On Being a Southerner

by William Ruleman
The tragic murders in Charleston this summer, and their aftermath, have left me wondering about my identity as a Southerner, and especially as a Southern white male. I have always felt Southerners to be more conscious of—and influenced by—the past than those in other parts of our country. I have always known that we are more stained by our heritage, as well as more marked by defeat. Yet I have always believed that our recognition of our failures and sins tends to make us humbler, and more inclined to be civil, than those in other parts of the country. I have also felt that, while manners themselves do not define culture (and at times may conceal the truth, with adverse results), a world without them would be unbearable. I have moreover felt that because we sense, from our own paths in life, that our fellow travelers’ roads are hard, we feel that the least (and best) we can do at times is to greet others with gentle kindness.
Yet recent events have given me cause for doubt. I sat down to write this essay on July 18th of this year, the day the KKK launched their angry protest against the removal of the Confederate flag from the South Carolina statehouse. Knowing that I share my Southern heritage with such a group makes me cringe.
By contrast, I recall the joy and relief I felt the day that Barack Obama was inaugurated. Tears of immeasurable happiness come to my eyes even now as I think of that day. These were far from the tears of confusion that clouded my eyes the day in August of ‘63 when, having innocently asked my grandmother why all those colored people on the television screen were cooling their feet in a massive swimming pool, I saw her face distort with a rage it had never shown in my presence. Her anger terrified me. So did the news five years later when I learned that King had been murdered (yes, murdered is the word for such a foul act—not the more exalted assassinated) right there in my own hometown. In light of these memories, then, I felt we had come a long way the day a black man became our president.
Since then—and especially lately—I have wondered how far we truly have come, if at all. But the events of late have more than ever convinced me of this fact: darkness, in the moral sense, cannot be linked to any one color or race. It resides in the heart of man and is part of human nature—and the southern character—quite as much as civility is.
But goodness is part of our character too. The families of the Charleston victims responded from the noblest depths of their natures when they chose to forgive that confused and twisted young man for his crime. The more natural course would have been a call for revenge. They acted, instead, from the most divine of impulses. They were Southerners—and humans—at their best.
All of which leads me to point out another Southern trait. We tend toward extremes. Evil and goodness are intertwined in us. The recent events in Charleston remind us of this—and in doing so, they remind us we need to be humble.  
I would like to cling to my long-held belief that Southerners are friendlier than those in other parts of the country. Yet having traveled through much of the U. S. A., I find that people elsewhere are often just as friendly, if not more so. Yes, there is “Southern hospitality”; but does it mean that Southerners are really nicer?  Let me venture, instead, that we are more prone to a certain flamboyance than our neighbors up north. By way of example, I remember how a friend once told me how Southern short-story writer Peter Taylor had confessed to him, on leaving a teaching stint at Ohio State, “I’m so glad to be back home. Everyone up there was so bland and unpretentious.”
I still laugh when I think about that remark, with its richly Southern mixture of Yankee-bashing and self-critique too. We Southerners know that we tend to “put on airs” more than those of any other region in the U. S. save, I am told, certain circles in the northeast. Yes, we want to give the best dinner party—not one where every wife has to bring a dish and sit alone with her silent spouse in a dark corner, plate in lap—but a glorious feast with all gathered round the same huge table, and this out of respect for our guests no less than a wish to show off. We like to boast of our lineage and where we are from. And we tend to stand out when not in our native habitat—a thing I have noticed time and again at professional conferences, when a veil seems to fall over northern faces the moment I start to speak. My southern drawl distinguishes me—sets me apart—marks me as someone who thinks himself different and, well, special. But I was too old when young Southerners began taking courses to alter their accents. My Southern drawl is a part of me, for better or worse; it is too late for me to try to “blend in.” That would be false. So I am doomed to live out my days haunted by the immortal words of Gary P. Nunn:
And they said you’re from down South
           And when you open your mouth,
           You always seem to put your foot there.
The leaning toward flamboyance may stem from plantation days; it may stem from a wish to compensate for shame and defeat. But let me suggest that it also stems from the fact that we Southerners tend to view life as a grand event: a pageant of joy and pain, an opera wherein  every passion—great and small—is given play. Again, we veer toward extremes.
And we are bundles of contradictions. I hold with Faulkner that every white Southern male has wished, deep down, that Pickett’s charge had not failed. We have all been there with Lee the night after that charge, exclaiming, as he dismounts from Traveller, “Too bad! Too bad! Oh, too bad!” Yet this is the same Lee who, after surrendering, held no grudge and spent the rest of his days on earth in the struggle to put that horrible war behind him.
            It is Lee’s humility that we need to re-learn. True, there is all the humiliation of defeat. There is our residue of shame, which may stir us to over-compensate. And there is our sense of  collective guilt, which we may try to project onto others. But Lee, 150 years ago, knew that the way ahead—the way of sanity and peace with oneself and one’s fellow human beings—was not through rancor but through love, the “rare flower” as fellow Southerner Thomas Wolfe described it—frail at times, perhaps—but thankfully a bloom that, through the grace of God, we all can share.

BIO: William Ruleman’s poems have appeared in many journals, including The Galway Review, The New English Review, The Pennsylvania Review, The Recusant, The Road Not Taken, Rubies in the Darkness, The Sonnet Scroll, and Trinacria. His books include two collections of his own poems (A Palpable Presence and Sacred and Profane Loves, both from Feather Books), as well as translations of poems from Rilke’s Neue Gedichte (WillHall Books, 2003), of Stefan Zweig’s fiction in Vienna Spring: Early Novellas and Stories (Ariadne Press, 2010), of prose and poems by Zweig in A Girl and the Weather (Cedar Springs Books, 2014), and of poems by the German Romantics in Verse for the Journey: Poems on the Wandering Life (also from Cedar Springs Books). He is Professor of English at Tennessee Wesleyan College.

William Ruleman’s BLOG: http://williamruleman.tumblr.com/


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