On Being a Southern Romantic

Given the choice between the experience of pain and nothing, I would choose pain.
— William Faulkner
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Gone with the Wind, Steel Magnolias, Fried Green Tomatoes, Secondhand Lions, Sweet Home Alabama.

These are the Southern classics of my household. Each story holds a similar blend of pain and humor that is perhaps best depicted in the funeral scene of Steel Magnolias, where the women are baring the deepest parts of their souls in gut-wrenching spouts of words followed blended seamlessly with a sort of gallows humor, offering up one of their own as a playful punching bag to cut the intense tension of the scene.

I don’t quite know why I crave this sort of story, even as I’ve spent so much of my life attempting to reject my Southern heritage.

It’s not easy being from the South, just as I imagine it must not be “easy” being from anywhere in particular. Outside of these films, I saw Southerners being portrayed in films and news clips as backwoods buffoons with little to no intelligence, a deep-running well of willful ignorance and bigotry, thick twangy accents that made others roll their eyes or look on with pity, and portrayals of pearl-clutching, judgmental, painfully prickly women in particular who isolate and reject anyone outside of their tightly-regulated circles.

While I’ve seen some of these stereotypes with my own eyes, it wasn’t easy to become aware that the world had a stamp to mash on my forehead the moment I opened my mouth to speak. And for my own struggle with this, I can’t even imagine that of my sisters and brothers of color who have even more to contend with.

So I dedicated myself in my late teens-early twenties to de-Southernizing myself. I practiced speech again and again until my accent leveled out to a tolerable, neutral tone that only gets slow and sweet again if I’m putting on my hospitality shoes or around my family. Living in Europe, I would tell people I was American and from the South—then quickly follow up with all the things I wasn’t, when they automatically got that wary look on their faces because all they know is our shady past and news of recent white supremacist rallies. I found myself growing disdainful of slow-talking Southerners and thought them small-minded, to be content living in the South when there is so much more the world has to offer.

And then I moved back home to Birmingham, AL and found myself interacting with my community at large for the first time in all my life beyond school and church activities. I discovered the pure joy of sitting on my front porch with a book in hand, surrounded by greenery my mother and aunt planted, influenced by the lavish gardens their own grandmother once kept. I studied more of our history (yes, ours, though for the longest time I completely rejected my heritage because of the awful truth so much of it holds) and learned more about the reconciliation efforts by our mayor and locals to build a better city and a better future overall.

I watched these gorgeous old films and felt that deep-seated pain that seems synonymous with being Southern, mingled with a beautiful, Romanticized view of the world around me and a hopeful eye towards the future full of laughter and sweet tea.

William Faulkner, more than anyone, helped me to understand and embrace myself as both a Southerner and a Romantic. His stories are raw, capturing so much from the aftereffects of the painful Reconstruction, the poverty and wealth disparity between families, classes, races. His voice whispered to my soul and exposed truths in my heart I didn’t have the language for before. When I got the chance to traipse about his home in January, and to visit his grave, I was overwhelmed by a life I’ve dreamed of living and a life that’s sad and isolated, at the same time. Full of gnarled trees, mossy walkways, and big windows that open to let in a much-needed breeze, I could just imagine him typing away on his back porch as he was said to do.

He saw, and he wrote, and he felt so deeply each minute detail of life in a way that mirrors my own path. Romantic does not mean idealist, something I once was. Romantics see life in its beauty and misery, and constantly seek the former while acknowledging and sorting through the latter. Something I am an expert of.

So here I am, one eye on the pain, the dirt, the wounds. The other is firmly fixed on the beauty surrounding it, the flowers growing out of that dark soil, the new strength that grows from a fractured bone once it’s healed.

Embrace and develop your identity each day. If you don’t like something, change it, even if it’s a change so small as to be imperceptible to others. If you love something, do it—and do it to the fullest of your ability. Acknowledge the pain and feel it fully, just so you may laugh at it later and run straight into a day full of blue skies, brilliant sunshine, and hills covered in dandelions.

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