State Of The South

angry, foodies, passive-aggressive, & hungry for change

 Photo by The Porch (@porchtn on Instagram)

Photo by The Porch (@porchtn on Instagram)

This year Tennessee was ranked by Wallethub as the angriest state in the nation. The ranking was based on an analysis of everything from violent crimes to sex offenders, hate groups to elderly abuse complaints. This  came up in conversation at a recent State of the South event hosted by The Porch where Nashvillians were invited to participate in an open dialogue exploring and redefining Southern identity. Leading the conversation was a team of creatives from the Alabama Shakespeare Festival who have been traveling the South this summer and hosting these forums.

The conversation began with what southern identity meant to us. Responses included sentiments such as southerners are a spiritual people. A diverse people. An uneducated people. An educated people. A segregated people. A people of good food. Of rednecks. Of passive-aggression. Of discontent. Of fear.

The conversation naturally moved on to what we might do to improve current affairs when a member of ASF circled back to our sentiments on identity. Nashville was stop number seven on a twelve-stop tour of southern cities, and as he pointed out, we were the first stop to not bring up hospitality.

There was a collective and hesitant laugh. Hadn't we just been discussing the weaponized nature of southern niceties? "Bless your heart" and the like. The way some southerners ooze nice in a not-so-nice way. The wolf smiling while showing the sharpness of its teeth. Someone compared this social charade to the way the South dresses up historical places of trauma.

Consider the modern-day Confederate flag.  Consider any of the Antebellum-style tourist attractions. Consider the trend of plantation weddings. And when the hallmarks of our ugly history are not being celebrated, they go largely ignored. One woman, a transplant from Charleston, explained she grew up on a plantation but never realized her home's association with slave labor until she went away to college. It simply wasn't discussed. A history scholar brought up the self-sufficient black communities that popped up throughout Appalachia after reconstruction only to be burned to the ground and largely run out of town by violent white supremacists.

Someone else brought up segregation academies which became prevalent after schools were officially desegregated in 1954. These private schools were a way for white parents to keep their children seperate, and while laws were passed in the 1970s that prohibited these institutions from excluding children on account of race, the schools remained widely inaccessible to most minority families. In Tennessee, Briarcrest Baptist High School, Brentwood Academy, Franklin Road Academy, and Harding Academy all began amid these racist roots.

I've known there are gaps in the narrative—perspectives that go unseen. This was apparent to me on a cerebral level before, but as I left the forum, I felt it as a physical weight in my chest. I was reminded of something I'd read which more to less said, "If you do not feel the need to be socially/politically active, that is a sign of your privilege."

There is no tidy ending to this story. At the end of the State of the South conversation deputy sheriff and poet Frank "Frizzy" Sykes (of Po'Boys and Poets) urged for more integrated conversations across communities. To step outside of whatever groups you identify with and seek out people different from you. To go into conversations ready to meet people where they are. Ready to listen. To try and understand before expecting to be understood.

What do you think — what defines the South? Which narratives get the widest coverage and which go widely ignored?