(Image from here.)
Last month, Tez pointed me toward a YouTube video. From an episode of Top Gear, the three hosts drive through Alabama – my home state – which they describe to their British audience as a “Bible-bashing [sic], redneck, deeply Christian part of the union.” For no clear reason except it’ll make for good TV, they paint their cars with the slogans, country-western is rubbish, Hillary for president and man-love rules. They drive around for awhile to ominous, Jaws-like music, and eventually, some guys throw rocks at them.
Tez asked if I could write a guest blog, saying, “I got pretty damed freaked out that the South is xenophobic, homophobic, and pro-NASCAR. However, this may be an unfair impression, so please enlighten me about the myths and misunderstandings of life in the South.” But I can’t. I was born in Alabama, and it’s the only home I know. No matter how much I want to defend it, though, every single stereotype about us is horribly true. Here and now, I’m finally forced to admit my deep shame of being from the Deep South.
Because we’re pro-NASCAR…
One of my neighbours painted his riding lawn mower to look like Dale Earnhardt’s race car. He drives around, his beer belly a-quiver, dreaming Talladega dreams. Still, it’s hard to work up a good lather of shame over that. Yeah, he’s obsessed with a sport that mostly involves turning left, but at least he’s got a sense of humour about it. Let’s move on.
Because we’re Bible-thumping and deeply Christian…
[Note to the Top Gear producers: There’s a small difference in the semantics, but a huge difference in meaning, between Bible-bashing and Bible-thumping. Please get your slurs right in the future.]
It’s a mystery how one of the most God-fearing men on Earth, the Red Clay Baptist, wound up in a region where summer itself carries the sultry heat of tangled sheets and every evening is perfumed with honeysuckle, like a mistress just vanished through the back door. But it’s true. Church is the spiritual and social centre of life here. And movies assure us that small-town religion is small-minded religion. They wouldn’t let Kevin Bacon dance in Footloose. They were rude to Johnny Depp in Chocolat. Johnny Depp! At the psych hospital where I work, the Red Clay Baptists run as thick as the break room coffee, including a minister, a deacon, and one girl with an ichthus tattooed on her wrist. And all of them believe in a bearded man who lives in the sky. None of them have ever seen him, but they’re all absolutely certain he’s there because a book written thousands of years ago says he does. So feel free to laugh at them. Feel free to think they’re as crazy as the patients. But be damn careful before stepping up to do their job. Unless you’re absolutely certain of something, this place will break you. The deacon and ichthus-tattoo usually run the adult unit, working with the ravers, the manipulators, and the twitchy-terrified, the catatonics so lost inside themselves they won’t go to the bathroom without help and the schiz-cases who are eating crayons one minute and throwing furniture the next. They take in everybody who comes through the door because the bearded sky-man said, “Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.” The least of these scream and spit. Some of them will hurt you if you turn your back. On the adolescent unit right now, there’s a girl whose stepfather videotaped himself raping her, then made her watch. There’s a boy with Asperger’s who slashed his face bloody with the lid of a tin can. The minister plays cards with them and makes sure they swallow their meds. He doesn’t preach, but he does listen to their stories. For a lot of them, it’s the first time anybody ever has.
So… Nope… Still no shame. Feel free to say no one should believe anything they can’t see with their own two eyes, but I have seen this place, with all its pain and sickness, bring out the best in my co-workers, their humanity, mercy, and fortitude. That just seems more important that any funny ideas they have about when dinosaurs walked the Earth. Also, to the best of my knowledge, none of the Red Clay Baptists I work with has ever been rude to Johnny Depp. I suspect they might keep Kevin Bacon from dancing. Not on religious grounds, though; it’s just really embarrassing.
Because we’re rednecks…
The term “redneck” comes from the sun-burned necks farmers get working in the fields all day. The South has always been a heavy agricultural region, with the highways around my house surrounded by corn and cotton. There’s nothing prettier then watching the wind run its hand across a field of cotton stretching into the hazy distance. I’ve also picked cotton with Jim Greene on his family farm, and the charm wears off quickly. The mechanical cotton harvester can’t get all the cotton, so it was Jim and his brothers’ job to walk every row and pick any remaining cotton lint by hand. The stiff bolls prick your fingers. The mud sucks at your shoes until it feels like you’re carrying twenty extra pounds. Within twenty minutes, you start thinking the sun has a personal vendetta against you.
