I have been doing a great deal of traveling throughout the Southeast region this year, primarily between Alabama and North Carolina. As I was traveling recently, I began to think about the diversity of geographic features in our region. Invariably geographic features assist in the cultural production of an area. In the South, we have mountain ranges, beaches that span the Atlantic Ocean and Gulf of Mexico, swamps, marshland, farmland, foothills, and a range of geographic essences within each state, county, and town. In these thoughts about geography, I started wondering why people continue to paint the South as a monolithic entity when our population is as diverse as our geographic environment.
People will often paint “the South” with a broad paintbrush, of treating it as “the” South. As Southerners, we often like to draw out these distinctions between states, often in an attempt to put down a southern sibling to make ourselves feel better. As North Carolina’s General Assembly has proposed some rather regressive legislation this year, I would hear remarks suggesting that we did not want the state to become Mississippi or Alabama. What does that even mean? Who are we helping with this rhetoric?
Instead of assisting to build up our southern siblings, we like to put them down in an attempt to make ourselves presumably look better. Invariably this rhetoric suggests a hierarchy within our region, a region that has already suffered stigmatization from the rest of the country. If we are stigmatizing ourselves from within, the rest of the country may feel justified in continuing to put down the South.
What if we rose up? What if we were as proud of our progressive works and people fighting for them like we are proud of our diversity of geography? What if we celebrated the diversity that exists in the South? I have a feeling like we may start to not look so monolithic. We may start to appear as many Souths instead of the South. Any region is susceptible to criticisms and stereotypes and stigmatization. The South deals with a great deal of such stigmatization, though, and we are not helping ourselves to further this stigmatization.
What if national news stories broke about the feminist activists in Mississippi fighting to keep the only abortion clinic open? What if reporters shared more about North Carolina’s women who dressed up in Mad Men clothing during a legislative session to protest against a bill that would limit contraception? Instead, we see extensive coverage of news items such as the Pastor Worley incident in North Carolina last year, where our progressive responses are often the backstory. When we are the backstory, the narrative does not change. Yes, news of the protest against Worley that we attended was provided, but how were the stories framed? It often feels like reporters frame stories about such incidences in the South as dismissive, “Oh, it’s the South.”
The country often dismisses us. The country often dismisses our progressive work. It’s time to change that and to change the narrative. It’s time for the country to recognize our work, instead of just appreciating our diversity of geographic landscapes and culinary delights. We have to look at our own narratives that we produce, too, in order to bring this change.