A Public Relations Problem

Historian Numan V. Bartley wrote in the very last paragraph of his 1995 book, The New South, 1945 – 1980: The Story of the South’s Modernization, these statements:

The region was no longer the nation’s number-one economic problem nor the nation’s number-one moral problem, but economic and racial problems persisted. The South was no longer a land of depleted and gullied farms, but the exploitation of the environment continued and probably became more severe. The expanding service economy produced low-pay and dead-end jobs, while corporate and professional people prospered, thereby widening the gap between the working class and the affluent.

and his final sentence reads like this:

The South was prosperous and progressive, and southerners were free to pursue personal fulfillment through career and achievement.

Bartley’s book reaches pretty far into modern times (by history’s standards), following in the chronology of C. Vann Woodward’s Origins of the New South, 1877 – 1913 and George Brown Tindall’s Emergence of the New South, 1913 – 1945, and some of Bartley’s truths above are still true in the second decade of the 21st century.

I turned six years old in the late summer of 1980, the year that serves as Bartley’s ending demarcation for “the New South.” I began first grade that year at a fully integrated public elementary school in Montgomery, Alabama, after a year of kindergarten at the YMCA near my house. I was the class nerd, in a reading group by myself and almost always last-picked for games at PE, even after a lot of the girls; I spent a lot of time watching life from its sidelines back then. The South of the 1980s that I recall was a place of social confusion, of dying traditions, of vague stories about by-gone eras, of whispers about supposed us-versus-them conspiracies . . . and it was also a time of too many of our parents getting divorced, of the unquestionable nature of both summer heat and the authority of adults, of photographs in front of azaleas at Easter, of bands like REM and Widespread Panic making a new kind of Southern rock, of swarming and crowded Boy Scout Jamborees, and racist jokes that were only told in certain company.

Now, more than thirty years later . . . I can’t remember the last time I even saw a Boy Scout, but I do still walk a delicate tightrope that was strung up by my parents’ divorce. I also still listen to REM – some of us still debate now and then whether Document or Green was a better album – and we still talk sometimes about “Widespread” shows we’ve been to. These days, my wife and I are taking photographs of our kids, all dressed up and frowning, in front of our azaleas at Easter. And even though I don’t tell them anymore, I still remember a few of those racist jokes told by men who bantered with grotesque playfulness at us boys, laughing with each other at things they knew we didn’t understand.

In “The South Revisited,” journalist Karl Fleming, a native Southerner who covered the Civil Rights movement for Newsweek, returns to Mississippi, Alabama, and Georgia in August 1970 – four years before I was born – to survey the changes. He found a queer mixture of significant change and no-change-at-all, the same queer mixture that I grew up in, the same queer mixture that still coats the South like a slimy residue. Not too surprisingly, Fleming’s conclusions seem eerily similar to Numan Bartley’s conclusions in his book, which came out 25 years later— a radical change to more of the same. There were new kinds of black responses to white racism and new kinds of industries locating in the post-Civil Rights South, but the same-old-same-old is still hanging around, even today, with plenty of inequality and squalor to go around, with the haves and have-nots distinct and obvious in their places.

Lots of changes, yep . . . like how the South of today is no longer a place where the heat is unquestioned. Air conditioning is now the fourth “basic need,” alongside food, clothing and shelter. Twelve years ago, I bought a little white two-door Toyota Echo with no air conditioning at the dealership where a boyhood friend’s father was the sales manager, and though I hadn’t talked to my old friend in years, he called me by the end of that week to say, “My dad called me and said, ‘You know who I saw today? Foster! You know what he did? He bought a car with no air-conditioning!’” More than a decade later, my Echo only has about 80,000 miles, mostly because no one will ride anywhere with me six months out of the year. Sometimes in the summers, when I drive somewhere in the heat with the windows down, I walk in and the arctic blast from inside is such a drastic jolt that I get nauseated . . . yes, Southerners believe in using the air conditioning.

