When I was twelve, we were evicted from our house in Florida, a consequence either of Reaganomics or our failure to pay rent for three months, depending on whose story you wanted to believe. We faced a long, hungry drive back to North Carolina. A neighbor, also from our home state, called me over and shoved a hundred-dollar bill into my hand. She told me not to tell anyone until we were too far down the highway to turn around. “People from North Carolina have to stick together,” she said.
I’m tempted to say I have a complicated relationship with my Southern heritage, but in truth I suppose it’s fairly straightforward. The South and I claim each other as kin because we have no choice in the matter. This in turn makes me kin, of sorts, to people I’ve never met. I don’t suppose that’s a particularly Southern mentality, but I don’t think it’s a universal quality either. I’m sure Texans have helped Texans, for example, the way my neighbor lady helped us. Perhaps people from New Jersey have been known to do the same, though I haven’t heard about it.
So the relationship, you see, isn’t altogether complicated, and probably not all that unique, but I don’t expect anyone not from here would be able to articulate its contours all that well, any more than a stranger could navigate your grandmother’s parlor in the dark without barking his shin on the coffee table. I have an acute sensitivity to infringements on my honor, for example, even though a half-bottle of bourbon will induce me to defile that very honor in every way you can imagine, along with a couple you haven’t thought of. I like grits, but I don’t like sweet tea. I believe the South’s loss in the Civil War was the just outpouring of God’s wrath on slaveowners and their moral accomplices, but I also believe the greatest honor Ulysses S. Grant ever achieved in his mediocre career was shaking Bobby Lee’s hand.
Robert E. Lee, troubled by the ease with which his kinsmen seceded, but siding with them because they were kin. There’s something noble about loyalty to blood, even—or perhaps especially—when that blood is tainted. It’s a backwards notion these days, when most people see past and present with such exquisite moral clarity, leaving those few of us whose vision isn’t so acute to judge the world as having gone sideways, or at the very least, in need of a few shims.
And maybe that quality is uniquely Southern: the inherited predisposition to be backwards in a sideways world.
Don’t misunderstand—in an age of professional schooling and instant communication, we have no excuse for moral blindness. Take the recent law passed here in North Carolina, for example, mandating that every user of a public restroom attend only those assigned to people bearing the equipment matching what he (or she, or s(he), or some entirely new and enlightened signifier even now being conjured in a Brown University anthropology classroom) received at birth.
Now, educated people know this is an evil law. We know this because of the outcry from people who know a thing or two about repression and homophobia, many of them having spent hours cozying with dictators in Cuba, Egypt, Venezuela, and the like. Our moral betters know evil because they have looked evil in the eye. They’ve sipped espresso with evil. They’ve played private concerts for evil.
But we Southerners are a contrarian lot. It runs in our tainted blood. While straight-sighted moral people rightly cower at reproaches from New York politicians, Hollywood mavens, and pornography conglomerates, we perversely internalize them as badges of honor. In fact, the best way to unify we feuding, vengeful, petty, grudge-holding, backwards-ass rednecks is to tell us the Yankees are displeased.
Blood runs hot where morality is concerned, and viewed from that perspective, my state is doing a great service to our sideways neighbors. With so little evil and suffering left in the modern world, good people need a beacon of evil against which to calibrate. Some Southerners are content to play that part, for a time at least, until we can scramble the rest of the way up the moral ladder, which may take another generation or so, by which time the pervasive and homogenized digital mindwash which scours us all every waking hour will have reached its fruition even in this backwards territory, such that our grandchildren have no certainty whatsoever about God or virtue or the purpose of a penis, and better still, no curiosity on these matters, because curiosity breeds questions, and questions beget challenges, and the very last thing our cultural monolith can tolerate is a challenge to its precepts, because if one person holds his head upright then another may follow suit, and another still, until you’ve got yourself a whole mess of curious people asking why everyone else is leaning sideways and calling it straight, and can’t they feel their feet skidding along the concrete, and don’t they hear the change tinkling from their pockets, and aren’t they weary from gripping so tightly just to stay in place, and isn’t it just a little odd that the handful who’ve set themselves up as moral paragons are so desperate to proclaim everything straight, almost as if they believe the moment they halt their carnival barking we’ll take a moment to look around, and to hear the sliding of feet on crooked ground, and to ask: Who put these people in charge?
That sounds almost like rebellion, which I suppose is to be expected from my people, bearing as we do the genes of raging Scots, bull-headed English, enduring Yoruba, proud Cherokee. Tell us what to do, and our instinct is to tell you to go to hell. It’s not an endearing quality, I’ll admit, but maybe it serves a small purpose, because maybe the world isn’t so right-side up after all, and maybe one day we’ll get around to realizing that, and maybe then we’ll need a few people whose feet are preternaturally inclined to lean against the weight of things, people who can lead us backwards out of a world tilted wrongwise.