In my experiences with Civil Rights commemoration, I have often heard, “Look Back! March Forward!” What this means to me is being capable of understanding the past – both its mistakes and its successes – and also be capable of moving on from the worst while keeping the best. For me, multiculturalism is one answer to the South’s problems.
The South’s major difficulty for so long has been a lack of diversity in all aspects of our lives. The “Negro problem” implied a two-race social system: whites on top, blacks on bottom. The demagogic rule of the South’s Democratic Party, from the end of Reconstruction in 1876 to the end of the Solid South in the early 1970s, left an either-or choice in politics: the dominant Democrats or the massively outgunned Republicans. And if you like dichomoties: how about the Southerner/Damn Yankee or the Good ‘Ol Boy/Outside Agitator? Always it comes down to “us vs. them.”
However, today’s global economy has placed new demands on the South. Because so much of our economy is based on manufacturing or agriculture, the South has had to cooperate on a global scale, including selling on world markets and welcoming international corporations to bring factories. Near Montgomery, where I live, is a huge Hyundai plant, and right across the Georgia border is a huge Kia plant. Major international manufacturing interests, including Mercedes and Thyssen-Krupp from Germany, have brought jobs and expectations to the South from Asia and Europe, and we have had to open ourselves up to them if we want what they have to offer. Now, add to that the recent waves of the immigration of Hispanic people seeking work in large farming operations, the South has had to accept the influx of international cultures, however begrudgingly.
I think these changes in our population make-up are excellent developments for Southern culture. While it brings in jobs and other benefits, the “outsiders” also bring in their own ideas, lifestyles, expectations, demands, food, and languages. What that means for the South – and this is something that has not happened yet – is that we have to meet their needs. We can’t welcome people down here to do what we want done, then not accommodate them. For example, on the Gulf Coast are large pockets of Vietnamese and Cambodian fishermen and shrimpers, who are not Christians but Buddhists, and who have changed the culture of places like Bayou La Batre, Alabama. Consequently, our governments, schools, police, and other public services need to become more accommodating, especially in terms of language differences. We don’t need to go the way of Alabama gubernatorial candidate Tim James, who closed-mindedly proposed English driver’s license exams and eliminating the testing options current offered in 17 languages.
The South is already changing. The world is changing, for that matter. Insisting on the Old Southern us-versus-them mentality is not feasible anymore. And also insisting on the other Old Southern custom of extractive employment practices – setting up systems where a few people have all of the rights and privileges and everyone else has almost nothing – cannot continue either. If the South is unfriendly to the realities of a global economy, then the global economy will probably be unfriendly to the South.
[You can finish this five-part series, by reading “An Artist’s Statement, via Autobiography, Part Five.”]