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Spirit Of Southern Hospitality – Alive And Well Or Gone With The Wind?
What does it mean to be ‘southern’ or ‘southern’? That question was presented to me last night via email from my good friend, Greg, who is originally from New York but moved to Atlanta several years ago. Instead of answering him directly I replied to his email with the same question, “What do you think it means to be considered ‘south(er)’?” My alias, “The Spirited Southerner,” is what initially sparked his question, but since he is a man of color from the great state of New York, I wondered if his interpretation of the term/s had a positive connotation or otherwise.
My friend, Greg informed me that his father is from Lake Hartwell, Georgia and his mother is from North Carolina. His family traveled to his parents’ hometowns often over the years so the south was not “new” to him. In fact, he shared early memories of the area. He remembered the country stores with the screened doors, and driving down the two-lane roads where people would wave from their front porches, whether they knew you or not. His early impressions were that the people in the south were polite and friendly, open, very trustworthy, and very relaxed. He was born in New York but actually moved to Atlanta from Virginia twenty years ago. Since becoming an Atlanta resident, he has come to understand two things of the “modern day” South. #1: Most of the people who are here now are from everywhere else BUT the south, so not everyone is as hospitable as he remembers. #2: Some of the southerners who were born here are not so overtly hospitable because they are more aware of the southern “transplants” who brought their more reserved cultures with them when they moved here. Southerners are still very forgiving people, but unforgiving to a degree, which is a milder way of saying resentful of the past. He also shared with me that shortly after moving to Atlanta back in 1986, he had a business appointment in Gainesville, Georgia. This was shortly after Oprah Winfrey aired a show where she visited the Forsyth County city of Cumming, GA. To reach his destination he had no other choice but to drive through Cumming and he was very careful to do so. He made it his business to get back on the road well “before the sun went down.” When asked if he feels “at home” in Atlanta now, Greg’s response was “Absolutely. I really miss it when I go back to Virginia or New York and I always feel like coming home to the southern hospitality. I just wish it was more of it still around.”
As a native of Atlanta, Georgia for a little over 59 years now I have seen the south and “southerners” change in many ways, while remaining the same in just as many others. But what constitutes the ‘south’? The division of the North and the South began when two surveyors, Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon, mapped what is known as the famous Mason-Dixon Line. It was surveyed almost 2 ½ centuries ago between 1763 and 1767 in the resolution of a border dispute in colonial North America. However, it is most often associated with the division between the northern “free states” and southern “slave states” during the American Civil War era, nearly 1 ½ centuries in the past.
After the Civil War, the Mason-Dixon Line continued to be thought of as a cultural boundary regarding literacy, financial and industrial development, as well as social progress and racial integration. Well in the 21st Century we still call ourselves “Northerners” or “Southerners”. With northerners nicknamed ‘Yankees’, I remember my uncle explaining “the difference between a Yankee and a Damn Yankee is that Yankees only visit, while Damn Yankees move here for good.” It is not enough that we have racial, age and class discrimination and strife in this country-we also have regional divisions.
Attending my book signings and public events I am always surrounded by a multitude of accents. There are foreign accents from every country on the planet, just as there are obvious northern and of course, southern accents. While some northern accents may seem harsh or abrupt, bordering on loud and abrasive, there are some southern accents with the long drawl considered by many to be irritating and less than cultured. The northerners make fun of the southern accents while the southerners imitate their northern counterparts. Whenever there is a movie with southern characters, they almost always “overplay” the tilo, so that it grates on the eardrums of a true southerner, like nails scratching on a blackboard.
In a recent poll conducted on the website of Atlanta, Georgia’s Fulton High School Alumni, the answers were varied yet similar to the question:
“What does it mean to be southern or southern?” For example, Jean, who was born and raised in the south, spent 2 years in Boston. Although they mocked her every time she opened her mouth, she always tried to show them southern charm and respect. Jean believes being southern means showing respect for everyone, especially elders, saying “Yes ma’am/sir” and “No ma’am/sir,” and opening doors for others, especially ladies and seniors, whom she says she never saw in Boston. Jean went on to describe being southern as smiling at others and saying, “hello,”—being friendly—even to strangers, and expressing appreciation by saying, “thank you.” During her stay in Boston she said people just didn’t smile and heaven forbid if she asked for directions. On the lighter side, she shared her idea of ”southern” as iced tea and Sunday dinner, family spending time together and taking care of each other, helping friends and neighbors, especially when they have hard times. And she adds, “South used to mean a little slower pace in life—I’m not so sure that’s the case now.” She closed by saying, “Being southern is a good feeling in your heart that I almost lost in Boston.”
Another answer to the poll was from Frank, who is also a southerner by birth. He says that a Southerner enjoys all 4 seasons of the year, from the oppressive heat and humidity to the famous ice storms that can paralyze a city for days. And of course, it means running to the store to buy milk and bread whenever the weather report even mentions snow.
He further regards a southerner as tolerant of others, always polite and respectful. He describes a true southern man as “a gentleman who still holds a door for a woman, even in this day of feminist movements.” He adds, “A true southern woman still accepts small favors, like a man opening a door for them, without thinking the worst.”
Mark Pollard is a well-recognized historian among the alumni, and his knowledge of the Civil War and southern history is amazing. His answer was so profoundly written, “We may leave the South to study, to seek love, to earn a living, to seek adventure or opportunities, but a true Southerner always returns home, even if it is only in a pine box. Like anyone who lives. in the The South can tell you, it is a place of extremes and contradictions: we are known for our friendship, but remembered for the Civil War, often thought of as hicks, but producers of bucket loads of presidents, senators, and noble warriors. The South seems to taste life a little more than the rest of the country. I know that Moonshine is not something in the sky but out of a mason jar and I know that all good Southerners have a hound in heaven.”
Yet another response came from Billy, obviously as proud a Southerner as you’ll ever meet, who said in no uncertain terms, and I quote, “Being Southern is by the Grace of God.”
For the most part, these responses could easily be summed up by the infamous term “Southern Hospitality.” That’s the term used to describe the genuine graciousness and sense of welcome that Southerners extend to “people who aren’t from around their neck of the woods.” To be compassionate is to make strangers feel comfortable while respecting their rights to have opinions, and without causing “burning”, even when a few feathers may have been ruffled. Hospitality and manners go hand-in-hand, and while it is possible to learn these traits as adults, they are most easily instilled in children when they are raised to treat others with respect. That can be accomplished anywhere…not just in the south. However, the true Southern Spirit of Hospitality only lives as long as we continue to breathe life into it through our actions. This can only be achieved by setting good examples for the many who are now “Southern by Choice”, having moved here from other parts of the country… and the world.
There is one sure fire way to tell if someone is truly southern at heart, and that is to offer them a big heaping bowl of buttered “cranes”, “crunchy cornbread” or a “banana sandwich”. If their upper lip curves, they may not be born southern. But give them a chance – these dishes native to the southern region can quickly become an acquired taste. Hospitality can rub off, and given enough time, so can the tug, as in “Yaw’ll come back now, you hear?”
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