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Saturday, May 25, 2013

THE SOUTH OF MY HEART

thomas hart benton

Been thinking today of how much I love the South. Remembering my trip to Kansas about 10 years ago, a Yankee state, what a slap-down I got every time I mentioned the South, especially mentioning loving the South. Nobody ever let that pass. They, who had never been in the South, knew more about it than I did after living in the South my entire adult life. Almost every time I talk with somebody from outside the South about the South, they know everything about it and I know nothing. This is part of what makes Yankees who come to the South objectionable. They know all there is to know about the South. The Civil War is over, when you Southerners gonna get it? First time somebody said that to me, I explained that the Civil War is not over. Didn't bother any more after that. It's like telling Baptists that Catholics have a home in heaven too. Telling is not what I'm about. I don't believe in telling other people what's the right way to think or believe. I'm recalling a good friend of many years, a Southerner living in Brooklyn, who told me it is my responsibility to convert a friend of mine here in the mountains away from racism. I said it is not my responsibility. I was reminded it is my responsibility. I didn't take it beyond that. It would devolve into is-isn't-is-isn't very shortly. I've thought about it many times since then. It is not my responsibility to tell a Southern boy it is necessary for him to think like he's a Yankee. You want to see a back go up like a Halloween cat in somebody's eyes, tell a Southern boy he needs to think and talk more like a Yankee.

thomas hart benton

What I have learned in my few forays beyond the Mason Dixon Line is Yankees dislike Southerners a whole lot more than Southerners dislike Yankees. The only problem a Southerner has with a Yankee is a Yankee can't stop telling Southern people what to do. They feel so superior it comes across in tone of voice, attitude, everything. That's experiential learning. I've come to where I shy away from Yankees because they can't get enough of telling us ignernt Southerners what to do, how to think and talk. Us ignernt Southerners hear it and laugh inside. In the South, we're polite when we want to be, so we don't laugh in their faces. Many a Yankee has heard (in a Southern accent), "If you don't like it here, the road that brought you will take you right back to where it's better. Nobody asked you to come here and nobody is going to miss you when you're gone." Many a Yankee has returned up North after retiring to the South. It's them Suthun ways that don't pay no attention when a Yankee tells them how to do it better. We just leave them alone. After awhile of telling everybody that lives around them what they're doing wrong, the people around them stop noticing them. Everybody leaves them to their superior selves. And many a Yankee has been warmly embraced by Southerners, the ones without a superior attitude. Egoism does not appeal to Southerners, esp in other Southerners. It's expected from Yankees.

thomas hart benton


I confess to not understanding a lot of Southern ways, like racism, which is not as pervasive as the television and Hollywood make it. They just point the finger at the worst of it. It's here. So what is how I feel about it. There is slave trade going on in NYC and LA today. It's underground and largely Asian, so who cares? I'm not here to change anything but myself. I'm not here to teach. I'm here to learn. Most of my closer friends are "liberals." The South is loaded with liberals. We just don't make a lot of noise about it, because, for one thing, we're outnumbered by people driving pickups with guns under the seats. We're diplomatic in the mountains. I've had good friends to the point of bonding with very different political beliefs from mine. For one thing, I'm really not dedicated to my own points of view, because I can't take politics that seriously. I have a point of view, but that's all it is. When I start feeling agitated I pull back. In the old way, among the mountain people that are gone into the past, people accepted that every individual had his own views and beliefs about things. They didn't step on each other's toes or provoke each other. Mountain people are very diplomatic. In the culture, all men carried guns for a couple centuries--a gun is either with them or they can get their hands on one in a hurry. One man did not provoke another man unless he wanted a fight. By fists or guns, a mountain boy can put you on your ass and make you think twice about going back for more. A mountain man that fights has powerful arms. It's that way with mountain people all over the world.

thomas hart benton

Democrats and republicans could sit around the wood stove in the country store and talk freely. They just didn't talk about politics. They didn't talk about religion either. Each man and woman has their own. That was respected. It's not respected anymore. Now is about conforming to a checklist, guidelines, no expressions of individualism allowed. It's another social change. I understand that in a lot of ways the South undermines itself by being dead set against unions. Ever thought about it? The Union is what the Confederacy went down fighting. Union means Yankee rule in the South. Unacceptable as saying fuck in Sunday school class. We'd rather be poor than Union-ized. I'm not in the South to make the South what it is not. I came to the South because I loved the South from afar and needed to be connected with it. I was born to Southern people living in a Yankee state. I had to get to the South as fast as I could get after high school. I had the draft to deal with, so I let the Navy take me to the South, Charleston. Two years on a destroyer (that was sold to the Brazilian navy soon after I left it) with a crew of Southerners was educational. I learned the best and the worst in my crash-course introduction to the South.

thomas hart benton

Next stop, the College of Charleston, where everybody was Southern. And I loved it. It was another country. I was able to see the last years of the Old South, the decayed old city that had been in Depression since the Civil War. In my last year at the College the New South came to Charleston. There was an interesting book in that time about the Los Angeles-ization of the South. It seemed far fetched then. By now, it is long established. I see I have spent my adult life running back in time to the time before the post-Fifties social changes. I don't mean civil rights. I mean rat race. When the changes brought by the New South came in, I went to the mountains to recede from the advancing social changes. By now, they have caught up with me. I have one foot in the old world and one foot in the modern world. That's how it is in my mind, in my heart, and in the people I know. About half the people I'm close to are hillbillies and about half are from Away, even a few Yankees, ones who did not come to the South with an attitude. People who are here because they love it. In my life in the South I have come to love it like it's my mother. I feel embraced in love by the South. It's the return of my love for the South, the South loving me for loving the Southern people and the Southern ways. About twenty years ago I was standing in a line in the Boston airport between planes. Talking with a man in front of me in the line I said, This is the farthest north I've ever been. He said, I know.

thomas hart benton
 
 
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