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The South Can Rise Again, But Not Like You Think

A video depicting residents of Mississippi and Alabama as toothless, ignorant bigots is making its way around the country and, perhaps, the world. That video and the fact that several southern states have gone for Santorum and Gingrich in the Republican primaries has, it seems, confirmed the notion that the South, as a whole, is woefully stupid and racist. As a woman born and raised in the South who has lived in three different southern states, only one of which, admittedly, by choice (my current home in Savannah, Georgia), I want to defend the South. I really want to, as hard as it may be sometimes, because I think buying into that viewpoint is like buying into any other stereotype: Jews are rich and smart, Black men are criminals and the women are welfare queens, feminists hate men… you name it. It’s easy to dismiss a whole culture, a whole religion, an entire gender, with such facile descriptions.

Easy, the operating word being easy.

What passes for conversation these days is often, to say the least, inadequate. People of all genders, religions, regions and races have a tendency in these polarized times to seek out information that confirms their beliefs and to spend time with friends with whom they can share their outrage over whatever it is that outrages them. Rather than looking for information to inform or challenge their assumptions and prejudices, rather than think and read and wonder, too many Americans hold fast to their “opinions,” even if those opinions are not based on one single supportive fact. But it isn’t just southerners who should end up holding the bag of stupidity, there’s enough guilt to go around. The same people who easily dismiss southerners as idiots would do well do check their own prejudices at the door.

Yes, the truth is that a huge number of Republican voters in Mississippi and Alabama think President Obama is a Muslim, don’t believe in evolution, and hold other ephemeral convictions. That truth does not serve the South well. But those people should not be the region’s only spokespeople. Just like the stuck-in-the-mud Kansans of Thomas Frank’s book should not represent the entire Midwest, and just like the more conservative Jews who support Netanyahu’s belligerence should not speak for all American Jews.

There is a large and growing number of progressives, liberals and democrats in the South and, as if to put to rest Lyndon Johnson’s statement that with civil rights legislation the South would be lost to the Democrats for a hundred years, they are happily working and living in many southern states. If the baby boom exodus from the north and Midwest to North and South Carolina, Georgia and Florida continues, there will be many more. Already Savannah, Georgia, where I now live is seeing huge changes from recent residents.

I grew up in the South of east Tennessee, deep in Appalachia, in a small factory town. My parents were transplanted New England Jews and first generation Americans. I was subjected on many occasions to virulent anti-Semitism, some of it so casually couched that I knew those spewing it had no idea what it was they were saying. My father, a small businessman, was constantly confronted by customers who told him not to Jew him down. Some of the people with whom I went to school can’t to this day even admit the prejudice with which they viewed Jews. Like many other evangelical Christians they seem to think their desire to “save” people of my religion is laudable. Their support of Israel is tainted, too, by the Biblical imperative of the Rapture and its aftermath. Their minds are impossible to open, never mind change. Against the backdrop of institutionalized prejudice (there was prayer in the schools through junior high; the schools in general were not integrated until I was in the fourth grade) I had to figure out, at an early age who I was and what I would stand for. It seemed obvious to me that education and a worldview outside my town was essential and so I pushed to get out and go Up North.

But when I went to college in Rhode Island I experienced another kind of prejudice. There many students made fun of my mild southern accent and rural roots; they needed convincing that I was as smart as they were. And so I had to prove myself in a different way. Once again, I made my mark by paying attention, reading, listening, and opening up my own mind. Once again I met challenge head on and was molded by it. It saddens me that so many of my countrymen and women seem to think that they just don’t have the time to explore beliefs counter to their own or even to search out the facts behind some of the more outrageous statements made by political candidates and a number of “news” organization.

But that ignorance, that unwillingness to be open and tolerant and educated, is not just a Southern problem. I am quite certain that had the camera been turned on men and women in Maine or Oklahoma or Idaho and Arizona similar comments would be heard, identical viewpoints would be expressed. Ignorance does not stop when one crosses the Mason Dixon line and it is arrogant to think it does.

The South has its issues, as does every region of this country. Some say the weather makes people indolent, others think poverty is the sharpest shaper of worldview. There is still a strong undercurrent of prejudice of a multitude of varieties. But many southerners, by birth or choice, live in quiet harmony with each other, and a large number of southerners work for change every day of their lives. There is a long and wonderful history of the southern liberal and his/her work for civil rights, voting rights and equality for everyone. The first white child born in Georgia was a Jewish boy; Jews have lived and worked in the South and deep South since before we became a nation. The overthrow of Jim Crow laws in the South made a difference everywhere in America and black men and women worked together with white men and women, often in danger of their lives, to effect change that was overdue and necessary. I don’t share the South Will Rise Again mentality of the confederate apologists but I do believe that the South will continue its transformation into a place that discourages prejudice of all types. In that good way it can and will rise.

I had a wonderful professor in college who said to my class one day, “Some lies are so damn good a man would be a fool not to believe them.” That statement is true of our political process today as the memes and lies build on themselves and convince far too many voters of their truth. But I will continue to urge the rest of the country not to dismiss the South on the basis of the ugly statements of the ignorant and uneducated. Not to dismiss all of us because some of us believe those hard lies. No area of the country is without its unenlightened. And it will be always thus.