Below the Mason Dixon, Cont'd 2

by Conor Friedersdorf

Let's jump right in:

-- Two things strike me about Charlotte.  1) How it is the embodiment of the excesses of the 1990’s and 2000’s; 2) It has been the shining example of what the South wanted to be.  It’s home to the world headquarters of Bank of America; the Wachovia Center, which was going to be the gleaming palace for the 4th largest bank, before it collapsed and was bought up by Wells Fargo.  The attention of the world financial collapse is on Wall Street, but in reality, a lot of what happened took place in Charlotte.  The culture of this boomtown reflects that.  Another corporate boom-time icon you see in Charlotte is the world of NASCAR.  Their headquarters hall of fame and the mammoth team facilities are based in Charlotte.  With the fall of the economy, many changes have taken place there.  You will find a lot of glitzy vacant office complexes, subdivisions meant for 1000 houses with 8 actually built and the other signs of the fall.  There are also many out of work bankers driving their Lexus cars to the local amusement park to get part time work.  Also, you will find former NASCAR mechanics who have gone from flying on private jets to fix 200 MPH speed machines on national television, to changing oil on some guys Buick Century at Wal-Mart. 

-- You might want to use a "nom de plume" when you introduce yourself in talking to locals. Your accent will be enough to mark you as an outsider (in the 60s is was "outside agitator"), no sense in confusing the issue more.

-- I think the appropriate place to start a journey through the south is in Cairo, situated at the very southern tip of Illinois where the Ohio river joins the Mississippi. This decaying ghost town boasts some marvelous architectural gems from the more prosperous riverboat days, as well as a remarkably collapsing township. On the rare occasions we travel to Cairo to visit the forgotten cemetery where family members rest (the location is safely stored in my GPS unit, as it isn't on maps, and few locals remember where it is), our visit includes passes by the former sites of the hospital where my father was born, the house my grandfather owned, as well as the Methodist church, all of which were claimed by decay and razed some years ago. One of my favorite sights in Cairo is the massive flood gate across the highway on the way into town. Of course, no visit to Cairo is complete without a trip to a couple of landmarks- the first is the beautiful Magnolia Manor, and the other is the greasy spoon diner a few blocks from the levee walls on the east side of town- the name is the "Nu Diner" but it isn't hard find, as there are few businesses actually open. The customers are mostly farmers and elderly people who have never found the means or desire to escape.

-- To my mind, the definitive volume on the Southern persona, in al its variations, is still Florence King’s “Southern Ladies and Gentlemen.”  Although it may be somewhat out of date now, it is still vital reading.  It certainly sustained me during a passionate relationship with a Southern woman by reassuring me that I (a New England Yankee) was not the crazy one.

-- I would suggest flying to Memphis, renting a car there and driving the length of Highway 61 from downtown all the way to Vicksburg, Mississippi.  The view from the car window alone would both disturb and astound you.  The Delta is the heart of poverty in Mississippi and the country.  Demographically it hosts the largest concentration of African Americans, per capita, in the United States.  It has little industry, save that conducted by the regenerative Viking Corp., the commercial kitchen manufacturer based in Greenwood, and subsists primarily on an agriculture that is a shadow of the massive farming operations that built the region.  I read somewhere recently that Mississippi, ranked dead last in so many social indicators, would fall solidly in the thirties of many health and education categories should our Delta counties be excised.  And yet, the Delta is the birthplace of America's music and the African-American disaporas that were so influential in 20th century demography and industrial growth.  There is fine, fine, fine food to be had everywhere.   

Most importantly, the Delta holds some sort of magical quality.  I won't attempt to describe it as I'm not much of a writer.  It's almost as if the potential salvation of the many sins of Mississippi's history hangs above the fields and crumbling towns.  Should some of us help bring economic prosperity and the social progress it can generate to the region's impoverished black populace and the fallen (financially and otherwise) white families whose fields they once tended (and in fewer numbers still do), it would certainly help Mississippi in every practical manner conceivable, but more importantly, it would benefit our state and its people spiritually.  Redeem the Delta, redeem our history.  And, if the idea of a state having a spirit seems foreign, you haven't spent much time down here.  But, there are glimmers thanks to the efforts of Viking and the actor Morgan Freeman, a native, who makes his home near Clarksdale and operates a fine restaurant and blues night club there, and others.  It seems every year more efforts are made to make Delta Blues tourism more accessible. 

One caveat: I am not advocating some form of poverty tourism.  It is the richness of authenticity of the place that makes it worth visiting, although that authenticity often has an ugly or depressed face... Every American should travel its roads to "feel" it, more than see it.  And, no, I'm not sure everyone can if they aren't from here, so no guarantees.  But we love our myths in the (white) South; they protect our collective psyche from things the rest of the country doesn't have to worry about.  And yet, to our west sits the fertile flat land whose crumbling store fronts, vast fields, incomprehensible poverty and the brown arterial river beyond remind us how difficult it can be to face history honestly. 

