I’m a child of the American South. I’m the Witch of this Southern place, this place , this one here in Virginia, close-by the shores of Spout Run and the Potomac River. I’m a woman whose spiritual life consists mainly of being in relationship with my Southern landbase. And there’s a lot about the South that makes me proud.
I’m proud of our cooking, a melange, as Michael Twitty notes, of African, European, Island, and Native traditions. Chef Twitty has called our cuisine a family affair and sometimes one full of family fights. Give me ham biscuits, a mint julep, Old Bay, crawfish étouffée, fried catfish, my Aunt May’s hushpuppies, guava jelly, and a chess pie.
I’m proud of Southern writing, a genre not afraid to explore the shadows and the weird and to claim them, to claim them fully.
I’m proud of Southern gardens, Southern architecture, and Southern music. Jazz, ya’ll. Bluegrass. Rock and roll. Country. Gospel. Whatever’s on your iPod, a lot of it is likely Southern. We’re a musical people and, even when poor, we have a harmonica, an old washbasin, a guitar.
I’m proud of Southern hospitality, the way we want to feed each other, pour each other a cooling drink on a hot day, sit visitors down on the porch to talk a spell.
I’m proud of our Southern Universities, from Morehouse, to UVA, to Virginia Tech, to Duke, to Howard, to Tulane. You all think we’re either elite or stupid, but we’re mostly drunk on education.
I’m proud of our storytellers. You haven’t heard a good story until you’ve heard an old tale told, slow and wandering, with a strong Southern accent. And that’s another thing I’m proud of: our accents. Listening to Southerners talk is like listening to music, and there are so many different Southern dialects.
I’m proud of the South’s glowing tradition of poetry. Go read Natasha Trethewey, Coleman Barks, Wendell Berry. We’re a people besotted with language, desperately in love with words, out of our minds with the need to tell — and it shows.
I’m proud of our tradition of healing. Many of America’s most modern and innovative medical centers are in the South. And our ancient traditions of healing are alive and thriving. We’re exposed to a lot of illness, hardship, biological attacks — Asian Tiger Mosquitoes, I am just saying — and environmental degradation here in the South and we never stop looking for ways to help people feel better. Here, have some of my fire cider, let me tie this bit of bacon fat on your splinter, let the doctors at the Center for Disease Control learn about what ails you.
I’m proud of our mountain people who’ve survived, for generations, in the harshest conditions, exploited and mostly ignored by the rest of society, and, yet, they still managed to preserve their music, folkways, magic, and courage. I’m proud of our island people who’ve faced the stormy Atlantic, pulled a life from it, and still managed to weave beauty at every chance. I’m proud of the people who live in our tiny towns: hardware merchants, beauty parlor managers, truck farmers.
You want farmers? We do still grow cotton, rice, and tobacco (the slavery triad), but we also grow soy beans, corn, tomatoes of every variety, squashes too numerous to count, okra, fish peppers, peaches, plums, figs, and, oh yes, paw paws. We still grow paw paws.
I’m proud of our cities: New Orleans which is a place of music and magic, Atlanta which is modern and bustling, and, on the border between Mason and Dixon, Washington, D.C., which John Kennedy lovingly called a city of Northern charm and Southern efficiency. I think we got the better part of both worlds.
I’m proud, too, of how far the South has come on the subject of race. We have a long way to go, but we’ve come a long, long way, just in my lifetime. And I want to point out that racism isn’t now, and has never been, just a Southern thing. Go to Oregon, go to Missouri, go to Pennsylvania, go, hell, to Alaska. The South, unlike all ya’ll, has never had the luxury of pretending that we didn’t have to deal with racism.
Here’s what I’m not proud of. I’m not proud that the South started the Civil War. I’m not proud of slavery nor of the economy and way of life founded upon it. I’m not proud of the men who declared war on the United States of America, neither the rich ones nor the poor ones they swindled into fighting for them so that the poor ones could, at least, consider themselves better than an African American. All of those men were traitors and I’m glad that my country, America, defeated them. I’m not proud of Jim Crow. I’m not proud of segregation. I’m 61 and IN MY LIVING MEMORY I can still recall going down South to see my momma’s relatives and stopping at gas stations that had “Colored Bathrooms” and “Colored Water Fountains,” and at segregated restaurants and hotels. I’m not proud of the Confederate flag, the flag of defeated traitors. I’m not proud of Confederate generals.
So I say, as a proud Southern woman, as a woman who loves the South: Tear down the Confederate flags and pull down each and every statue of Confederate soldiers on public land. After last weekend, they’re obviously a danger to public health and safety. We don’t need them to remember our history; that’s what we’ve got schools and libraries and storytellers for. And let’s tell our babies our whole history and tell it true, not pretend that it doesn’t have warts, and gaping wounds, and cool scabs. I’ll gladly fly a flag with magnolias on it, or crawfish, or banjos, or palms. And I’ll stop and admire statues of real Southern heroes and heras: Martin Luther King, Jr., Abraham Lincoln (born in Kentucky), Rosa Parks, Patsy Cline, Zora Neale Hurston, Anne Richards, William Faulkner, Edgar Allen Poe . . . there’s a long list.
I guess what I’m trying to say to you, here, on my screen porch, under the ceiling fan, on a humid night in August when I can hear the cicadas and the crickets and the tree frogs, is that this, like everything else, isn’t binary. It’s not either love the South and adopt the flag of losing traitors and admire men who fought for slavery or just admit that you don’t belong here. I can love the South, love the people, love the landbase, accept the complicated history, AND not want to see that nasty flag or those evil men ever again.
I think I’m also trying to say to you, here, surrounded by magnolias, and oaks, and crepe myrtles, that there are nearly next to no places/cultures/peoples in the world who don’t have the kind of complicated history that we Southerners have. A lot of all y’all are just further removed from it or are more able to ignore it. Love your Celtic history? I love mine, too, but the Celts came and pushed my Pictish ancestors off their land, enslaved them, and nearly drove them to extinction. And then the Normans came and enslaved the Celts (but that hasn’t stopped me loving and studying French, French food, French fashion, French wine . . . .) Proud of your African heritage? You should be. Africa is the birthplace of civilization, had proud cities while my ancestors were running naked on the moors, and has some of the most interesting languages and unique art on the planet. Africans also kept and sold slaves. Relate strongly to your Norse ancestors? Me, too, but let’s admit up front some of us are pretty morose; ya’ll know it’s true, bless your hearts. Love it that you come from a long line of New York City dwellers? I can’t blame you. New York has the best ballet, the best restaurants, the best libraries. . . . Ya’ll gave us Donald Trump, though.
I think I’ve made my point.
Tear them down. Build up better things.
I’m a Witch and a Witch takes responsibility. I’m not playing binary games.
Picture found here.