On the Contentious Borders of the American South

Fifth graders practice before battle during a re-enactment of Picketts Charge at Gettysburg. (Carl D. Walsh/Portland Press Herald via Getty Images)

Scholar and writer Zandria F. Robinson narrates her coming of age in Memphis while examining the food, music, and accents of contemporary “southernness” for Oxford American. During her teenage tears, the author tried to extricate the South from her voice:

At home in my room with the door closed, I practiced aloud, watching the shape of my mouth and the movements of my tongue in the mirror. I repeated my introduction in different accents: regular, valley girl, Southern, newscaster, New Yorker, and British. I still couldn’t hear how I sounded, but I was desperate to discern and attain a standard American accent—that is, one with no regional mark. I was sixteen years old, trying to make it in the world. I didn’t need no Southern accent perched like a twanging bird on top of my being black and a girl and precariously middle class and a precariously middle-class black girl whose hair wouldn’t get straight all the way no matter the strength or caliber of the relaxer. I switched on the television, hoping to find a Cosby Show rerun so I could study Mrs. Clair Huxtable.

But in echoes of Ralph Ellison’s essay on black regionalism from 1948, “Harlem is Nowhere,” Robinson comes to realize that any notion of “southernness” as separate from “Americanness” is false.

Everybody wants to be Southern but don’t nobody want to be Southern, too. To enjoy the culture, to have gentrified ham hocks, but not to deal with ham hocks’ relationship to slavery or slavery’s relationship to the present and future. Folks want the fried chicken and Nashville and trap country music (an actual thing) and sweet tea, but they don’t want Dylan-with-an-extra-“n” Roof or the monstrous spectacle and violence in Charlottesville or the gross neglect and racism after Katrina. No one wants the parts of the South that make America great again. It’s high time we move beyond the border sketched out in John Egerton’s provocative 1974 book, The Americanization of Dixie: The Southernization of America — the South has been everything below the Canadian border all along. If the Black Lives Matter chapters across Canada weigh in, then the South is above the Canadian border, too. Though I’ll admit that “everything below the Arctic circle” doesn’t have a good ring to it.

Things are dirty on both sides of our nation’s internal border, it’s just that some folks won’t confess it. The borders in us and between us seem ever more real, even as we strive to tear them down in service of one sound, one nation, undivided. But one side always wins, and borders are never neutral. I’m just glad that the border wars in me are over for now … I wonder if America ever will be.

 

Read the story