-- The Big Chicken (Wikipedia entry here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Big_Chicken) – Americana at its finest. Not sure why they decided this Kentucky Fried Chicken needed to be something special, but special it is! A 60-foot red triangle sits atop a KFC restaurant. Its said to be in the shape of a chicken, which is very questionable, but the sculpture does have eyes that roll in circles and a beak that opens and closes. Most directions in Marietta, GA include the phrase then you turn right/left at the Big Chicken, as its at the intersection of two major roads. T-shirts are sold with likenesses of the Eiffel Tower, Big Ben, the Colosseum, and the Big Chicken. I realize a lot of cities have big, weird, inexplicable structures that theyre proud of, and the Big Chicken is ours.

-- The South is not a foreign country for cry-eye!  We're just like you, Conor!  Your post was slightly arrogant.  Don't focus so much on stereotypes.

-- If you're heading south, I'd recommend my hometown Lafayette, Louisiana.

We're situated in the center of south Louisiana (in fact, we're dubbed the "Hub City"), about two hours west of New Orleans. Lafayette is the center of Cajun culture in Louisiana, and you can't experience Louisiana without getting some authentic Cajun experience.

If you're staying here, you should bunk down at Blue Moon Saloon and Guesthouse. It's a turn-of-the-century Acadian home that's been turned into a hostel and a full-time live music venue specializing in roots music, local music and Americana. Every night of the week there's some sort of live music on the back porch, and on weekends the lineup is usually a nice mix of locals and touring musicians from across the South.

Plus, Blue Moon is in our downtown area, so you can grab the best plate lunch in town at Dwyer's Café.

And if you want something more authentic than that, you can have gumbo at my parent's house. That's the real Cajun way: treat a traveler to dinner at home.

-- The summer after I graduated from college, I canoed down the Mississippi River with three friends from Minnesota to New Orleans.  We all agreed that gaining a new perspective on the South was one of the great things about the trip.  Seeing the south from  the river, I think, is the best way to do it because you are forced to travel at a slower speed and are inherently more dependent on the kindness and largess of strangers in ways that simply are not if you are travelling by car.  

... In general, we became connoisseurs of full-service gas station kitchens.  Many of the small towns, these gas station restaurants become the social focal point of these small communities.   There is no better way to meet people than slowly eating a four dollar spread of eggs, bacon, biscuits, grits, and coffee and introducing yourself to whoever walks in.  As we moved south we noticed  a change in how people reacted when we explained who we were and that we were canoeing down the river.  The typical Yankee response was "Oh, cool.  Best of luck."  Further south, people would treat us like lost relatives: opening up their homes, cooking us dinner, who shared their thoughts about their lives, communities, and vocations.  We met veterans, investment bankers. grandparents, their grand kids, riverboat captains, and even a professional big foot hunter (dont' ask) at the drop of a hat. 

-- While you are in the South don’t bother to get embroiled in the centuries old barbeque controversy.  The truth is clear.

Here are several tips:

  1. Barbeque is a noun, not a verb.
  2. Forget Texas.  Beef with sauce is, well, beef with sauce.
  3. For pork barbeque go to North Carolina.
  4. Forget mustard or tomato based saucesit’s vinegar based sauce all the way. 
  5. The Blue Mist barbeque in Asheboro, NC is my favorite.

-- and Spartanburg are now part of a larger metro area.  Greenville is larger and richer, and it gets more national attention than Spartanburg.  But I recommend that you visit Spartanburg; I think it provides a clearer image of what the South was and where it is now.  Greenville is our future, but I think it’s lost a bit of its character during its process of massive modernization.  Spartanburg has more of an edge and is wrestling more with its problems.

My South, the one where I was born and raised and can view the gravesites of at least six generations of my ancestors, is a place of subdivisions, cities, well-kept farms, and, in general a middle-class population of true diversity and at least as much progressive tolerance as the average New York neighborhood (which is damning New York burgs with faint praise.) 
 
First off, the South is filled with people who aren't Southerners. There are so few natives left that we make a special point of commenting on it when we happen across a fellow "born-here." The Southern preachers and politicians who make the nightly news with their heavy drawls and super-conservative attitudes often lead flocks of non-Southerners who share the same beliefs. 
 
Secondly, the South is filled with "others" who are rarely if ever publicized by a national media that craves white redneck stereotypes. What about the historic Jewish population of coastal Georgia? The Catholic parishes of small towns? The cocktail swilling Episcopalians (my very Southern family is full of them) or the Lebanese and Indians and Chinese and Vietnamese and the well-established Hispanic cultures and on-and-on?
 
 I can walk into my small town Appalachian Wal-Mart and hear accents from all over the world.        
 
