This piece was originally published in Scalawag, which amplifies the voices of activists, artists and writers reckoning with the South. You can read the original article here.
Last month, while the nation was rapt with millionaire heir Hugh Culverhouse’s heroic tale portraying himself as a defender of reproductive rights, some of us in Alabama dunked our cornbread in our buttermilk and pondered when national news might catch up to our local reporters, whose coverage offered a different narrative.
In June, Culverhouse duped his way into the hearts of progressives by claiming the University of Alabama voted to return his $26.5 million gift to the law school. The reason according to Culverhouse? He called on students to boycott the institution in opposition to Alabama’s restrictive abortion ban.
Of course, his story went viral. Here was a perfect morality play for a nation that loves to hate the South: A white savior single-handedly railing against a backwards state.
Turns out, the University of Alabama and Culverhouse were long locked in disagreements about how his money ought to be spent. Emails show UA decided to return the money four days before Culverhouse’s abortion PR stunt. Their reason? Let me borrow from my dad’s family’s favorite phrase for the tight cling of the wealthy and power hungry: UA was dealing with a dingleberry.
I’d bet most folks who saw those early stories continue to believe Culverhouse’s version—even after reading additional reporting. The facts bore out a truth that simply didn’t fit with the narrative of Alabama most folks prefer to believe.
Here’s a story that captures how I figure everyone thinks of the South:
It’s 2009, my first day of graduate school at the University of North Carolina Wilmington.
I’m 24, somewhat foolishly pursuing a Masters of Fine Arts in poetry, newly transplanted from Birmingham to a city where I know no one. Many of my peers have arrived from prestigious universities or positions as Real Writers or with a partner to keep them company during the depressing months ahead.
In my first class, a professor asks us to include our favorite novel from high school in our introductions. When it’s my turn, I offer two: Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston and East of Eden by John Steinbeck.
Some other folks are tossing around unreadable, existential tomes that broody college students carry spine-up in their messenger bags so I’m thinking I’ve played it safe. The point is, with the others, the professor has tossed softball questions about form or the questionable morality of the author and how we separate their lives from their work.
To me, the professor asks: “Homeschooled kid?”
I shake my head, not sure where we’re heading.
She frowns. “Did you board out-of-state?”
“I went to public school,” I say.
“In Alabama?” she asks.
“In Madison, a suburb of Huntsville.” Until this point, I’ve lived in Alabama my whole life.
I scan the faces of the others in this room—some of them as young or younger than I am, many of them older with a great deal more life experience than even this professor. Potatoes with buttons shoved in the heads for eyes have been more expressive.
The professor and I share a belabored back-and-forth about how I came to know these texts (summer reading assignments for English classes) and whether or not my peers also enjoyed, or more importantly, understood them (they did; most of them were and are much brighter than I am). Instead of accepting my experience and focussing on the novels I’d offered to discussion, there is open indignation and continued interrogation about the validity of my education and whether or not I was an Alabama outlier (I’m not).
I get the feeling it would be easier for me to don the mask of a dimwit and say, “Just kidding, y’all. I only read the pictures in my Paw-paw’s Bible.”
(An important geographical note here: We are in the South.)
Later, I’ll realize this indignation is born of an affront to the false narratives these folks have internalized about themselves as culturally and intellectually superior in relation to the ignorant Southerner.
Right now, I’m only aware this encounter is lasting longer than any of the others.
“Huh,” the professor says. I can tell she doesn’t totally trust me, but at least the encounter is over. She moves to the next person, but I’m not listening.
I’m wondering if I am some backwoods imposter.
I’m thinking about Flannery O’Connor, how she showed up at the Iowa Writers Workshop in 1945, and when the director couldn’t understand her Georgia lilt, she wrote on a piece of paper, “My name is Flannery O’Connor. I am not a journalist. May I come to the Writers Workshop?”
Accounts of O’Connor sitting silently in those workshops during her masters program and eventually stunning all those yankee dingleberries with her brilliance when she submitted her prose have long quelled any sense of inferiority I have about where I come from.
In this moment, though, I realize I am not going to be anything like O’Connor.
This class can make perfect sense of the words I’m saying.
They just don’t believe me.
Luckily, I wasn’t on the official roster, and when I didn’t make it into the class, I was relieved not to be in a semester-long position of constantly defending my background or home.
I should have considered it a primer, or better, a premonition for the years to come.
