Photograph by Christopher T. Martin
Growing up I never realized I was southern. A childhood split between Chicago and my mother’s hometown of Brookhaven, Mississippi, might have been a tad unusual, but there was nothing unholy about being Southern in Southern-dipped black Chicago.
When I got to New York, it was an entirely different story. As a Columbia student in the early 1990s, I found the self-professed NYC melting pot very anti-South. It unsettled me to encounter black people who considered my born-and-raised Mississippian grandparents backward and stupid. One “friend” even advised me not to tell people where my family was from. Needless to say, my “y’alls” didn’t go over very well either.
As jarring as this was, it forced me to ponder what makes us who we are. Prior to living in New York, I was just “black,” but being “black” was more complex in a city where black faces hailed from Caribbean islands, Spanish-speaking lands, and faraway countries such as Nigeria and Cape Verde. Examining my own heritage through a new lens, I realized that while I was definitely a black Chicagoan, I was also a Southerner. The South may indeed be a physical place, but its culture had no boundaries for me. I craved greens that tasted like greens. Few New Yorkers had even heard of tea cakes or boiled peanuts.
In school my concentration was English and history, not an officially branded African American studies program, but I incorporated “me” at every possible chance. Where history books were deficient and literature courses neglected black experiences and voices, I did my own research to learn some of the whys behind the things I, my family, and friends did. Unlike my classmates, I grew up listening to blues, but it wasn’t until I took black music courses that I learned the bluesy tunes from B.B. King, Muddy Waters, and Howlin’ Wolf that my family enjoyed evolved from spirituals and field hollers.
Caribbean friends and I had so many similar values and experiences, it was clear the Africanisms that anthropologists Melville Herskovits and Zora Neale Hurston described were very real. Regardless of which part of the world we hail from, many black people carry pieces of Africa with us. In my case, it is Africa as filtered through the South. In Mississippi, I attended a country church where call-and-response renditions of such spirituals as “I Love the Lord” were the norm. As a child, I learned to eat with my hands, and marveled when I saw Ethiopians do the same in New York. Caribbean people used phrasing similar to what I heard in Mississippi, like saying “what you taking up?” instead of “what’s your major?”
After graduation I wrote reviews for QBR: The Black Book Review and enrolled in an NYU program, intending to focus on the works of Hurston, Alice Walker, and Toni Morrison. Although I was exploring black identity, much of it was Southern-based, and something felt amiss pursuing these studies in New York. When a friend introduced me to the Southern Studies program at Ole Miss, I had an “aha” moment.
My family didn’t rejoice over this epiphany. Ole Miss, where it took federal intervention to enroll James Meredith in 1962, was not their ideal place for me to explore my black Southern heritage. Those times were not just pages in history books to them. When my mother was promoted to a job her white coworker didn’t even qualify for, a white male harassed her, prompting police involvement. We returned to Chicago and, after that, visited Mississippi sparingly. A white Southern Studies student from Minnesota advised me to reconsider my move, warning that in many ways, change had skipped over Oxford.
Needless to say, Southern Studies wasn’t completely home. Often I was the lone black voice. For instance, when someone suggested that black and white Southerners had different moral values—to almost universal agreement—in one of my courses, I was the voice of reason, reminding my classmates that if a black church didn’t shun a pregnant black woman in the antebellum South, it was not because their morals were different, but because maybe, just maybe, that woman had been raped or her child’s father had been sold or even killed.
Outside the classroom, there were parts of Oxford where racist, antiblack words and imagery were proudly displayed. Forget the civil rights movement; so many white Southerners I encountered were still fighting the Civil War. White sorority girls rocked hoopskirts. Coach Tommy Tuberville had to ask Ole Miss fans to stop bringing Confederate flags to games. Cutouts of Colonel Reb were quite the rage at homecoming gatherings in the Grove.
Legendary Ebony editor, Morehouse man, historian, and Mississippian Lerone Bennett writes of “parahistory,” the concept that black and white Southerners “occupied the same space but their perceptions of time and its significance were fundamentally different.” This resonated with me: While my family lived on acres of land; planted fields of greens; cultivated watermelon patches; raised chickens, cows, and hogs; and was just as community-oriented as the next (white) Southerner, mainstream works often omitted us.
Today much of my work challenges the “one South” myth, which in popular culture still means “one white South.” There is no monolithic “South.” It is much more complex than that. In the ten years I’ve lived in Atlanta, that’s never been clearer. Sometimes I feel more Chicagoan than ever here, but at other times I feel more Southern than ever, in much the same way I did in New York. Boiled peanuts are hard to find here. I have attended countless mainstream exhibits where the “one white South” ideal rules—as well as “black” exhibits with works hell-bent on proving just how cosmopolitan and unSouthern the artists are.
I’m Southern not because of living or not living in a certain place. It’s because that culture has been passed on and nurtured in me, and I carry that wherever I go. It’s why my first Columbia roommate, a Thai girl from Chattanooga with a decidedly Southern twang, and I got along so well. Recognizing the diverse people and experiences that make up our Southern community leads to change. In 2010 Ole Miss students voted to dump Colonel Reb as the school’s official mascot. There’s definitely more to this South thing than a lot of us know, and that’s what keeps me going. Because as much as a lot of things change, one thing never will: There’s absolutely no erasing the black and Southern in me.
The author of African American History for Dummies, Grant Park resident Ronda Racha Penrice has penned several encyclopedia entries on the black South and frequently speaks on African American history and culture. She regularly writes for Uptown, the Atlanta Voice and thegrio.com.