Down here

Years later, she found herself
Mississippi bound to help
Stop the legalized lynching of Mr. Willy McGee.
But they couldn’t stop it,
So they thought that they’d talk to the governor about what’d happened
And say, “We’re tired of being used as an excuse to kill black men.”
But the cops wouldn’t let ‘em past
And these women, they struck ‘em as uppity
So they hauled ‘em all off to jail
And they called it protective custody.
Then from her cell
She heard her jailers
Grumblin’ about “outsiders”.
When she called ‘em out
And said she was from the South, they shouted,
“Why is a nice Southern lady makin’ trouble
For the governor?”
She said, “I guess I’m not your type of lady,
And I guess I’m not your type of Southerner.

~from the Flobots song, Anne Braden

This morning, facebook yielded this gem, courtesy of a friend of a friend:

It has become the glue binding together a few related, half-formed thoughts that have been kicking around my cranial vault recently. No surprise, given my recently transplantation/repatriation: I’ve been thinking about the South, what it means to identify as a Southerner, and what that word conjures up for people who aren’t.

This started in earnest after seeing Winter’s Bone some weeks back. Though impressive for many different reasons, what’s cogent to this discussion is the film’s deft, honest portrayal of a particular portion of the South, one that is frequently and gleefully given especially short shrift in Hollywood.

I’m a Southerner–but not the kind of Southerner you think you know about. If you’re not from around here, you might not realize exactly how much that one little word encompasses. I’m a Southerner, but in my South we share nothing in common with Scarlett O’Hara or Forrest Gump. It’s a different place. There are no plantations, no cotton, no Belles gasping, I de-clay-uh! here. We take our grits without the shrimp and our whiskey without the mint (or the funny hats, come to that). We say holler even if we’re trying to talk like you just to fit in, because there just is no other word for that beautiful spot nestled into the flanks of our beloved mountains. We sunk our roots between and around and through solid rock. We’re tenacious and stubborn and stand-offish. We take our No Trespassing signs seriously–very seriously–but we might also give you the shirt off our backs and the food off our plates if you need it. (Though if you’re one of us, you just as likely won’t take it. Charity being a four-letter word, and all.)

You might know us better as hillbillies, but even that term has been irreparably sullied by a certain TV show. But I don’t have a better one, and at least that word highlights what is at the heart of who we are and how we live: the land itself, that wall of green and stone that has shielded generations from what lies beyond. We are Southerners, but our own kind.

None of that is like to come through in your average movie. I cringe every time I see someone pull out a banjo on screen–what follows is almost always Deliverance-esque sinister or Gomer-Pyle-aw-shucks stupid. If you didn’t know better, you’d think all that mountain air turns a man hard in the heart and soft in the head, fit only for cruelty or manipulation.

Winter’s Bone got it right, like so few others have. Clannish and complicated, its characters show hints of everything Hollywood has you thinking you know about the mountain South–and fairly, since stereotypes don’t survive without a sustaining kernel of truth–but it’s all rounded out and enriched by actual personality and intelligence and individual motive. One dimensional banjo-plucking menaces or prat-falling simpletons cannot carry a story of this weight, and the writers wisely do not ask them to try. They infused their characters with an unflinching honesty, dark and heartbreaking and steadfast. There are real people on the page and on the screen in this one, and that is a rare, respectful, thankful treat.

The Cosby clip walks a fine line, for me. On the one hand, I think most of the audience is probably laughing at the woman, drawling and confused–another dim Southerner flummoxed by talk-show patter. I’m not entirely sure she’s in on the joke, which would seem to put her at a disadvantage. But she manages to hold her own: Cosby plays up her country-mouse naivete, but she doesn’t accept the role. As she patiently explains the simple geography, I get the feeling she’s wondering what on earth they teach these Yankees if they can’t grasp simple directions. The personality behind the stereotype is all there: the practicality, the polite tenacity, the quiet attitude. You can laugh with this woman.

We’re people down here. You don’t have to be able to understand us when we talk or grasp why we like mucilaginous vegetables and mushy fruit, but you’re welcome to a place at the table. Come on down.

2 responses to “Down here

  1. Pingback: Birthday blog |

  2. I raise my glass of sweet tea to you, my fellow non-declayuh.

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