“Where are you from?”
When I meet new people, it’s one of the most common — if not the first — question that I’m asked. It’s a question brought up in icebreakers and used by professors to remember who I am in relation to others. When I first met my girlfriend’s friends, squeezing between them during the second half of a hot football game, out of breath from rushing to make it on time, this was the first question they asked me.
“Virginia Beach,” I answered.
Usually, that’s where the conversation ends. However, for me, the interaction leads to deeper questions about what my response really means. What does it mean for me to be from Virginia Beach? From Virginia more generally, and the South even more broadly? Having struggled with this question since arriving at the University of Michigan, I’ve worked to unpack what it means, at least for me, to be from the South, particularly in a country which regularly belittles the region. For instance, the Southern accent and the Southern hillbilly are often the butt of jokes. Rather than have constructive conversations about the region, many non-Southerners simply laugh off the South as absurd and unworthy of greater conversation. I wonder where I fit into the equation — where I identify with the place I grew up. Is it enough for me to enjoy homemade cornbread and 12-hour smoked pork butts? Is it enough for me to enjoy bluegrass and Southern folk music? I am forced to wonder if these more superficial cultural elements can really allow me to connect to the idea of being from the South, especially when I lack the accent — a distinguishing feature.
Despite growing up in Virginia Beach and spending a few years of my childhood in Georgia, I’ve never developed a hearty accent native to the region. Whether that’s because Virginia Beach is a diverse city or because I adopted the language of people I watched online, I speak with a comparatively neutral, standard American accent. This isn’t to say that I don’t occasionally draw out my A’s or swallow certain words, but the distinguishing characteristic of where I’m from is conspicuously absent from my day-to-day life.
The disconnect between how I sound and where I’m from evokes a sense of imposter syndrome. No, I don’t sound like I’m from the South, but I speak the language. I use “y’all,” with all its grammatical rules, and drop the “g” in -ing endings. Despite formal education, I use the occasional “ain’t” and “gonna.” But, while incorporating these words into my everyday conversation, I wonder if I’m imposing the lingo on myself. In my search for a connection to the South, could I just be forcing myself to talk a specific way? If I don’t sound Southern, why am I speaking the dialect in the first place?
Arriving at college, I felt out of place amongst a population of mostly Midwesterners. Even my fellow out-of-state students were more often than not from California, Chicago or New York. This feeling was what led me to try and hone in on my own identity as a Southerner. I found connection in bluegrass, blues and folk music — not for the notation, though the music sounds lovely, but for the unique storytelling embedded within the songs. They follow a rich tradition of Southern literature and storytelling. The novels of Faulkner, Lee and Hurston are examples of stories that encapsulate the gothic characteristics of Southern life. The music of Johnny Cash and Robert Cray, alongside work from modern artists like Tyler Childers and Christone Ingram, laments the feeling of hopelessness and loss across the region.
One such song, Townes Van Zandt’s 1968 “Waiting Around to Die,” resonates deeply with me — not out of any personal connection to the subject matter, but out of an understanding for what the story represents. The narrator, a poor man from the South, sings of the troubles in his life, all of which eventually lead to prison and addiction. In the song, alcoholism and addiction are seen as reliefs from the struggle of life in the American South, a region beset by the highest rates of poverty in the country. While I can’t relate to the experience of living in extreme poverty, I find meaning in the way that the song’s title and message speaks to a broader truth of the South. With all the great victories the United States has claimed in its young history — morally, politically and economically — the South has remained somewhat separate from those successes. It was destroyed from the start by a system of race-based chattel slavery, physically devastated by a Civil War, just as the Union’s cause was, and then kept in perpetual stagnation by underdevelopment, racial segregation and manipulation by national groups hoping to maintain that stagnation. Even when the region has appeared to be catching up to the rest of the country, another crisis, like the Great Recession, sends the economy and society back into a tailspin. On many metrics, the South is falling behind the rest of the country. The Deep South ranks lowest for social mobility; poor children become poor adults. Eleven Southern states have life expectancies below the national average, and eight of the top 10 states affected by obesity and heart disease mortality are in the South. For many, seeing no demonstrable improvement in their economic or social condition, being from the South is like waiting around to die.
