Song, song of the South
Sweet potato pie and shut my mouth
Gone, gone with the wind
Ain’t nobody lookin’ back again . . .
– “Song of the South” by Alabama
I remember back in grade school when we first discussed the Civil War. It was simple. North good. South bad. The South wanted slavery. The North wanted to free the slaves. They fought, the North won, the slaves were free, Lincoln was a hero – a dead hero, but a hero. And the South was made to pay – and some counties in the deep South are still paying today. War is rarely gracious to the loser. Even those who were freed had no where to go. It would be years later before they had a right to vote, and even longer before they had a right to an equal education and the same water fountain. But that wasn’t really discussed so much back then. Keep it simple for the kids.
But the thing is, it isn’t that simple. No, I’m not going to wave a Confederate flag – those people make me want to throw up. But we aren’t all morons, anymore than the North are saints. Even way back then they weren’t saints. Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of the revolutionary book “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” (please read the book and disregard any plays or movies made from it), pointed out that the North was as much at fault as the South. Because even the most staunch abolitionists were more content to condemn the slave owners than actually try to do anything to change matters. In her mind this was as much a sin as actually keeping the slaves, because they were allowing the souls of the slave owners to be doomed to Hell for their crimes against humanity and God. Harriet wasn’t super popular with either North or South.
Even Abraham Lincoln wanted to play it safe until his hand was forced. Imagine taking office and half the country deciding to leave. And actually doing it, unlike the idiots who signed petitions when Obama was elected. Yes, we have some of those here. One small town flew the flag upside down to signal distress when Obama took office. I pretend not to know these people, kind of like we all like to pretend no one did “black face” comedy routines. It used to be a regular thing at the college where I work. It’s in the yearbooks. Oops.
But things DO change, even if they do slowly, and even if it takes blood and tears to make it happen. The Civil War took a horrific toll on the country. The civil rights movement was dangerous and deadly. Some police officers are even now being called on the carpet for being trigger happy with black civilians. Are the police automatically bad, and the ones shot good? No. But no one can ignore there’s a problem.
But that’s a whole other political issue, and what I really want to talk about are the people in the South that I know, specifically my own Southern heritage. My grandparents grew up in poverty. My maternal grandmother married young, and had a toddler and a baby on the way when her husband was killed. She was 22, had little education, and two children. But then my grandfather – at least the one I knew – came along and raised my mother, her sister, and the son they had together. Grandpa had a sixth grade education before he was pulled out of school to help on the farm. He joined the service at 16 and lied about his age. World War II was more appealing than the hard, back-breaking work he did day in and day out in the fields, only to face abuse and outright neglect at home.
Cotton on the roadside, cotton in the ditch
We all picked the cotton but we never got rich
My maternal grandmother died when I was fourteen, so I never got to know her on an adult level as I did my grandfather. He was quite a man – 6’4″, huge broad shoulders, but a gentle heart. When my grandmother was alive, he was always in the background, the guy who counted my ribs and called me “stinkerpot”. Not sure if that’s just a Southern thing or an all around annoyance for children. When my grandmother died, we worried about how he would make it. But he did very well. He became more than the man who worked 7 days a week on oil wells to keep the family going (yet cleaned up shinier than anyone you’d ever seen), though there were times without work where they barely made it. My mother remembers picking cotton once as a child, and the pain of her fingers, and the tiny amounts of money they made from an entire day’s worth.
My grandfather was a DEMOCRAT. He lived and breathed the values of the party. I mean the party, and not the politicians, who obviously aren’t perfect. Once he went to vote and they asked him which party he belonged to, causing my grandfather to bellow “Do I look like a goddamn Republican to you?” I doubt they asked him again.