The South is NOT a white, conservative, Republican fortress. I am surrounded by Southern pals of all skin shades who share my own wild-eyed liberal values; I can go to the local fall festival (celebrating NASCAR and moonshine) and hang out at the well-staffed booth of the county Democratic Party; our small weekly newspaper routinely features editorials by Dems and also publishes feverish debates between local libs and cons.
 
If I want to visit the Southern equivalent of Funky Town I drive up to Asheville, North Carolina, a city so steeped in bohemian culture the favorite local T-shirt says "It's not weird, it's Asheville." This heartland Appalachian city has a very open GBLT population, a foodie atmosphere celebrating vegan and Indian food, a high ratio of tattoos to skin; and an arts community embracing every known medium, and then some.
 
In short, my South bears very little resemblance to the South I see in the national media; my South is impossible to sum up in a stereotype; my South is real, unlike the South spoken of by non-Southerners, who seem to have no self-awareness as they point their fingers and their noses down at us, often from the pedestal of their own racist, intolerant, impoverished, barely literate neighborhoods. 

-- When I was in graduate school in Fayetteville, Arkansas, I would occasionally escape the madness by slipping away with a backpack to the Ozark wilderness.  Most of the areas I frequented almost 40 years ago are more accessible nowboth a good and a not-so-good development.  I would advise beginning in Little Rock with a visit to Juanita’s for some great Mexican food, then heading north out of town on highway 67 then highway 5.  Go through Heber Springs to Mountain View in Stone County.
 
In Stone County, you’ll find Blanchard Spring Caverns, an absolutely spectacular system of caves administered by the Forest Service, and therefore mostly free of the commercialism you usually see around such places.  This is one of those things you either find utterly fascinating (as I do) or that just doesn’t appeal at all.  Great care is taken here to preserve the caverns as a living system.
 
Mountain View is the home of the Ozark Folk Center, where you can hear authentic Ozark mountain music just about every night.  I remember being absolutely jolted when I heard the musicians singing a song I had only heard from one other person, my grandfather.  From here, look into a canoe float along the Buffalo National River.  There are any number of access points, but if the water is high enough, the best stretch is the Ponca-to-Pruitt run.  I still recall sleeping on a gravel bar under a 300-foot cliff with goats at the top.  The bells around their necks kept my companion awake all night, while the rushing water of the river lulled me to sleep.

-- The Creation Museum. I believe that a certain amount of Christian obstinacy has little to do with faith and a lot to do with being comfortable in an disquieting world. Like the essentially empty rituals that bond groups like Masons and Moose Lodges, a certain kind of white, lower-middle-class Christian partakes of Creationism not because they believe it's literally true, but because it is a kind of membership badge. It says you're a certain kind of person. The museum is a perfect expression of that. No reasonable person can go through the museum and think it anything but absurd, but that's beside the point. The point is that everyone there comes from the same subculture -- the same tribe, if you prefer. The absurdity keeps out all those people who make everyday life uncomfortable. It's one of very few places that certain kind of white, lower-middle-class Christian can go and feel comfortable in a room full of strangers.

-- Small Business Networking Group. They meet all over the place, usually for breakfast. Pick a city or large town and check with the Chamber of Commerce. The meetings are all about meeting people who can lead you to other people who you can sell things to, because most small business is primarily about selling. Everyone in the room knows what it's like to sweat making payroll or a sales quota. It's a room -- usually in a motel out by the Interstate -- filled with folks who "make it happen" every day. They work the phones and pound the pavement in search of business, and by nature they don't understand how people can be unemployed for any length of time or lack health insurance or any of the other things that liberals are so worried about. I had a guy at one of those meetings tell me once, "You know to get unemployment you only have to fill out two job applications a week? If I didn't have a job, I'd go to a hundred places a week!" I believe he would, too. We think of people like this as common -- in their bad sportcoats and polyester pants -- but in fact their emotional make-up is rare. They get turned down every day far more often than they succeed, and while most of us would get discouraged, they keep on going. They're resilient and strong in a way that most people aren't. Attending a few networking breakfasts is the best way to understand Rush Limbaugh's audience. It's not a mass of frothing bigots; it's a bunch of salesmen who don't understand why some people give up so easily.

-- Now if you want to see a place where they don't know the Civil War is over, try Monroe along Interstate 20 in northeastern Louisiana. On the western edge of the Louisiana Delta, it's where Delta Air Lines was founded as a crop-dusting company.  But Monroe is also the most segregated place I've ever lived, and the only place where I've received e-mails from locals with racial and anti-Semitic slurs. On the largely black, south side of town, you'll see neighborhoods of crumbling shotgun houses and on the north side, you'll see giant houses built in the 1920s (one of which was reputedly a hangout of Tennessee Williams when he was in town).