Even just a decade ago, in a land of full-size pickup trucks, people used to make fun of my little eco-car. One man stopped me at gas station not long after I bought it and said right in my face, “That’s the ugliest car I’ve ever seen!” I replied simply, “Then don’t buy one.” That was back when gas hovered around a buck a gallon. My Echo used to get close to fifty miles per gallon on the interstate – we could drive from Montgomery to Charleston, South Carolina on one ten-gallon tank – and it still gets in excess of forty. Well, people don’t laugh at my car anymore, since gas hovers now between three and four bucks a gallon, and even the hybrids don’t get the kind of MPG mine stills gets . . . but people still won’t ride anywhere with me most of the year, and they still drive pickup trucks and SUVs that are now guzzling that three-to-four-dollar gas.

And still more things are now questioned that didn’t used to be. Like public schools, which used to be the uncontested option for most children. When I was growing up, kids went to the schools near their houses, and those who went to private schools were either from wealthy families or from very religious families, each wanting to isolate their kids from the unwashed masses for their own very different reasons. (I was an exception, as a working-class kid who went to private school for grades five through twelve, but that’s a-whole-nother story.) Today, I’m a teacher at a public magnet school, and people I hear from seem to regard their zoned public schools as an absolute last resort, a warehouse for miscreants from families with no resources, a place where almost no one graduates and a few don’t even survive. That public (mis)perception is fueled by news reports of violence occurring on campuses and by statistics showing high participation rates in free and reduced lunch programs, and it is perpetuated by the infamous Southern capacity for myth-making.

See, things do change in the South! Another thing that has changed is that our most prominent political leaders have ceased to be even remotely entertaining or interesting. The old politicians at least had the decency to be fun to watch. I remember former Alabama governor Fob James, who had been an Auburn football player, making national news when he acted like a monkey at a press conference to mock the teaching of evolution in science classes. Most of today’s Southern politicians fuel their careers with a bland proclivity for something they call “conservative values,” the tapioca of political ideals. The least they could do is tell some off-color jokes or commit some inappropriate buffoonery to divert attention from how they aren’t solving the most obvious problems, like rampant poverty, race-based wage gaps, and underperforming schools.

Numan Bartley assessed seventeen years ago that, by 1980, the South was “prosperous and progressive” as well as “free to pursue personal fulfillment,” right after he had summarized the fiercely unbalanced nature of the New South scenario. His assertions about progress and freedom in the South can be argued, certainly, especially in light of recent developments like severe de-funding of public education, the controversial immigration laws in Alabama and Georgia, and attempts in Alabama to pass almost draconian anti-abortion measures. In the New South, everyone is free to pursue whatever opportunities the people with money and power don’t squelch, ruin or outright forbid.

The South, as Karl Fleming called it, is a “passionately alive and violent country.” We all know what passionate means: when emotions have taken control over reason, when desire is in control over order. And alive: to exist and to struggle to continue to exist, as free of impediments as possible. But the term violent is trickier, since most people associated it with literal fighting and killing, as in fistfights and gunfights. However, more broadly, violence is any brute force used for destructive or coercive purposes, with the full understanding that the victim will be hurt or damaged by it and that the perpetrator will gain the upper hand from it. For all of the South’s infamously passionate living – its natural beauty and artistic creations, its music and food – its violence is also legendary. The question to ask may be: down here, could one quality exist without the other, or are they so inextricably tied as to be symbiotic?

Given the Deep South’s precarious reputation as an instigator and commemorator of the Civil War, as the main homestead of Jim Crow, as a Depression-era poverty nightmare, as the most volatile battleground in the Civil Rights movement, as the home turf of a grizzly kind of Old Testament evangelism, as a breeding ground for the nation’s most intense modern political battles . . . who would want to have anything to do with us down here? And can you blame them?

Yet, living in the Deep South really is wonderful, even despite all that. Right now, as I write this, with about two more weeks left in winter, the dogwoods and azaleas are blooming. The althea, crepe myrtles, and hydrangeas are all budding, too. It’s a warm, sunny day and now that I’m done with yard work for the day, I’ll probably go make some lunch and sit on the front porch to eat it, then maybe I’ll pointlessly wash the yellow pollen lacquer of that little white Echo. A couple of new bars and restaurants have recently opened close to my house, and I may go try one of them out this weekend. The kids and I might go for bike ride this afternoon, too. You know, for all of the bullshit we have to deal with down here, it still can’t ruin a really nice Saturday afternoon.

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