I love the South. As a liberal college graduate who knows our global reputation well, it’s something I state with a mixture of defiance and sheepishness, pride and shame.
Everyone knows the faults of the South. Racism, obesity, illiteracy: the South is the nation’s “leader” in nearly every undesirable category. As stereotypes go, the South is peopled by homophobic hillbillies wearing rebel flag t-shirts and thumping their Bibles.
So I get what’s wrong with the South. Truly.
But there are certain things the South gets right, and these are the reasons I love the South and am not leaving it for a more perfect elsewhere. These are the reasons I work to make the South I live in a better place.
And I think it starts with these two words: y’all come.
Y’all is arguably my favorite word. You all. Or there is even the wildly colloquial “all a y’all.” It signals an immediate fellowship, an implicit community made up of anyone present and within ear shot.
And then there’s come. It is a call of welcome, of entry into this community.
In the South, you’ll see it on yard sale signs. I use it in birthday invitations, or invitations to a potluck, or advertisements to some music gig I’m playing. And I mean it: all of you, be welcome and come.
See, Southern Hospitality is alive and well as far as I can tell, and it is one of a few things the South gets right. Perhaps this is due to our religiosity, or perhaps it’s the warm weather that for decades forced us out of sweltering homes and into the yards of our neighbors. But it has been my own experience that Southerners are more apt to greet strangers on the street, strike up conversations in the check-out line, make eye contact and smile as we pass one another.
I’ve heard complaints from Northern friends or from foreigners that much of a Southerner’s kindness is a show, a facade of insincere warmth. Heck. This might be true. In my experience, we do have problems with being frank, and I am pretty easily taken aback by others’ bluntness. The phrase “bless their hearts” is often tacked on to the end of a conversation to excuse some egregious gossiping, and sure that seems disingenuous.
But when I invite a stranger or acquaintance into my home, maybe one I feel I might be predisposed not to like, it’s not insincere. It’s an effort. It’s a hope: “I might not know you yet, but come on and I bet you prove to me there are things to like about you.” In this way, Southern warmth and hospitality isn’t fake; it’s a place holder. I’ll pretend to like you until I truly do.
I have my Southern Hospitality to thank for many relationships with people I didn’t think I would like. Where my own persnickety self would have kept me from fellowship with an acquaintance, “y’all come” – in some way or another – put me with them, and I learned how first impressions can be false ones, or how some people are lovable even if not immediately likable.
So that’s one thing the South gets right, and it’s omnipresent. It’s in our architecture: large front porches, big enough for neighbors to stop by and sit a spell. It’s in our traditional cuisine: filling and simple and able to feed a crowd. It’s in our music: easily singable, perfect for harmonizing, best if sung by many.
And its evident in our families. Southern families, in my personal experience, are more apt to be tight-knit and loyal. My son will grow up knowing his second cousins once removed, his great aunts, his third cousins. We stay in touch, even when separated by great distance. We like each other. We know each other well.
Then there’s this other part the South gets right, and it is less tangible, and still somehow more personal. There’s a wildness to the South I love, and it feeds a wildness of the spirit too. In the South, our streams, our woods, our waterfalls, they’re well-loved and well-used. Perhaps I’m speaking only as the daughter of a land conservationist, but the spirit of the Southern woods feels vibrantly alive to me, as if the natural world about us were whispering to us all and saying (trite, yes): “Y’all come.” And in Tennessee, it’s beckoning you to arguably the prettiest mountains and waterfalls and rivers anywhere.
Do these Southern merits make up for its racism, past and present, or its failure to keep up with the rest of the nation on things like social spending? Absolutely not.
But they are a start, and it is my hope that the same hospitality the South has long embraced will help it to become an inclusive home for those too-long disenfranchised and abused. It is my hope that in a South where family matters so much, our children and our poor will one day be championed by our wealthy. It is my hope that our love of our Southern land will enable us to become environmental leaders as our Earth and all its beauty becomes more threatened by climate change.
So in the same way a stranger can prove himself lovable, I’m hoping with the South, that it is more capable of change than I knew, and that it becomes the best it can be.