Southern Voice

written September 14, 2016

Fifty eight of my fifty nine years were spent in the Deep South. One of the things I miss most now that my home is in the Rogue Valley is the subtlety of the language of a southern person. In the Pacific Northwest, people say what they mean, and what they say is often blunt and un-finessed. On first witnessing this, it seemed brutal and I wished individuals would be a bit more polite as they expressed their opinion. I still feel replacing negativity with old fashioned vagueness might help in a situation or two.

This southern habit of tiptoeing around the perceived faults of others results in winding a net around all differences, thus confining weirdos into a small tight space so as minimize their empowerment and any change they may bring into society. Southerners don’t like change, though once adopted, it spreads like wildfire — such as smart phones are now embraced with great conformity. Other examples include huge pick up trucks (driven by urban people with no need of them), and whatever the latest gadgets or video games are. Modern medicine with AMA drugs are placed at the high holy altar of healing with alternative health options and the people wanting them being seen as ridiculous. GMO foods dominate with health nuts confined to their trees. Once past the initial newness of an idea or technology, it is possible for Southerners to adopt contemporary advances and allow it to become a dominant cultural attribute, but only when it fits into an underlying narrative of hierarchy and power.

Southerners frequently don’t say what they mean. How can they hate blacks, queers or latinos and yet work, go to school and make friends with them were they to speak of their prejudices? How else can they tolerate the diversity of their region? It becomes a fine art, this communication based on disguising a distaste for differences. It is an intricate way of talking in circles around what is displeasing. It is often passive aggressive, but good communicators can convey boundaries and limitations while making you feel good.

When speaking of Southerners, I’m talking about the mostly white- and blue-collar white folks I lived and grew up with. I come from a long line of them. I can’t speak for the veracity of people of color in the south or anywhere else, though surely they are conforming to rigid roles in public rather than risk being shot on sight. In afterthought, I am sure people of color have also perfected the art of never saying what they really mean in some situations.

In the corner of the Pacific Northwest where I now reside, I find all kinds of white people and very few people of color. It is astounding to me, one who grew up with a variety of skin tones to see so few here. I think the uniform whiteness allows more directness. There is no intense hierarchy of color and station in life which must be maintained at all costs. I miss the diversity.

What I also miss — the southern ability to turn a phrase so as to put someone in their place without displaying actual hostility and which contains mountains of subtext — is the best and worst of Southern communication quirks. Think of Alice Walker, Flannery O’Connor and Pat Conroy. The southern story is compelling and complicated. Southerners live together in a sacred dysfunctional knot of interdependence. The south is a powder keg. The soul of the region is in the black, queers, poor single women- all those who are underprivileged and regulated out to left field — the disenfranchised of “normal society.” Their rites of passage into our society are often prison sentences, bullying, and finding they are invisible. The soul of the south resides in the poorest and most abused people of the region. What is good about the south lies in its blues, rock and roll, and the creative expression of the oppressed and observant. What is bad about the south resides in the descendants of the white Confederates and their institutions.

The beauty and value of living where the language is more direct, where people for the most part say what they mean and even spell things like they sound, is that conformity is not the root of the common culture. I often say I love living where I am no longer the weirdest person on the block. I am so normal here. I find in the Pacific Northwest innovation which doesn’t involve petroleum and new ideas for doing things are approved of instead of disparaged. Progressives abound and make laws. There are big trucks here too, but mostly driven by farmers, carpenters and those living in the snowy mountains. Much worse, there are dangerous racist extremists who never even learned how to be subtle. As the population grows, so does the diversity of the region. Perhaps with the directness of these people, problems will be outed, addressed and resolved instead of simmering into generations of suppression.

We, the people of this planet have some say in how the future of PNW, the South, the rest of this country and the world works out in coming years. We can all examine our beliefs, listen with open minds, stand up for the oppressed and tell the stories we see enacted around us. Whether through the use of subtle, highly finessed language or direct confrontation of ideas which do not progress the good of all, we can become agents of change. No matter where I live, I have to draw upon reservoirs of courage to speak my truth and to live in peace with the truths of others. May we all find the fearlessness needed to bring a better tomorrow.