What does it mean to be a Southerner?
The answer is not readily susceptible and your notion of what being from the South means to you may be totally different from mine. And we can talk about that. After all, Lord knows we do like to talk down here. Preferably while sitting on a nice front porch with a cool glass of something in our hands. So here goes.
While being a Southerner is to be informed still by things not forgotten, it is likewise to have transcended the baser aspects of that common past. What the South has endured is completely unique in American history. And it is imprinted in the DNA of each of its children. Because of our respect for the past which is not even the past (to borrow from William Faulkner) we in the South respect our elders to an almost Oriental degree. For example, people in their twenties refer to me as “Mr. Paul” nowadays. And boy, do I hate it. Especially when it comes from young women. But I am a gentleman, or I try to be. I may indeed be the worst person in the world but I have good manners. Good manners count for a lot down here. As far as fetishes go, there are worse.
I don’t know if the South is “Christ haunted” to use Flannery O’Connor’s memorable phrase. I do know that folks that are so inclined take their religion as seriously as they take their football. And that’s pretty damned serious. Further, name me any other region of these United States where biblical references pepper the everyday speech of even the unbeliever? I dare you. Religion is not merely subsumed into Southern culture. You can argue that it is the culture.
Speaking of writers, has any other region cranked out as many great writers as the South? A partial lineup off the top of my head will prove the point nicely. I already dropped the names of Miss Flannery and Mr. Faulkner. Let’s add the following to the mix: Eudora Welty, Walker Percy, John Gould Fletcher, Shelby Foote, Robert Penn Warren, James Agee, one hit wonder John Kennedy Toole, Roy Blount Jr., Tennessee Williams, John Grisham and Lewis Grizzard even. I know that I left about 50 other worthies off this list. But I ain’t got all day.
In case you didn’t know, and if you are a man who lives down here, I am preaching to the choir. But otherwise, let me clue you in on something. The South historically has had the largest available sampling of the most goddamned indomitable and hard headed women in the known universe. T’was ever thus.
A couple of examples come to mind. Dispatches from back in the day revealed that the Union Army found the Rebs a lot easier to cope with than the women their men had to leave behind. Ladies dumped chamber pots on Union officers from above in New Orleans. When U.S. Grant hurled ordinance at them in Vicksburg, the women there scurried their families underground.
The women in Richmond incited a bread riot. Which should have given Jefferson Davis a clue about just how great things were going. Here in Little Rock, the women became active in the desegregation of our public schools for pretty much no other reason than it was too important to be left up to the men. No kidding. They actually said that. Turns out that the women were right. As usual. Down here, when it comes to the women getting riled up about something, you ought to bet the over. And get out of their way.
As far as politics go, well, we have turned out some humdingers. I give you Jefferson Davis, the Longs, “Hummin” Talmadge, Ross Barnett, Edwin Edwards, John Edwards, Lester Maddox, Strom Thurmond, George Wallace, and Arkansas’ own Wilbur D. Mills and Orville Faubus.
But the South also produced J. William Fulbright, Dale Bumpers, Jimmy Carter and one William Jefferson Clinton. Don’t know if we can call it a wash just yet. History’s immortal scroll is still being written upon.
You can’t talk about the South without talking about FOOTBALL. LSU and Alabama have taken turns being NCAA champions the last couple of years. The SEC is absolutely murderous. It is not for nothing that Athens, Georgia is described as “a drinking town with a football problem”. And Athens is OK with that.
Vanderbilt went to a bowl game this year. Vanderbilt! So, don’t even try to bring the Big Ten into the discussion. Or, better yet, do try. It would amuse us down here. They are proud of Northwestern? I love Northwestern. But the Commodores would beat them by 20. In Evanston. Or in any parking lot of the Wildcat’s choosing. Hotty Toddy God Almighty! And all of that.
The South is whispered stories on courthouse lawns over which countless statues of Confederate soldiers stand silent watch. The South is bourbon in the Grove before an Ole Miss home game. It is my grandmother Johnny Esther Bivens sending me a box of her fried pies when I was at law school at Tulane. It is a revival at an AME church. It is supper on the ground. It is cane fishing on the bank. It is a place that sent its children to fight our nation’s shooting wars. It is Robert E. Lee and Martin Luther King. It is gathering by the river. It is Wilma Rudolph. It is Robert Johnson selling his soul for the blues. It is high school football on Friday night. It is Brooks Robinson and Willis Reed. It is Dolly Parton and William Grant Still. It is REM and the Little Richard.
It is mostly Elvis.
It is Atlanta, New Orleans, Memphis and Birmingham. It is Dry Prong, Hope, D’Lo, Bossier, Bell Buckle, and Appomattox.
It is a mile in the air. It is under water. It is tornadoes, hurricanes and hellish summers.
The South is all of these things and more. But mostly, it is you and me, in all the fullness and diversity of whatever that means. It is here that I have made my own little stand. And it is here that I hope to draw the last bit of air lent to me by God when my time is at hand.
Enough of all that. We do tend to go on and on down here. It is part of an oral tradition that the children of Israel would envy. Anyway, my opinions aren’t any better than yours. And I invite you to share them with us down here at Bourbon and Boots any time the spirit leads or whenever you otherwise have the notion.
Y’all come see us whenever you can. There’s always a place at the table.
Arthur Paul Bowen is a lawyer and writer who lives in what he calls the “People’s Republic of Hillcrest” in Little Rock. He may also be found on his blog, The Moving Finger Writes.