Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Am I a Southerner?

Recently I was filling out an application that asked me how long I've been with my current employer. Since coming to work at Southern U. coincided with my move to "The South" I realized that I've been here for over 7 years. Which means I've lived here longer than I've lived anyplace else in my adult life. And the only other residence I've called "home" for a longer stretch was when I lived in my childhood home in the Bay Area from 4-18.

So I have to ask myself: Am I a Southerner?

I actually posed this question at a talk last year at Southern U. It was with respect to the question of Southern identity and how long one must live here or whether there are other markers (namely race and ethnicity) that legitimizes one as a Southerner more than another. The short answer I was given from one of the panelists (and a few audience members, all of whom I should tell you are academics working in Southern Studies) is that yes, I am, indeed, a Southerner--should I choose that label for myself. In other words, what all these good professors (many of them Southerners themselves) were telling me was that I was free to choose this as my identity if I am comfortable.

But they also acknowledged that there may be others, outside of the ivory tower or the hallowed grounds of Southern U., who may question my self-identification as Southern. After all, I do not speak with a Southern accent, was not born nor raised here, and perhaps most incriminating of all, I do not eat BBQ (or more precisely, the BBQ I favor is Kansas City style--you know, the classic ketchup based bbq sauce smothered over pork ribs...yum!). I also don't "look" Southern, because lets be honest--most folks have in their minds either someone who is African American or white American. Maybe American Indian if you claim to be Cherokee or Lumbee. But Asian Americans in the South? Not really what you think of when you are asked to picture a Southerner.

And yet I found myself wondering about whether I am, indeed, a Southerner after stumbling across this passage in Abraham Verghese's memoir, My Own Country: A Doctor's Story of a Town and Its People in the Age of Aids:
"I suppose this is when you know that a town has become your town: where others see brick, a broken window, a boarded up storefront, you feel either moved to tears or to joy. The map of the town becomes the map of your memories, the grid on which you play out your obsessions, on which you mark your great loves and your enmities; its geography becomes your destiny" (Verghese 186).

When I came across this paragraph I dog-earred it because it really SPOKE to me. Because I know the feeling that Verghese is expressing--the sense of deep connection you have with a place. The sense of a community you feel a strong affinity for--that you own.

And that's how I feel about my small Southern town. I feel it when I'm walking my dog around town. Or when I go to the Farmer's Market on Saturday mornings. Or coming back from the gym and waving to my mailman. I notice the stores that are opening and closing or the new coat of paint on a restaurant or the porches that go up or come down on my neighbors' homes.

I don't want to just be a visitor here. I want to invest in my community and feel like I am a part of its landscape. At the same time, I must be honest and say that if you were to ask me if I'm a Southerner, I'd laugh. In fact, when I was traveling to Canada over the holidays the custom official, who looked at my form, said to me, "Are you really from the South," to which I replied, "Oh NO, I'm from California--I only work in the South" and he laughed and said, "I didn't think you sounded like a Southerner" and waved me through.

Looking back on that encounter, it seems a bit unfair to my current community to say that I'm only here because of my work circumstance. It is true--if I were let go from Southern U. I would undoubtedly be looking for another professor's gig somewhere in the world--college teaching is in my blood. But it's also unfair to think that I'm only here biding my time because of my job. Because I DO feel that the map of my town has become the map of my memories as Verghese writes above. So perhaps, one day, I'll willingly and eagerly claim the title of Southerner and proudly pledge my allegiance to this region. In the meantime, I'll just make do with small steps--like having a "y'all" creep into my speech from time to time.


david said...

something like that came up in the movie jaws, yes jaws. it's a very, very small tid-bit in the movie. it's not even important to the plot but it's worth mentioning though.

the wife of the main character asks one of her friends when does she get to become and islander, to which she replies; "never, never. you're not born here, you're not an islander."

this post reminded me of that.

Jennifer said...

Hi david,

I have to be honest and say that I've never seen Jaws, but the sentiment expressed--that unless you are actually BORN in a place (and raised there) then you aren't actually FROM there, is one that I've heard about various places, but especially here in the South, which is one of the reasons I wonder whether I'll ever be truly considered a Southerner, even if I was willing to embrace that label for myself.

I recall meeting a guy at a party when I first moved to "The South." He had recently relocated back to North Carolina, which is where he said he was from. I asked him where he grew up in North Carolina, and he said he was born in Winston-Salem but that his parents moved when he was 1 and he spent most of his life in South Carolina--he even went to school in South Carolina. I asked him whether he then considered himself to be from South Carolina, but he claimed that since he was born in North Carolina and not South Carolina, he could not claim to be from South Carolina. When I pressed him to find out how much he identified with being from North Carolina, he admitted to having no memories or associations, other than through his parents. But he maintained that unless you are born someplace you cannot be from that place.

I guess once an islander, always an islander, so to speak...and yet, I'm just not sure how much I believe all that...seems a bit like the one-drop rule of race to me--you know, no matter how you were raised or what you look like, the idea that having been born in one location or having "one drop" of non-white blood...it just seems too essentialist.