In a rare recording of O’Connor, you can listen to her read the essay, “Some Aspects of the Grotesque in Southern Fiction,” which includes the line: “Of course, I have found that anything that comes out of the South is going to be called grotesque by the Northern reader, unless it is grotesque, in which case it is going to be called realistic.”
This was 1960. By now a famous and acclaimed author, O’Connor was criticizing modern critical and scholarly attitudes toward popular realist fiction and the limitations of narratives that lacked mystery and imagination. Of course, she was also making a joke about misconceptions of the South more broadly. That’s why the line resonates with me each time I come across it.
Coming to the defense of Alabama and the South at large is pretty much what I’ve been up to in the decade since that first awkward introduction to literary academia.
Back then, my protests amounted to a lot of blood-boiled “but, buts” at parties and in class when people offered misinformed ideas about the South. Here’s a for instance: In a workshop, a classmate explained her choice to have a fictional character live in a trailer to show the reader the protagonist was ignorant and poor without having to say so. When I suggested she might be using classist stereotypes to incorrectly caricaturize, the professor came to her defense.
“It’s funny,” he said. And that was that.
In recent years, as a journalist, many of the stories I pitch to magazines outside the South use this framework: “Everyone thinks X about the South but Y is true.” It’s an angle that’s allowed me to write about artists, activists, politicians, whatever. I’m beginning to suspect I’ll get sick of this framework long before I run out of topics.
In communities online and at home, I’ve sought a kind of support group for Southerners who give a shit about examining what Southern identity really is, who are comfortable wrestling with the complexity of this place, celebrating what makes it so wonderful while also raging against what makes it a hellscape.
A few weeks ago, on Twitter, I asked, “What’s the most condescending thing someone has said to you about living in / being from the South?” I shared my grad school “boarding school / homeschool” moment.
Hundreds of people replied with results varying from hilarious to odd to downright sad. There were the clichés—lots of jokes about bare feet and toothless, cousin loving. There were elitist culinary digs about squirrel soup or possum dumplings or fried everything. There were comments about the South as the only place where racism thrives or where poverty abounds because of the population’s incompetence and not the pitfalls of capitalism and extractive, racist labor practices in which the North continues to benefit from the South, a relationship as old as America herself. And, my favorite, there were strange assumptions about what might hurt our feelings, like this, courtesy of a guy named Bob Lynch, a sports writer and self-described Waffle House enthusiast:
“Met a Vermonter at a hostel in Munich. He brought up his admiration for Abraham Lincoln in conversation then apologized because he worried that mentioning him would offend me.”
Taken individually, these offenses might seem minor, and any hurt feelings an overreaction in a world full of real trauma for oppressed folks. Collectively, though, the conversation illuminated a more invasive and dangerous pattern in our storytelling in both art and news media. The most populous region of the United States is, contrary to popular belief, not a monolith of barefoot, cis-gendered, hetero white folks.
Stereotyping Southerners reduces our understanding of the South to a crude representation that is both sociologically false and imaginatively dead.
Here’s what folks don’t understand when they readily accept these narratives as truth: They give more power to the (mostly) white men who run this state, the very people who fund or write our oppressive laws, ensuring those dudes and their wealthy offspring and cohorts will continue to hold power. Every time a law creeps from our nightmares to their statehouse or every time Alabama lawmakers ignore very real issues of corruption and inequity, folks outside of Alabama flippantly suggest the rest of the U.S. give us the boot. Little cartoon maps of the U.S. with a blacked-out Alabama get passed around the internet as if we have become the missing tooth in our redneck uncle’s smile.
By dismissing this state in such a way, well-intended progressives are ignoring the people who call the South home who are Black, brown, queer, trans. In that way, their self-righteous reactions are born of the same racist elitism as the very laws they say they’re criticizing.
They’re assuming there aren’t people on the ground working toward solutions against or around or to upend a system that benefits the few.
This matters beyond Southerners feeling unheard or misrepresented because funding—political, nonprofit, corporate—is so often determined by people who’ve bought into these narratives and see Alabama as a lost cause. We’ve heard that from activists from as far back as the Civil Rights Movement. (Luckily for the U.S., Black civil rights leaders believed in and fought for the inherent dignity of all Alabamians.) We’ve seen Democratic candidates in Alabama left high and dry even when on-the-ground organizers are making headway in spite of gerrymandered districts and voter suppression that make real representation here damn near impossible.