Daddy was a veteran, a southern democrat
They oughta get a rich man to vote like that
When George Bush was elected, I remember him saying “We’re gonna go back to catchin’ rabbits for food.” He lived through the Depression. And it was Roosevelt that pulled them through it. He was elected to four terms. President Hoover’s answer to the poor people storming the White House was a water hose. President Roosevelt put them to work, building what they needed anyway, and paying them to do it. I don’t care what you say, most people DO want to work for pay, if given the chance. Though he grew up rich, his polio handicapped him, forcing him to see those less fortunate. Eleanor was often forced to be his voice to the people. And when this once very shy woman spoke, thousands of people listened and cheered. My daughters and I watched the Roosevelts’ documentary on PBS. No, I didn’t make them watch it, they wanted to, and they loved it. Thing Two insisted on being Eleanor in her school play, even though she only had one line.
Cotton was short and the weeds were tall
But Mr. Roosevelt’s a gonna save us all
Well momma got sick and daddy got down
The county got the farm and they moved to town
Pappa got a job with the TVA
He bought a washing machine and then a Chevrolet
They had chickens, and rabbits. I remember the rabbits especially because when I asked for one, my father reacted in horror saying “They stink”. He did not view them as fun pets after caring for them. There is a picture of several of the family in from of an old car. Having a car was a big deal, even then. His grandfather didn’t have indoor plumbing still. His mother was a fabulous cook, making do with what they had. She never had a job, but people remembered she was the best basketball player on the team. She played with her three sons, who would pick her up and annoy the hound out of her. But she loved her kids, and did what she could. My father needed just a little more money to make it working and going to college. She scraped it together somehow. My father was the first person in his family to get not just a college degree, but a Master’s as well, all through sheer determination – and a little help from his mom and random acts of kindness.
Well somebody told us Wall Street fell
But we were so poor that we couldn’t tell
My father will always be a “poor boy” in his head. He worked hard, and saved hard, and paid for my college education. I did not have to work, and I do not have student loan debt. I will always owe him for that. He has a savings account for my children as well. My mother finished a Master’s degree (also the first in her family) and went back to work when I was six (the “terrible thing that happened at our house”). She is also Democrat, though she does not enjoy politics as my father does. She does believe in the same values as my father, and can’t understand how people, especially poor people, can vote differently. When she stayed home with my brother and me, they didn’t have two pennies to rub together. But they struggled through it, my father working two jobs, my mother sometimes going to three different grocery stores to get the best bargains.
They didn’t have WIC back then, something that helped pull my family through our leanest years. That and a lot of help from my parents, and a little from those random acts of kindness. I didn’t want to go to the WIC office and get free food. But I had babies. So I did it. I saved as much as I could, to make my husband’s check last longer. Everything we owned was a hand-me-down. Our TV had a pull knob on it for years. I shopped garage sales – you can get great baby stuff for cheap. My parents bought us a new air conditioner (thank God for worry over grandbabies!) and conveniently gave us a gun cabinet our first Christmas to hold the guns my husband inherited. My husband votes Republican. When we married he said he didn’t care about politics so I figured I would convert him. It hasn’t worked yet.
I inherited many of these same values, values from Southerners born and bred. My mother says I was born a feminist, and she had little to do with it. My brother is a Republican. I am another died in the wool Democrat, and could never be anything else. Think about being a staunch Catholic or Protestant. Now imagine becoming a Buddhist. It’s about the same with me – liberal Democrat, the ideals of the liberal Democrat, they compose my values, the measure of what I am. And if you look down at the quote by JFK, you might see a few things Jesus agreed with as well.
We used to be the Solid South, but with civil rights came a dramatic shift. Now I’m one of the weirdos who doesn’t agree with a lot of other Southerners. But I agree with some. Like my parents, my grandparents, and now my children. Sure, they might change their minds when they are older, but I doubt it. They have my heritage. And even if they do change parties, they won’t change values. Those are inbred.
We are Southerners. This is our song, our song of the South.
Be sure and watch the video for some amazing historical footage of the South’s past. Not to mention some 80’s mullets.