The Four Ducks. My great grandmother (on the far right) and her three sisters. (Decatur GA 1927)

Getting to know my Watchman

Ever since I moved out of the South, but especially over the course of the past month or so, I have wrestled with how I relate to my Southern identity, or whether I have a Southern identity at all. Throughout my adolescence and really since as long as I can remember, I have craved the lifestyle of the Northern elite. I was sold on the notion that my views and conceptualization of humanity and ethics would finally be welcomed with open arms once I left the South.

And in this quest for spiritual and ethical nirvana, I somehow ended up in Washington DC… disappointing, I know.

After months of collecting and analyzing moral insight from my peers that grew up outside the South, I finally reached a pivotal moment in my journey of self discovery that almost seemed to turn back the clocks. Once I had taken in all of the anecdotes of life in Boston, Seattle, LA, and many others from my friends at school, I began to slowly realize that there was something missing, something that even today I don’t have words to describe.

None of this means to say that a childhood outside the South is unfulfilling, the people that I spoke to are proof of the contrary, but it took this series of conversations for me to truly appreciate the subtle charm of growing up in Georgia. These characteristics are uniquely Southern and guided my conceptualization of home and self.

At this point many people are reading this and thinking that I’m just spouting the obvious, but it was at this moment that I began to first contemplate the realities of a society that I had spent my whole childhood isolating myself from. Even to this day, I know it will take a while to recount and recover all of the beloved and oh so painstakingly Southern memories that have turned me into the person I am today, for better or worse.

Like most people who have gone through the American school system, I read To Kill A Mockingbird as a kid. And while even upon first reading it was awe-inspiring, I initially saw it for so much less that it actually was. To me, Scout was a young, unsophisticated girl from a backwards thinking town in Alabama and Atticus was the surprising plot twist of a well-to-do white man from the South fighting for the liberties and rights of a black man. If anything, the story cemented the negative stereotypes of Southern culture that I had driven myself to despise. This grand tale of justice triumphing over prejudice and discrimination in the South was something that could only exist in works of fiction.

Strangely enough, reading the long awaited prequel, Go Set A Watchman, was a tremendous moment in the process of rethinking a potential redemption arc for my Southern heritage. Here I was, several years into my college career, at a point of finally accepting that I would always wear a badge of shame because of where my family is from. I conditioned myself to speak with a neutral American accent, always specified that I grew up in Atlanta, but never Georgia, for fear that I would be perceived as racist, uneducated, bigoted… you know the rest.

But Watchman painted an image of the South that was much more similar to my own experiences. Jean Louise found tranquility and comfort in Maycomb, while still admitting that there was an unspoken distance between her and her family. She loved and admired her father and other members of the community despite their fatal flaws. After finally coming to terms with the fact that she could still love what was broken, she managed to maintain her Southern identity without losing her sense of morality and justice. And again, all of this will probably sound irritatingly obvious to many, but this was an entirely foreign concept to me.

Since reading Watchman, I have developed a keen interest in Harper Lee, as many have before me. I studied her life, thinking that the better I understood her rationalization of being a liberal-minded woman in the South, the more likely I would be able to accomplish the same. One day I came across her conversation with Roy Newquist, her only recorded interview. I was sitting out in a park on one of the beautifully rare sunny spring days in London. The interview was a short, quick sample of questions, the second of which I often asked myself. Why is it that a disproportionate amount of great American writers come out of the South?

“It's quite a thing, if you've never been in or known a small southern town. The people are not particularly sophisticated, naturally. They're not worldly wise in any way. But they tell you a story whenever they see you. We're oral types-we talk.”

I never considered my heritage as being characterized a culture of oral history. That was always a term I reserved for the ancient traditions of West African religions, Native American storytelling, pagan folklore of the Greeks. But thinking back on my own experiences, there really is no other way to define the untaught and natural practice of storytelling in the South.

I have such vivid images of my grandfather driving up the steep incline of Stone Mountain, my great grandmother and her sister trying to collect snowballs in a paper bag to pummel their friends with at school, and then visions of those same two girls, now in their 70s, as they prepare the cake for my parents’ wedding. I have been told these stories on so many occasions, and with each utterance they become more dramatic, gaps between reality and the truth are blurred for the sake of telling a good story and overtime, the memories of my ancestors are instilled into my own experience.

My grandmother and great uncle Smokey playing in the back carriage of the family milk truck. (Decatur GA 1942)

In fact, as I lay there in Hyde Park, my mind swimming in the elongated vowels of Lee’s all too familiar Southern drawl, as she recounted memories battle re-enactments and “finding whole worlds in the branches of a chinaberry tree,” I had to remind myself that the person I was listening to was a stranger and not a long lost relative narrating the adventures of my great grandmother’s childhood. I cannot speak for my Northern counterparts, but I do genuinely believe that this is a uniquely Southern phenomenon.

None of this sentiment is intended to distract from the obvious faults in Southern culture and its history. I do not deny and certainly do not celebrate the existence of racism, misogyny and bigotry in the South. As mentioned, these truths haunted me throughout my childhood and remain the foundation of my drive for activism and change in my hometown. I often ask myself if I would have the same passion for social justice if I did not grow up in the South. It is a question that reminds me of the Zen Buddhist tradition of Kintsugi ceramics. Instead of replacing or being ashamed of broken bowls and cups, Kintsugi calls for the celebration of what has been broken and the repaired by mending the cracks in the piece with gold.

So as a statement of mere self-reflection (and by no means a generalized proclamation on behalf of all Southerners) I can rationalize my Southern identity with all of its tragic and unforgivable flaws as an opportunity rather than a source of shame and self-degradation. It is something that many people have accomplished before me, Harper Lee being the most obvious example. Her novels were the gold between the cracks of life in the South.

The tag line of Go Set a Watchman sunk in with me after reading the book.

“Every man’s island, Jean Louise, every man’s watchman, is his conscience. There is no such thing as a collective conscious.”

It is possible for me to accept and love and be inspired by many aspects of my shared experiences with my ancestors without feeling obligated to defend or embrace the collective conscious of the South. I am capable of interpreting those experiences and formulating my own individual identity, or in other words, my own watchman. However, the constant bombardment of stereotypes about Southerners forces me to leave my shame exposed like an open wound.

My watchman sees the good, it sees what some would rather not see. My watchman sees the truth.

The book critics and literary icons of today will likely remember Harper Lee’s second book as a let down, an unwanted turn of events that many would like to pretend never happened. But to me, it was the beginning of the end of my struggle to reconcile with my heritage.

And for that Nelle, you will forever have my gratitude.

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