostonians.
Grant surmises that “it was good for different cultures to come together, and chip away at human prejudice one party at a time.” Especially in our current political climate, I think this quote is especially relevant. Perhaps we all, myself included, can learn a little bit once we let go of our judgments and preconceptions.
Recommended for: lovers of travelogues, Southerners who have never learned about the Delta, Yankees who don’t understand the South
READ WITH ME
next on my TBR: Pachinko, Big Little Lies, and Lincoln in The Bardo (audiobook)
3 thoughts on “Southern Stereotypes”
Fascinating post! As a Brit, I had very little idea that the gulf was quite so wide still between north and south in the US. Well done for surviving! I had a little of the same when I lived in London for a few years – sadly a lot of Londoners think all Scots are drunken violent savages. I tried to tell them that we only get like that after we’ve had to put up with Londoners for a few months… 😉
This post is fantastic! Thank you so much for sharing the reality of stereotypes and the importance of pushing past them, as hard as it can be at times. Super important reminder for us all!
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