A great-auntie of mine died this week just as I was sitting around unable to bring myself to write a blessed thing. She was spirited and Southern and one of my mother’s favorites, had a masculine name that reverberated sweet up against the title “Aunt,” and all of my people are going to the funeral today up in North Alabama. It brought me around to thinking about things like upbringings, history, traditions and bloodlines.
Let me preempt this post by saying: everything I am about to speak on will be with my educated, country voice. And everything, I do mean everything, has to do with magic. Slow. Syrupy. Loyal. And vengeful as all get out. (I need to make an index for these phrases . . .)
Nothing gets my goat quicker than some upstart, never-had-their-heels-stained-red-by-Alabama-clay transplants trying to co-sign on a true, blue Southern upbringing. Makes my shorts itch. It’s one thing to love us, be related to us, or simply think we are quaint, but it’s a damn sight worse to walk around in our shoes trying to co-sign. Wolf in sheep’s clothing, grandma always said. I taught at a historically-black university for a year, a fine one, and those babies of mine out there turned around and smote my rear one day. It went something like: “we love you, you love us, but you ain’t black, Dr. P.” Well, Amen. Straightened my thinking a bit. The day I left, they walked up to me and fastened a “Sista” pin on my blouse–but I know that was a sign of respect, perhaps a distant kinship, and I loved it for that. It’s like a professor once told me: you have people from Alabama, you automatically have a great-great whatever Cherokee in your woodpile. That ain’t all, but I got the point. It’s alright, I expect. Some folks need to co-sign, ‘specially when all they had was concrete for a home and snow for a playpen. But, when is it alright to pee around our own trees? How about now?
Now, I have friends who are dyed-in-the-wool Southern at heart. They’re just tickled pink that we have adopted them (which is, in fact, a Cherokee thing to do) and have little to no plans on leaving. I appreciate them. I respect that impulse to lay down roots here in honeysuckle country and make a homestead. But, as my African-American friends taught me, there is still intrinsic value in being the real thing. My adopted daddy was a New Jersey Yankee (no small thing, y’all, here in Alabama) and I ‘spect no one loved the South like that man. It was an affair, deep and long and sweet. Adopted he shall always be. Southern? Now, even he would have argued with you on that one, cigarette on one side of his Jersey mouth. Down here, we have versions of ourselves, cousins if you will, and all of them require having grown up in the womb of the slow, sweet, South. We are Native, married into the Irish and Germanic tribes. None of us have a problem with liquor, lessen it runs out. Let me start with:
1. River people. This one shouldn’t surprise you. Goat stews, churches built from scratch, fish dinners and mud pies. Cherokee flowing in everyone’s blood, which means matriarchal lines rule the home even as our men are rough and about just meaty and tough enough to haul in a catfish as big as a VW. They know it, just don’t bring it up. Causes discord and confusion. (See Gone With the Wind.)
2. Hillbillies. This one is a might harder. Hill people are not exactly the same as mountain folk, are closer kin to River folk, but have their own traditions. While my great-grandaddy was the Fiddle Champion of the South, hillbillies just do it like breathing. A spittoon is on every porch, like ours, but their porches are higher, there is moonshine sweeter and often kissed by fruit and their guns are way more willy and tend to have a mind of their own. A hillbilly’s hair tends to be longer, their men have hotter tempers, but all’s good if somebody has a little corncake and a bit of fatback. All real good. (They also invented overhalls, a special version of overalls in which you never wear a shirt.)
3. Mountain folk. Now, I’m not going long on this, mostly because of I am not about to get “kilt.” I am not too proud of the racism we all have bore down here, and I refuse to go long on it in this post–but I do know of a sign at the bottom of Sand Mountain that reads: Don’t let the sun go down on your black ass. I figure that sign doesn’t represent all mountain folk, as I know we all have bloodlines that squirm to the left and the right. Gonna’ leave this one alone. But I also know that what we are raised to believe is harder sometimes to shake than molasses off a rattlesnake and I have met several mountain folk who would die for a friend of another color. I would also like to recommend their “shine,” because of damn. That’s good.
4. Country folk. (Descendents of one of the above.) This one isn’t as clear as it sounds. Southern country folk are not necessarily rednecks, nor are they necessarily ignorant. Intelligence happens no matter your region and these folk are usually the ones who went on to make a livin’ doing something as respectable as farming, mechanicin’, or general hardware making. They have hard-earned land, sometimes inherited, show up to church suppers, always support a grieving widow and have at least two dogs out back. Their children go to major universities, miss their upbringings and come on home to educate their elders. Solid folk. Make great preserves.
5. Rednecks. Sigh. We have two forms of this: literal and hypothetical. Let me explain: literal reds have everything we have (trucks, dogs, shotguns, sheds, shine, chaw). The difference is in the attitude. True blood reds don’t give no never mind to how anyone else feels. Naw, they’re just going to lay your ass down cold if you’re on their land, split their tongue at you in a Wal-Mart and piss in the wind if someone puts the eye on them. The problem lies in when, where and how they interact with other folk. Ignorance is key here, full-time, all day, embraced. Now. Sometimes the rest of us just “go red.” This is your hypothetical moment. We all need to go full-tilt-boogie once in a while, nothing shameful in it. Just don’t shoot your foot off (or your dog’s) in the moment.
Texans? Well. They are Southern, don’t lie to yourselves. But they are always going to represent their own country. I sure wouldn’t mess with Texas. I’ll leave it to my Texan friends to comment here. (Have you seen them get angry? Sheesh. ‘Bout as bad as Cajuns, and I’m not stupid enough to touch that, either. 🙂
These are only a few forms of Southern, although they go deeper and have interesting offshoots that I personally value. That being said, let’s push on.
Transplants. We have two kinds of this: co-signers and adoptees. Co-signers have kin from here, like to remind everyone of the North and their time in that land, but pull on a borrowed sensibility when it serves them well. I like to see these kind of folk as plants that prefer the Lowe’s pot on a porch rather than slung down deep in the back forty. They’re playing both sides, speaking out both sides of their mouth and forthrightly bullshitting every one within a mule mile. It’s fine not to be Southern (half of my best friends are not), but Laws don’t go on about the aesthetics of a Northern pizza in one face and wax long on how Southern you are in another. You feel me? Shit or get off the pot. And don’t hold my ancestors, or yours, hostage to garner power down here. A friend of mine calls this a “black kur dawg,” and we’d just like that to “git on.” Fast. Before someone gets the gun.
Now, the other species of a transplant is just about as Southern as you can draw upon. You see, a true transplant lets the roots go on down deep, lets the rest go on, and risks everything for a lived experience in the clay. It is, in effect, a sacrifice, and the South couldn’t ask for anything more. She’s a jealous bitch, she is, doesn’t share well. But, you go on now and tell her that you love her, bleed a little, Swanee (swear) that you will never leave, Oathe your loyalty and . . . well, we all know the Cherokee law of adoption. Done and done. I believe that the South calls you, not the other way around. You can stay at her house, she’ll lay out the table complete with biscuits and gravy, but you cheat on her and . . . well. God Bless Your Heart (the Southern way of cursing you down to your gnarly toe nails). Let’s be clear here: visitors? Welcome. Adoptions? Well, son. That’s the way we settled the South. Co-signers? Get on, you black cur dawg.
Before I get my witchy gun (looks a lot like an athame). I’m born and raised in this blood. And grandma never suffered a bad guest.