My Own Southern Past(s)

Perhaps the logical place to begin a blog titled “Southern Pasts” is with a discussion of my own southern past. As I mentioned in the “about” section, I am a product of the late twentieth century South. Unlike medievalists or historians of distant lands, I study the time and place from which I come. Although my story does not seem particularly interesting, my roots perhaps do.

I was born in Alabama to parents who were born in Alabama. I’m not sure how far back this trend goes, but suffice it to say I am an Alabamian by birth. After moving out of the state at age four, I spent much of my childhood on the Mississippi Gulf Coast, surrounded by equally southern relatives.

When I was thirteen, my family moved north. Although I certainly didn’t realize it at the time, I think suburban Philadelphia is where I first became interested in the South and its history. As the only kid who said “y’all,” I felt very much the outsider—and I quickly shed most, if not all, markers of my southern culture. Stereotypes of the South were plentiful, and I wanted no part of them, so I consciously dropped whatever accent I had. I even affected a northern dialect, although not very successfully. Of course, I could never trade biscuits and gravy for bagels and lox, but I became—in short—a northerner.

My mother was quick to chastise me for “forgetting where I came from,” but as a teenager, I thought she was simply overreacting as usual. Of course, when I think back on this now, I can understand her feelings a bit better. She had spent her entire life—the better part of a half-century—in Alabama and Mississippi. The South was all she knew.

Her mother had grown up in rural Alabama, the daughter of sharecroppers, and had left during World War II to take advantage of the boom in southern war industries. She worked for a time at Oak Ridge, Tennessee, which housed—unbeknownst to her, of course—one-third of the Manhattan Project, and later at Keesler Air Force Base in Mississippi, where she met my grandfather.

They were soon married, and after my grandfather left the Navy in the 1950s, he went to work for the Alabama Power Company, which brought electricity to a predominantly rural state. The family moved often from plant to plant, and as a child, my mother lived all over Alabama. At ten years old, she found herself in the middle of a civil rights demonstration when my grandfather unwittingly drove downtown on the day of a march. She remembers her class cheering when it was announced that John F. Kennedy had been assassinated. And she graduated from a high school integrated by busing.

My grandmother’s sister witnessed George Wallace’s famed “Stand in the Schoolhouse Door” firsthand and supposedly wielded an ice pick against Klan members who stopped her car as she drove her black maid home.

Of course, you might ask, how do these stories make up my own southern past? It’s a valid point. I would respond that while I am a part of none of them, each of them is a part of me. I grew up hearing these stories and wondering about the time when things like that happened, even as I lived in the place. This is why I study the history of the South. It is a place of great upheaval, and it is a place where things seemingly never change. The place today is in many ways no different from the rest of the country. Even with something of an outsider’s perspective, its pasts are my pasts, and so I attempt to understand it on its own terms, a goal which has frustrated generations of insiders and outsiders alike.


2 Responses to “My Own Southern Past(s)”

  1. March 4, 2007 at 4:38 pm

    Welcome to the blogosphere! This is a fabulous post. While I did not grow up in the South (nor did my parents), my dad’s family is one of the first families of Virginia. I certainly relate to your comment about “while I am a part of none of them, each of them is a part of me.” I attribute my own interest in slavery and African American history to my desire to better understand my ancestors, not to vindicate them or their treatment of blacks, but to better understand their world and, as Mechal Sobel put it, “the world they made together.” I look forward to reading more of your posts!

  2. March 5, 2007 at 11:51 pm

    What Kristen said….. Well, except I DID grow up in the South.

    I’m looking forward to reading Southern Pasts. You write well, and you obviously have something to say.

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