In neighboring West Monroe, you'll see plenty of Confederate Battle flags (which do double duty promoting the local high school football team, the deliberately named West Monroe Rebels). And yet, like the denizens of Flannery O'Connor short stories, Monroe and the surrounding farm communities are Christ-haunted. There's a church on almost every street corner, and one of the local auto dealerships even has a local Southern Baptist pastor on call as chaplain.

Its glory days as a growing city are long gone. But Monroe's saving grace is the live music. Each weekend, at local bars, you'll encounter some of the best blues, country and jazz musicians you've never heard of. I still don't know how a place so hateful can produce such divine music.

-- I'm a New York native who's lived in Alabama for close to five years now.  Here's what Northerners miss:  The South is an aristocracy, and the key to understanding Alabama is that it was founded -- and to some degree remains -- as a state at war with a good portion of its residents.  If you live outside the region, you can get a vague sense of that, but living here really brings it home.

Slavery and segregation have both died away, but the state is still run by a relatively small number of lawyers, businessmen and lobbyists located in Montgomery.  The fiendishly awful 1901 Constitution centralizes all power in the state capitol, making local control almost nonexistent. To get permission to, say, spray for mosquitoes in a county, you have to amend the constitution in a statewide vote.  This is not an exaggeration.  The small clique of folks in the capitol city dictate tax, education and business policy for the whole state, and if you're not part of that clique -- even if you're the mayor of a major city -- you're not going to have a say in how the state is run.  

They prefer it that way, and always have.  Alabama was founded as a slave state, and the founders of this state were slaveholders who bent the government to keep their unjust system going and protect themselves from insurrection.  After an interlude in Reconstruction, the elites took over again and started systematically locking blacks and poor whites out of Montgomery for fear their state would be taken over.  The folks who wrote the 1901 Constitution were landholders in the middle part of the state who wanted to hold the black population under the lash and industrialists in northern Alabama who wanted to keep their (mostly white) workers in line.  Both groups shared a fearful memory of the 1890s, when the Populist Party and its humane agenda came within a stolen election or two of taking control of the state.  Alabama never had a Huey Long-type governor to smash the old boys' network, and this bunker mentality has persisted through most of this state's sad history.

So if you wonder why Alabama politicians are always looking for the "other," the one to blame for all their homemade problems, look no further than the history of this state.  The people who run Alabama are only concerned with protecting their power.  They're brazen about it, and care about their voters only inasmuch as they can convince them their frustrations are less about the system and more about liberals or immigrants.

Try to make a trip to Montgomery during the next legislative session, which starts in January and ends in April.  You'll get about three feet off the elevators before you see the hallways choked with lobbyists trying to sell (or dictate) policy to elected officials.   An actual constituent would have a hard time making their way through the crush to see their representative. That's Alabama, and that's the best way to understand it.

-- I’m a transplanted Midwesterner living in Spartanburg, SC.  My county is perhaps the most conservative in this very conservative state.  That aspect of it, and especially its talk radio (WORD), drives me bonkers. Our very conservative Congressman, Bob Inglis, has to demonstrate to his constituents that he’s conservative enough.  For my part, I’m a moderate centrist who, in this part of the country, might as well be a Leninist.   

Not too far away is the town of Laurens, and on the main square is a store that sells KKK apparel.  Our public school students get graded release time for Christian education classes offered by a local minister.  I am dismayed by our local crime rates and poverty.  There are so many people who seem to be unemployable.  And I have never lived in a city with such enormous class division.

So far it sounds as though I’m fulfilling all the negative stereotypes, right? But there’s much more to Spartanburg than what I’ve mentioned so far, and that’s why you should visit.  You could study Chinese and Portuguese at local Wofford College.  You could also chat with our young artists in residence at the living/studio/gallery space called Hub-Bub. You can hear German and French spoken on the street because of the number of international corporations that operate here.  Of those foreign investments, the largest by far is BMW, which produces the X5 and the Z4 at its Spartanburg County factory.  Michelin has a big operation in neighboring Greenville County.  For its part, Greenville has a French school run by Michelin, as well as a chapter of the Alliance Francaise.

Greenville

-- The concept I try to internalize when planning an itinerary through the South is that of gradients. The South's strong collective identity can dilute the ill-attuned person's ability to observe the nuance within different sub-regions. A topographical map is a remarkable proxy for cultural gradients. The Piney Woods of Texas are remarkably more similar to Mississippi than to Midland. The Mississippi Delta all the way up towards Memphis feels much more like non-cajun South Louisiana. On the same note, the similarities between New Orleans, Memphis and St. Louis are immediately striking. 

Many thanks to everyone who wrote, whether I excerpted your e-mail or not. Obviously I've got my work cut out for me planning an itinerary -- and figuring out what music to listen to on the way.

2006-2011 archives for The Daily Dish, featuring Andrew Sullivan

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