Illustration by John Cuneo
You have asked me, as a Southern writer, to produce a short personal essay on my Southern identity. I cannot do it.
Don’t misunderstand. I am Southern, and proudly so. I was born in Alabama and my daddy (see, I didn’t say my “father”) was born in Tennessee. I grew up worshipping Bear Bryant and a baseball player for the Milwaukee Braves who, like me, was from Alabama and named Hank. I did all those things Southern boys did—biked into town, played football, outran snakes in the woods, watched double features, had a paper route, fantasized about my older sisters’ girlfriends.
I fell for soul music, did the alligator at school dances, and woke up once with temporary blindness and dulled hearing after Rooster—who operated behind a tree on a dirt road—sold me and some buddies moonshine.
I tawked Southern and resented Yankee taunting, especially from that Detroit lady at the country club who insisted that I stop at the end of the diving board and announce my name. She laughed as I stretched one syllable over three: Hii-ayn-keh.
But a Southern identity? I’m just not the storied purebred everyone wants to read about. I didn’t hunt or fish, I couldn’t show off family Confederacy memorabilia, and I didn’t cross racial lines to lose my virginity. My daddy wasn’t a drunk and my mother (see, I didn’t say “mama”) never stabbed him.
I might as well reveal all: My mother was from New York City, for crying out loud. She tried bridge, tried golf, and hated them. But she could read long books in a single night. All my grandparents were from Russia or Poland. See where I’m going? I was, am, Jewish. I had a bar mitzvah. I had massive, massive (my Jewishness and Southernness give me double-license to wildly overstate such things) internal identity conflict.
When I was six, my kindergarten teacher, Mrs. Darby, wrote my parents to say I was ready for first grade. But she had concerns: “Hank is a much more serious little fellow than he was at the beginning of the year. At first he did silly antics, which gained him attention and indicated some little insecurity. However, he seems to have gone from clownishness to seriousness. I have observed that he has made no great effort to mix socially in play activities on the playground but has shown a desire to follow me around, talking about things, asking questions.”
She was, of course, detecting the Jewish persona overshadowing the Southern one. She praised my poise and confidence in expressing ideas but added an ominous observation: “He has not played cowboys and Indians. He is definitely not the whooping cowboy type. I am not sure how he would stand up for himself or hold his own in a group because I have never observed him as part of group play.”
My destiny was clear: I would live in a Dead Sea cave and become a lonely Talmudic scholar (Alabama’s first!). I would follow an elder rabbi around, talking about things, asking questions.
Two years later, my second-grade teacher said I needed “to improve more in listening and taking turns.” (Poor Miss Cox just didn’t understand that the “chosen people” get to go first, and, well, there’s no way to say this nicely, but we don’t have to listen to anyone.) Every teacher complained about my failure to grasp arithmetic, but only one expressed concern about my writing. Miss Miller, obviously anticipating that one day I might get notice as a writer, positioned herself in my third-grade report card to get some future credit for that: “I have talked with him concerning trying to improve his writing.” I might have adopted her love of excessive gerunding, but fortunately I was a bad listener.
I can recall the day I finally achieved identity balance. I was twelve years old and had just completed my first bar mitzvah lesson. Rabbi Gallinger commended me and said, “Well, you want some lunch?” We hopped into his car and headed to Singleton’s Bar-b-Que, where he ordered the pulled pork platter. “That’s my kind of rabbi,” I thought, then ordered the same for myself.
High school in Alabama would be followed by college in the Midwest at a university with many Jewish students, Jewish writers, and something called Jewish Studies (suggested slogan: “Talking About Things, Asking Questions”). That would be followed by decades as a newspaperman working inside the lair of Southern writers with true-blue (or gray) Southern identity.
I am now comfortable with a life of dual identities. But that’s not interesting enough to write about, is it?
Hank Klibanoff, a longtime newspaperman, directs the Journalism Program at Emory University and holds the James M. Cox Jr. Chair in Journalism. He and coauthor Gene Roberts won the 2007 Pulitzer Prize in history for their book, The Race Beat: The Press, the Civil Rights Struggle, and the Awakening of a Nation.