The South, where they do things differently

August 01, 1996|By Paul Howle

ATLANTA -- There was once, so the story goes, a foreign country called the South.

It had its own culture, its own language, its own myths. It almost became a real nation, too, but that dream died a-borning after what some Southerners still call "The War."

To Southerners over 50, the changes that have taken place during our lifetimes are near unbelievable. I know. I once lived in that foreign country, that lost land where "they do things differently."

"The South." What, exactly, do we mean when we say those words?

There may be as many definitions as there are Southerners.

Myths and legends

In one widely popular version, peach-skinned ladies in hoop skirts sat on the verandas of oak-shaded plantation houses and, attended by happy, simple-minded black folks, sipped cool drinks and flirted with dashing young men.

This idyllic (well, idyllic for the peach-skinned ladies and their beaus, anyhow) life would have gone on forever had it not been for the Damn Yankees, who came down and spoiled everything.

That's one vision of the South -- the one the tourists with their guidebooks and their cameras are looking for. They'll never find it, of course, so let's hope they're satisfied with $10 tours of old houses and battlefields, and artery-clogging meals at down-home restaurants.

The writer Henry James once visited Charleston, S.C., and described that beautiful city as an ornate bird cage from which the bird long ago had flown. That's a near-perfect metaphor for the Old South of "Gone With the Wind" and countless other Southern bosom-heavers of that genre.

Whatever the future holds, that South is gone. That bird flew away a long time ago and it is never coming back.

The flip side of that magnolia-and-mint-julep South was the world of field hands and millworkers -- what we now pompously call the "underclass." That was a South of grinding poverty and hopelessness.

There were a lot more of these folks than there were Scarletts and Rhetts, but we don't know nearly as much about their lives. Books and movies about them never sold very well.

The South I knew

My own South -- and that of most Southerners -- is somewhere between the two extremes.

I grew up in a comfortable small-town South of tree-lined streets and maids and nurses and yard men. Dinner was served in the middle of the day and people sat on their front porches after supper, smoking and talking with neighbors and kinfolks.

It was a pleasant life for many people, but it surely had a dark side.

In the 1940s, a house servant was lucky to earn $10 a week. Sharecroppers' families -- both black and white -- often lived in tumbledown shacks without plumbing or electricity, and subsisted on cornbread, salt pork and collard greens.

There was absolute separation of the races: separate schools, separate bathrooms, separate waiting rooms, separate churches. You could see a black man every day of your life and never know his last name, never hear it spoken.

All this had gone on pretty much unchanged since Reconstruction, and it lasted until I reached manhood.

That South, most of it, at least, is dead, too. Mandated segregation ended long ago, and overt racism seems to be limited to a few scattered pickup loads of bad ol' boys.

The malls have killed the small towns, and the television set has replaced the long, front-porch conversations.

Even the old accents are dying, thanks to the homogenizing influence of TV and the continued incursion of the descendants of those same Damn Yankees who whipped us in The War.

The truth is, the South does not know what it is. It has, you might say, a split personality. Is it the Old South of dinner on the grounds and y'all-come courtesy? Or is it the New South of concrete and glass towers, all boosterism and bottom line?

A hard journey continues

Change is inevitable, of course, but it would be a real tragedy if the South lost all traces of its specialness.

I fully acknowledge my shameless partiality when I say that I believe this is the finest place on Earth to live, and that Southerners of all races are the finest people in the world.

"Nobody knows the trouble I've seen," begins the old Negro spiritual. Maybe it has something to do with all that trouble. Maybe the South was tempered by a hotter fire than the rest of the nation and came out the stronger for it.

The South's long journey is not over. It often has been a hard trip down a bad road.

We are not yet where we want to be, but we are getting there.

Paul Howle is a columnist for the Atlanta Journal.

Pub Date: 8/01/96

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