We’ve also seen a Democrat narrowly win a Senate seat by the margin of a mouse fart, as my dad likes to say, against an alleged child predator. So yes, of course, there’s work to be done.
Meanwhile—and this one’s real important—white supremacy runs amok outside of the South and in Southern progressive spaces because white progressives have adopted the notion that racism exists as a caricature. Whenever power structures in progressive spaces—politics, academia, the media, wherever—are challenged, there’s much defensiveness and pearl-clutching and rarely an open acknowledgement of a need for change. Look at what happened recently the Jackson Free Press, and the women of color calling attention to their poor treatment by leadership.
If our collective understanding of a racist wasn’t that of a southern bubba in a pick-up truck or a good old boy in a seersucker suit in a boardroom, then we might be better at truly examining our nation’s oppressive history and how that history informs our power structures today. Here’s a for instance: When I was in Portland recently, I saw way more Black Lives Matter signs than I saw Black people. That could be because of the neighborhoods I was in, but I’ve got a hunch that’s because Oregon is the only state to have ever banned Black residents, and today, Black people who do live in Portland—the place most of us consider the holy ground for progressive culture—report high instances of labor and housing discrimination.
So how do we have such a skewed perspective? The folks who benefit from the ego boost of false Southern narratives (yes, the dingleberries) often control narrative. They choose our movies, our novels, our headlines. They determine whose lives are centered in our stories and whose lives ought to exist on the periphery.
And we Southerners, in turn, consume these stories and risk internalizing the belief we are less than, unworthy and eternally hopeless.
We’re told we deserve our high rates of impoverished communities. We’re told we deserve to have the worst schools. We’re told we deserve our shitty mortality rates because we should die off for continuing to elect people who write laws that undeniably stunt progress and equity for all.
It’s no wonder we grow weary or worse, apathetic. It’s no wonder we worship football and Jesus. At least we can be champions. At least we can be loved.
To the great benefit and convenience of those in power, these narratives do not allow for the complicated ways our political and economic systems (backed by so many of our faith leaders) are built to ensure these folks continue to hold power.
It’s easier to sanctimoniously imagine us Southerners pissing away life than to accept this truth: The modern horrors of the South aren’t unique to the South, and what is exacerbated here—including oppressive law—is often connected to national attitudes and political strategies and to our collective history.
In the poem, “Everybody in America Hate the South,” the Alabama poet Jacqueline Trimble writes:
America ought to say
thank you, Miss South, thank you for being like
Jesus and taking on the sins of the whole country.
I wish everybody would listen to her. I bet they won’t.
“We are the land of the backward, we are hicks, we lack the sophistication to see two sides to an argument.”
That’s what Culverhouse said to media about the impetus for his family’s large donation. He claimed they hoped their money might change the state’s stereotypes.
This quote appeared in dozens of early news stories, and a number of folks I knew back at UNCW shared those articles.
I wrote to some of them, suggesting they consider reading the local news coverage, including a history of Culverhouse’s anti-abortion political donations. Many of them simply deleted their posts without sharing with their (sometimes large) social media audiences they’d be fooled into thinking this man a hero.
O’Connor often lamented comments from Southerners who told her there weren’t Bible salesmen on the sexual prowl for one-legged intellectuals or murderers lurking along backroads awaiting self-righteous grannies. She lamented northern readers, too, who also assumed she was a kind of literary journalist, believing the eccentricity of her characters to be an exclusive representation of Southern identity.
All along, she’d declared she was a writer of fiction, not a journalist. Yet, she often got to deeper truths about this place than any nonfiction writer might hope to achieve. If folks believed O’Connor’s portraits to be wholly true, then, and I’m glad she’s too dead to read this, even that would be an improvement over the view we have of Southerners now.
Instead, reductive stereotypes abound. By tapping into the notion we’re a state full of hicks, Culverhouse stretched out his hand and asked, once again, for everyone to climb aboard a high horse where they might all comfortably look down on this place.
And that doesn’t do anyone any good. Because Alabama—same as the rest of the South, same as America—is deeply flawed.
To change it, we have to see things as they are.
Katherine Webb-Hehn in a freelance multimedia journalist in the South. She’s the recipient of fellowships from the Marguerite Casey Foundation and the Heinrich Böll Foundation. Her work has been honored, awarded or selected by the Society of Professional Journalists, the Institute of Nonprofit News, The New York Times, The Atlantic, Longreads and others. She lives with her husband, son and a pup in Birmingham, Alabama. Follow her on Twitter @KAWebb_.