*Charleston’s Unitarian Church cemetery
Pine trees grow so tall in the bright sunshine
A young boy steals his daddy’s fishin’ line
An alligator lays ont he banks of a river bed
And if you didn’t know any better you’d swear he’s dead
Now these are a few things I’m in love with
A small part of the reason I go back
To Carolina, Mississippi, Florida, gorgeous Georgia
Now if you think I’m happy down there you’re on the right track
– Bellamy Brothers “You Ain’t Just Whistlin’ Dixie“
Charleston, South Carolina, is humid in late July… swampy hot… rivers of sweat hot… can’t breathe hot. Geographically, the heat is a result of being a southern port city along South Carolina’s coast where the Ashley and Cooper rivers meet the Atlantic Ocean… moist air dances thickly. The heat and its location among the swamps of the low country make it one of those cities where one wonders why anyone would have lived here prior to the invention of air conditioning. Yet it has been inhabited since around 1670. It is a city moist with history… it is a city of churches. It is called the Holy City due to the large number of churches that decorate the colonial downtown area. It was known for its religious tolerance… unless you were Catholic… but Jews were allowed to practice their faith without restriction. Walking the streets and alleys… that in some cases double as streets… one feels the thick air and the stare of church steeples.
Charleston is called well-mannered, polite, and well-dressed. Some have even called it America’s sexiest city… this of course probably comes from the mixture of humid heat and religious air… everyone loves a little sweat and religiously taboo auras to their sex. Charleston mixes this religion, heat, and well-dressed shopping with colonial houses. It provides a waterfront walking area that has been manicured into a quiet park… this quietness disguises the loud roar that once emitted from it when the city’s guns fired on Fort Sumter on April 12, 1861. Charleston is the epitome of what many would say is the South. Charleston is a pin point on the South’s cultural map.
Other pin points include Atlanta, Nashville, Savannah, Raliegh-Durham, Richmond, Biloxi, Birmingham, and New Orleans. Each grid coordinate, each spot on the map, representing singular characteristics… yet parts of a larger ideal of the South. All these locations, and all the other places we call the South, are described through centuries of language… a distinctive drawl fitting each location… food, literature, and music. Cornerstones to culture… these characteristics make us identify these places as truly Southern.
Arguably, the South boasts its own subgenre in literature and music. In an area that stirs the soul… writers and musicians celebrate their location through odes to home and place. Any description of the South will invariably include some reference to some book or song… even if it is unintended… Southerners have spent centuries describing the South in such a way that there seems to be no original way to celebrate its uniqueness.
The South brags on its food… its modern-day chefs making money by hawking recipes on the Food Network… recipes that prominently feature butter and sugar. Southerners like to tell themselves that they know how to cook and eat. We have coupled our love with food with our love for God… each religious or life event is mated with an abundance of food. Feel bad… eat, feel good… eat. Death and birth are celebrated through piles of casseroles and pies. Marriage and holidays have special cakes… we eat well in the South.
We tell ourselves myths in the South… we believe these stories as facts. Americans like to brag about its character… Southerners turn up the color on these stories. Americans believe in exceptionalism… Americans believe in the rugged frontier character making a living on his own terms… Southerners believe this to be true and we do it politely. We imagine that we have always been polite… we imagine that we know how to treat our neighbors and visitors. Historically, the South was not as populated as other areas… a traveler in the South was more apt to come upon a home than an inn. Families and homes in the South were a place were a traveler would find respite from the day’s movement through swamps, forests, and pastureland. When the country was young and being explored… when myths and characteristics were being developed… the South became the place where one could find refuge around a fire and a family’s dinner table. Southerners identify with this myth of hospitality… we can’t imagine not being polite.
Defining the South by geographical location is a tricky thing… is it any state below the Mason-Dixon Line? Is it only the states that joined the Confederacy? Are southwestern states like Texas southern? Interpreting the South seems more mental and cultural than geographic. Things we like to associate with the South… love of land, love of family, love of tradition… are not a monopoly that only Southerners can claim. History is full of locations and societies that claim these “loves”… any rural and agrarian society would claim these as its foundational elements. Upstate New York could easily claim all of these things… yet no one thinks upstate New York as Southern. It seems Southerners claim the idea of the South as an honor and others use the idea as a disparage. We want to believe we are unique… and this belief may be what truly makes us unique.
I have tried to define my Southerness, my South, by both geographic representations and cultural touchstones. I use literature and music to define the world around me and the South can be described through these artistic mediums… yet they fail to accurately describe the South. We feel books and songs are distinct and definable… they still stumble when they examine what the idea of the South truly represents. If I am standing in a pasture on my family’s farm in Tennessee, I would describe the South in one manner… green and rolling hills… cows and horses… trucks and rocky alfalfa fields… my view of the South changes when I am standing in an overgrown cemetery in Charleston… mossy… dark green vegetation that seems almost tropical. One reaches out to grasp the idea of the South and it slips through the fingers as soon as it has taken on a firm and tactile presence.
The South represents a lot of good and a lot of bad. The South doesn’t have a history that is clean of evil or wrong… it isn’t free of hypocrisy… it isn’t free of ideas and thoughts that makes one cringe. The South is also full of good feelings, memories, and vistas that soar along river banks. The South is both old and new… the South has become a marketplace where the history and ideal of the South are sold and peddled. We tell our stories and cook our meals and offer them up for consumption… we offer ourselves and the South to the world… we share the South.
Charleston feels Southern as one walks its streets… but those colonial streets are matched in beauty by Boston’s colonial feel. The natural feel of the swamps surrounding Charleston makes one believe the South owns nature’s beauty, yet the Pacific Northwest offers panoramic views that tremble the heart. I can’t define the South… but when I stand on Southern ground I know that the feeling is different from when I stand in some other place. I too believe in myths… I believe my ancestral home is special… I believe I come from a unique place. I stumble in describing it… let me invite you in, let me feed you, let me tell you story… hopefully then you will understand.