In the summer of 1998, just after graduating from college, I went on tour with Blue Mountain, a rock band from Oxford, Mississippi. They needed somebody to drive the van, a last-minute replacement for their regular guy. I had just moved back to my parents’ house in Jackson, and I didn’t have a job, so I jumped at the chance to get out of town. It was a short trip, two weeks spent driving to mid-sized rock clubs around the Midwest and Great Lakes--Chicago, Milwaukee, Cleveland, Buffalo--mostly cities that I’d never seen before.
About halfway through the tour, we crossed the border into Toronto. That afternoon, in the long hours between sound check and showtime, when the band members split up to do their own thing, I landed in a bar on Queen Street, not far from the venue. It was still early, and the bar was quiet, so I made small talk with the bartender. She noticed my accent and asked where I was from.
Mississippi, I said.
“What’s it like in the South?” she asked. “I imagine it’s really hot.”
“And the people move really slow. And talk really slow.”
Uh, okay. Sure.
“And think really slow.”
“And they’re all really racist.”
Well, shit. I really don’t remember what I said after that, but I do know that I paid up and got out of there pretty fast. The whole encounter was embarrassing and hurt my feelings. I’m sure most Southerners have had similar moments while travelling--it’s happened to me since then--someone from some Other Place wants to hold you personally accountable for the sins of the South. At the time, this was a first for me, and I can trace a lot of my own mixed up feelings about my Southern identity back to that moment.
To be fair, this modern-day Southern identity crisis is mostly the result of our own doing.
There are certain signifiers of Southern culture, images and ideas that we embrace and uphold as symbols of our uniqueness. A sleepy-eyed dog sprawled out on the rickety porch of a shotgun shack. A gaggle of barefoot kids with dirt-streaked faces elbow deep in ripe watermelon. Old rusted out trucks resting in knee-high weeds that have become a natural part of the landscape. These are the images of our childhoods, or even our everyday lives, appearing alongside reflections of ourselves. When these images are captured by our own artists--photographers, painters, musicians, writers, filmmakers--we celebrate them and rejoice in them. But when they’re broadcast back to us from Hollywood productions or New York City publishing houses, we decry them as cliched, stereotypical, and--worst of all--inauthentic.
And then there are other images, other signifiers of Southern culture. Emmett Till’s open casket. Nine teenagers in Little Rock being escorted in to Central High by the National Guard. The photographs of James Earl Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner on an FBI “Missing” poster. These are images some of us hold up as examples of how much has changed since then and others submit as evidence for how much remains the same. Either way, they are somber reminders of a bleak history only two generations removed.
But what about all the other images of some Southerners' daily lives? What about the multi-lane traffic jams, the sprawling shopping malls, the concrete office parks? While almost all major American cities have unique identities steeped in histories of culture and commerce, outlying suburbs and rural areas are becoming more and more homogenized, thanks to great cultural equalizers like big box stores and online discussion forums.
Not exactly an original or groundbreaking idea, I know, and maybe it’s an over-generalization, but I do think it’s a reason so many Southerners--especially those of us who make and/or consume art--cling to the old signifiers. The problem, however, is that as Southern culture becomes farther removed from the origins of Southern culture, those signifiers no longer ring quite as true. What happens when artists who trade in Southern culture tend more toward obligation than inspiration, more toward stereotypes than archetypes? Or what happens if artists from the South stop trading in the old signifiers all together? If Southern culture is slowly disappearing, does that mean Southern art is disappearing too?
For this issue of Southern Glossary, we talked to artists whose work addresses themes of identity. All of these artists live and work in the South, but I don’t think their work would be easily recognized as Southern by outsiders. Does that make them less Southern? Is a Southern artist simply someone who is from the South and makes art? Or does the art have to be some sort of expression of the South?
When I talked to painter John Westmark, the subject of the South came up a couple of times, but almost never in relation to his work. Westmark’s paintings address themes of feminism and women in conflict, and when I asked if he thought there was a particular brand of Southern feminism that inspired him, or if the South dealt with feminist issues differently than the rest of the country or the rest of the world, his answer was no, not really.
If you talk to Westmark, there’s no mistaking him for anything but Southern. His drawl is resonant, and he talks about growing up in the Southern Baptist church. He mentions a friend who moved to Los Angeles and tried to lose his accent because when he talked people looked at him like “he had grits pouring out of his mouth.” However, none of these things are really reflected in Westmark’s work, and the more I tried to talk about Southernness, the more I felt like I was forcing something onto the work that just isn't there.
I did get one great quote from Westmark that bridges the gap between his Southern raising and his work. He was talking about his oldest daughter, who was just turning 14 that week.
“I’ve met so many amazing, self-defined ‘crazy Southern ladies,’ my generation and the generation before,” said Westmark. And his daughter, he said, is “starting to find her voice and who she is, and I kind of hope in my heart of hearts that’s she’s one of these crazy, scandalous Southern ladies.”
I love that quote, not just because it’s Southern and relates to the work and because I totally know exactly the kind of women he means, but also because he’s talking about his family, a subject that came up several times in our conversation. That one quote is full of the kind of Southern signifiers that aren't present in Westmark’s paintings. But, ultimately, my intention was to write about his paintings, and I thought trying to shoehorn my own Southern agenda into his story was a disservice to Westmark, both as a painter and as a Southerner.
Westmark’s friend with the accent like a mouthful of grits reminded me of my encounter with the bartender in Toronto. After that day, I got self-conscious about my Mississippi accent and worked hard to lose it, at least when it was convenient for me to do so. I could still pour it on when I wanted to, but I could also tone it way down if I wanted to avoid being identified as a Southerner and all the implications that come along with that. The problem, however, was that I got really offended when people accused me of being from New England or, as happened more than once, from Europe or Australia, because of my bizarre over-enunciated accent with a hint of Mississippi, which they had no reference for. To make up for it, I sometimes found myself ramping up my dialect to Foghorn Leghorn-like levels.
I realize now, in hindsight, that I was treating my drawl as a signifier of Southernness, and once it became a signifier it really lost most of its meaning all together. So--eventually--I stopped worrying about it. These days my accent comes and goes without me thinking too much about it, usually depending on who I’m talking to or how much I’ve had to drink. And, while I still confuse words like on and own, or want and won't, permanent damage done from a few years spent trying to pronounce words “correctly,” I think that after all of my hand-wringing over what it means to be Southern it’s only natural that I’m still a little mixed up.
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