Posted by: jt | July 25, 2008

homeless: not just bulgakov’s poet

Apologies that posting’s been a little lighter than usual lately.  As previously mentioned, there has been a bit of Drama, much of which isn’t really mine to blog about. (So much for perks of anonymity.)

I just got back from a short visit to the town I grew up in.  For the first time in over seven years, I found myself in Martinez, a suburb of Augusta, Georgia. I’ve thought about going back to Augusta countless times over the years, mostly framing visits with old friends and acquaintances in the context of doing research to write a book.

Every time I talk about my childhood home, my friends – now mostly Midwesterners or people from other countries – tend to say things like, You’ve got to be kidding…you should write a book. In my memory, Augusta tends to exemplify the clash of Old meets New.  Old Money, Old Politics, Old Culture, Old Religion, unhappily meets new.  Change comes slowly in most places, but heels seem to dig particularly deeply into the well-manicured lawns of Augusta to resist.

I envisioned acquiescing to that Southern concept of time and taking things slowly. Perhaps I would come in late fall, when the temperatures and the humidity drop to something resembling bearable, and revisit the people and places that helped shape the way I view (or don’t view) the world.  I would stand before the homes, schools, churches and government buildings that housed both joyous and traumatic moments of my life; I would sit down with teachers, church friends and former classmates, and absorb how much or little they still mean to me.

Delving into conversations with people who’ve spent their entire lives in Augusta, I would examine this fascinating psyche that, I think, permeates smaller Southern communities – a fierce sense of defensive pride that comes from defeated nations.  People who have known me for a while are familiar with my mild obsession with the concept of nationalism and defeated nations.  I think it stems from growing up in one.

Like most things in life, my return to Augusta wasn’t on the terms I’d anticipated.

Amber, who is far more family than friend to me, her father died late last week and so my return to Augusta had nothing to do with my self-indulgent tendencies. To the contrary, I spent a couple of days earlier this week trying to be selfless and do whatever I could to be supportive, calming and useful.  Like any loss and like any family, there are complexities that layer the grieving process and those are things for Amber to write about, as she chooses.

My time in Augusta was too short and focused this time around to explore any of my cultural fascinations, so there will be another trip in the future.  It was strange to be back because, even though I lived there from the time I was four until I left home at eighteen, Augusta never truly felt like home to me – probably because I was raised for it not to.  When my parents talked about going “home,” they meant Minnesota.

However, to be fair, in the short time I was in Augusta this week, I witnessed a fifteen minute discussion of what is “Southern,” who is a “Yankee” and how the latter are generally inferior.  It was all light-hearted and not the least bit malicious (and not directed at me), but when you’re a sensitive kid growing up it’s virtually impossible not to internalize that sort of thing and take it personally.

Ah, Augusta.  For fourteen years you told me you didn’t want me.  And you still don’t.

It was fun to see you again, but the feeling’s still mutual.



  1. I think the “Yankee” thing is an understandable defensive reaction to the widespread notion, even among self-identified progressives (which is where the blatant hypocrisy always confounds me the most) of Southerners as being inferior, stupid, ignorant hicks. How often, when people want to make fun of something they think is ignorant (like homophobia, for instance) do they affect a wildly over-the-top Southern accent in order to get their point across? Hell, I’m sure I’ve done it myself at this point. And jut today I witnessed it on a feminist blog (check the comments).

    On that same blog post, the whole overtone of “OMG, people in Texas who aren’t morons??” also made me bristle. It’s not like I haven’t had my moments, but overall my feeling about the South is like a sibling or other relative that you can make fun of (because you have a greater understanding of the complexities) but if someone else does it, especially someone who barely knows the person, they’re going to get smacked. Like Matt, bless his heart, sophomore year of college at NYU…

    Matt (preparing to launch into pontification): “What I don’t like about the South is…”
    Me (cutting him off): “Wait wait wait… have you ever been to the South?”
    Matt: “Um, no…”
    Me: “Then you need to shut up.”

    And just get a load of this shit!

    Anyway. So that’s my theory on the “Yankee” thing. Personally I’ve never witnessed it being malicious, more like good-natured ribbing. I don’t doubt some people take it to the extreme and get really mean about it. But overall I can see where the sentiment itself comes from.

  2. Er, “at this point” in first graf should be “at some point.”

  3. What’s really interesting to me is that it’s an automatic defense mechanism when no one is even attacking. You saw how easily it happened and no one there was claiming to be anything but a dyed in the wool Southerner. To the contrary. It was like a fight for Southern credentials…and at the expense of “Yankees.”

    Lord knows, I deliberately turned on my accent the moment I got on the plane to Augusta. I was determined to, to some degree, “pass.”

    It’s like there’s this massive insecurity, so (some) Southerners are automatically defensive and critical of outsiders. There’s this need to prove oneself that just flusters people who aren’t expecting it because…people who live outside of the South, generally, don’t view it as an us/them situation. The line I’ve heard from a number of people who’ve moved from north of the Mason-Dixon Line to south (and it’s kind of a mantra in my family) is, You don’t realize that the Civil War is still being fought until you get there.

    Or, I’m sorry, is that the War of Northern Aggression?

    I know that the quickest way to portray someone as ignorant is to lay on a thick Southern accent and clearly that’s ridiculous but, honestly, that kind of discourse only reinforces the stereotype. There’s all of this misplaced defense when, usually, no one is attacking. People become the joke they’re defensive about because, for non-Southerners…who fucking cares?

    This example really was just funny. Clearly, everyone was good-natured and there wasn’t a “target,” but I really find it fascinating. And, given how it quickly it just came out of nowhere, it’s no wonder I always felt like an outsider and I got defensive as a kid. The place that I was from and my family were constantly under attack – sometimes good-naturedly but frequently not.

    Of course, having teachers who said things like, “I hate all Yankees” probably didn’t help much.

    And, as we know, “Yankees” don’t actually exist outside of Southerners minds. I’m yet to meet anyone who identifies as a “Yankee.” I suppose there are some baseball players in New York who do, but that’s about it.

    Maybe that’ll be one of my questions for people when I go back, Who are these damn Yankees?

  4. I don’t know. I’m not buying it. Substitute, say, “blacks” or “gays” for “Southerners” in your above comment, and see if it reads as sympathetic.

    And we should all know by now, the mere fact that some people match the stereotype (because some always will) does not make the stereotype okay or something that shouldn’t be pushed back on.

  5. And, no one is attacking? How about that Gawker thing I linked? How about countless other examples of regional bias, including the ones in my comment? How about that guy at PodCamp NYC asking us, upon finding out we were from Georgia, if most of our podcasts were about “military wives” (in total seriousness) and then affecting a stupid Southern accent and I guess thinking we’d find it cute, rather than ridiculously insulting?

    Remember that whole thing about, if you’re not the one it’s affecting, you don’t get to make the definitions? I know the feeling of regional bias. It’s not something i’m making up and it’s not something I’m okay with, and it’s not cool.

  6. I’m not avoiding this thread, I just needed my head to stop pounding before I could reply. Hopefully I’ll have time later today to give this a thoughtful response.

    Very briefly I will say, remember, regional bias cuts both ways. And I’m quite familiar with it.

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