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Thursday, April 26, 2007

A Southern Yankee

Red Skelton made a movie in 1948 called A Southern Yankee, and it was based very loosely on Buster Keaton’s wonderful movie, The General. Keaton actually worked on A Southern Yankee as a gag man and contributed its most famous scene: Skelton traverses a battlefield during the Civil War and soldiers on both sides cease firing to let him pass. It turns out that he is dressed in blue on one side and the flag he is carrying shows the Stars and Stripes, while, on the other side, his uniform is grey and the flag shows the Stars and Bars. And this is how I feel: I am a southern Yankee.

I was born in Rhode Island in southern New England and raised partly there and partly in San Francisco and did not make my way south until I was in my early 20s in the spring of 1983. My father had died six months earlier, and a friend, an Atlantan whose family had moved north a few years before, had relocated to DeKalb County and was determined to lure me southward. With a burst of what I would come to know as typical Atlanta boosterism, she convinced me that the city was on the verge of blossoming into a theatrical Mecca, an ultra-humid Broadway that was just waiting for up-and-comers like me. And so I moved south, never ventured closer to the theatrical community than the fringes, and learned to regard the billboard on Peachtree that read, “Move Over Big Apple, Here Comes the Big Peach,” with a little more than a grain of salt.

In the intervening 24 years, I have lived north of the Mason-Dixon line for a mere three. Of the remaining 21, I have spent 17 of them in Atlanta and the remaining four in Northern Virginia in the suburbs of Washington, DC. And if you don’t think Washington is a southern town, think again. An attorney I used to know once told me that if you wanted to know what a Reconstruction government was like, you should try registering a car in the District.

Over time, I have learned that Southerners tend to distrust Northern candor, which strikes them as course and brusque. Northerners distrust Southern manners, interpreting them as shallow, insincere, and duplicitous. The truth, as always, falls somewhere in the great gaping middle, and the perceptions come more from a kind of culture shock than from a true assessment of what the denizens of either region are like. There are, and always have been, Northerners with manners and blunt Southerners.

Racism, America’s original sin, permeates both areas that provided contestants for the Civil War. In the North, however, it tends to be overt and angry and an issue that presents itself in occasional violent outbursts. In the South, on the other hand, it exists more often as an understanding and as an ongoing facet of the community.

I remember once, after a black coworker had flirted with me a bit, having my white supervisor come up to me to say, “That’s fun and all, but you understand that separate is separate.” I was nonplussed since there was nothing in my northern and western upbringing to prepare me for that concept. And I knew that had I confronted my boss with a charge of racism that she would have been flabbergasted. She no more thought of her attitude as racist than I thought of mine as revolutionary.
And this is the part of the Southern experience that keeps me at a distance, the part that knew Jim Crow, the part that can look at another human as something not quite human, not quite equal. Northern bigotry is based in fear; Southern bigotry is based in a perverse kind of faith and tradition. And there lies the difference.