Of the 10 states with the highest levels of poverty, eight of them are in the South. These trends have remained the same since 1980, with Mississippi and Louisiana having an average poverty rate of 21.3% and 19.95% over the past 40 years, compared to the average poverty rates of Wisconsin and New Hampshire, which averaged 9.92% and 6.87% over that same span of time. Despite 40 years of political control by the same Southern conservatives from both parties, the South has seen no noticeable shift in prosperity. Despite an increase in manufacturing jobs, the South, as a whole, remains politically hostile to unions and any hint of social policies designed to alleviate abject poverty, driven in part by a political culture which rewards incendiary culture war issues more than policy solutions. With these statistics and ideals in mind, being from the South means being the child of a deteriorated and failing society.
Part of this failure, however, also comes from the Southern legacy of slavery and racial discrimination. I cannot talk about what it means to be from the South without acknowledging my inheritance of a society that enacted a centuries-long cultural genocide against enslaved Africans and their descendants — a society which still fails to grapple with that history. Despite what some white Southerners or progressives might think, the general perception by people living in the South is that race relations are getting worse, not better, with time. This is, in part, due to white Southerners’ backlash against efforts to reevaluate our relationship with slavery, Jim Crow and the stain of the Confederate States. I see this backlash in my own hometown. On one 10-minute drive home, my family and I can occasionally spot a Confederate Flag proudly waving from someone’s backyard flagpole, only to see a bumper sticker of the same flag a few moments later. I can vividly recall high schoolers defending the Confederate States as an innocent part of Southern heritage during state debate competitions that pitted Black and white students against each other on the false pretense that there were two sides to the discussion.
It almost seems silly how simple the “debate” around Confederate statues and flags is to an outsider. The history of the South is demonstrably insidious, with its present often still representing the consequences of that history. The South shouldn’t have statues praising soldiers who fought to preserve a racial caste system, and the flag of a rebellious state shouldn’t fly above houses of government. But the problem points at the root of Southern culture and identity. The poor, white Southerner can be assured that they’re kept above the bottom rung of society’s social ladder by supporting a hierarchy which automatically places any racial minority on that level. The statues and flags and ignorance of the depth of pain the South has inflicted all serve to represent the continuity of that hierarchy into the present. Any attempt to acknowledge it, let alone argue with it, reads as a personal attack against the white Southerner.
Beyond this recognition, I find myself at a loss. There’s only so much one person can do to change the base culture of a society, and even less to do when they’re likely to live as an expatriate from the region for the rest of their life. In this search for identity, I only locate a shame in my attempt to identify as a southerner in the first place. How can I attempt to have pride in my home, try to latch onto superficial aspects of food, music and literature, when the deeper culture is at odds with a progressive view of a modern world? In the end, maybe being a Southerner necessitates this doublethink, the pride in material culture and shame over everything else. Plenty of white Southerners enjoy modern country music, Southern comfort food and the symphony of insects on a hot summer night, but I don’t think they recognize the foundations on which that material culture is built. Maybe it isn’t enough to hold both views simultaneously — I must hold only the deep shame in the history we still benefit from.
I don’t think I’ll ever lose the anxiety of not sounding Southern enough or feeling like I don’t connect to every aspect of my home region, but maybe it’s good that I don’t. I shouldn’t find a connection to the tragedies my society continues to perpetuate, even as I seek meaning in our stories, music and food. A part of the South is still the South that Townes Van Zandt sang about: a slow-moving, self-mutilating and self-obsessing slug, left behind in a world of progress and development, waiting around to die. Maybe it’s time that some of it, along with some part of me that once hoped to resonate with it, did.
Statement Part-Time Writer Joshua Nicholson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.