So yes, there are a lot of rednecks down here. Even in urban centres like Atlanta and Birmingham, a pair of calloused hands hold a certain pride money can’t buy. I’m not sure what’s shameful about hard work. I guess it’s because rednecks are stupid. Strong backs and weak minds and all of that. Except my dad. He grew up on a farm and managed to scrape the manure off his boots long enough to earn a Ph.D. Or my Uncle Jack, the lawyer. Or Uncle Al, who’s a rocket scientist and helped build the Saturn V. Or Uncle George, the head of the department of medicine at UMKC. Or Uncle Bob, the other rocket scientist.
But those are just flukes. It’d be unfair to cherry-pick a few examples. Most farmers are as dumb as the mud they till. I’m sure everybody reading this has a working knowledge of soil science, veterinary medicine, mechanics, meteorology and the futures market. I’m sure any one of you would be willing to gamble your life savings on your expertise in those subjects, plus being your own CPA and handyman, plus working sixteen-hour days. No? Because that’s what every farmer in Alabama does every single year just to stay afloat. So if he wants to wear overalls without a shirt underneath, why don’t you keep your mouth shut about it? Damn it! I almost felt shame there for a moment, but it slipped away. Time to bring out the big guns.
Plus, there’s a lot of homophobia down here…
I know you’re thinking, There’s no way he can laugh his way out of this one. Well, you’re right. Years ago, my friend Wayne wrote and drew a six-page comic book titled Fag-Smasher (a stretched-out pun on the Marvel villain Flag-Smasher.) It was just as vile and imbecilic as you imagine, and we chuckled because we were vile little imbeciles. Then, a couple years after I graduated high school, two men murdered Billy Jack Gaither outside Birmingham. They beat him to death with an axe handle and threw his body on a pile of burning tyres. The jokes didn’t seem funny after that. Yes, I’m finally ashamed, but only of myself.
Billy Jack wasn’t an alien. He’d grown up in Sylacauga, Alabama and worked at a textile mill in Alexander City for more than a decade. People there considered him a friend and one of their own. At his memorial service, they packed the church to capacity and spilled out onto the street. they were all Alabamians too, so how can I blame my own repulsive choices on this state? My sins are mine alone to carry. I won’t fob them off on anybody else. Wayne turned out to have artistic talents besides drawing puerile comics. He’s a huge guy, and his bulk made him perfect for some small part in a Shakespeare play. He got involved in community theatre and liked it. He met actual gay people and liked them.
He’s a youth minister now, and at a dinner not too long ago, his wife started needling Wayne about him getting choked up over Brokeback Mountain. “Didn’t you write a comic book called Fag-Smasher once?” I asked.
“It’s a good movie,” Wayne shrugged.
And how many prayers and long nights of the soul that shrug covered, I don’t know. I do know that down here, we’ve seen hate on the local news leading the sports scores. We’ve seen it in white hoods rallying on the courthouse steps. And a lot of us have seen it in the mirror. Some people decide to change. Some don’t. But nobody gets to look away. Nobody gets to pretend it’s something that happens “over there”. We are the “over there” for everywhere else.
Not to mention xenophobia…
You’ve surely figured out the game by now, so I’ll drop the coyness. Fuck off. You think we’re too suspicious of outsiders? You try being everywhere else’s “over there”. You try having an accent that makes people automatically assume you’re stupid. Would that put a chip on your shoulder? You try watching your neighbours, friends and family reduced to their lowest common denominator again and again. You try having the beauty that’s sustained you, the tragedy and heartbreak that’s made you who you are, the place where you were born and raised and love, love, love turned into a caricature. You try having a bunch of British assholes come down and start poking you like a bear at the circus for some stupid fucking car show. Would you get pissed off? Would you want to throw some rocks?
But come down here and treat us like people, and we’ll be nice. Crazy nice. Women will call you “sugar.” You’ll be offered pie. When your car gets stuck in the mud – it will get stuck in the mud – strangers will show up to help pull it out. Then they’ll offer you vanilla ice cream to go with your pie. You may start to suspect we’re fattening you up to eat you. But we’re not. We’re really just that nice. That’s all the NASCAR fans, rednecks and Red Clay Baptists can ask. Not that you agree with us on everything or forget our past; it should never be forgotten. Just that you treat us like people who struggle with bills and matters of conscience. People with good points, bad points, and a few troublemaker cousins we can’t quite make ourselves give up on. People who are trying to do the best we can.
So that’s it. 2000 words, and I’m still unashamed of the South. I’m a hopeless… Wait! Grits! With the taste and consistency of a sinus infection, grits are the most horrible food ever invented. Everybody down here slurps them up like ambrosia, though. I used to have a history teacher who’d stand in front of class and drink them from a coffee cup. At least! I’m sick with shame. It feels so good.