During my first visit, my partner and his best friend took me on a “back roads” tour of North Alabama. I was in absolute shock when we drove down several roads with nothing but trailers that had yards full of broken down appliances, kids toys, rusting hulks of cars, trucks on blocks, and bags of trash. The siding was mismatched, the curtains were faded, and in at least one case the flower beds were plastic flowers. I was blown away—I didn’t believe people really lived that way. I thought it was just a stereotype, an overdone sitcom joke, people snobbishly making fun of Southerners. Nope, all real.
You’ve heard the joke, “I hear banjos…keep paddling…”? Not necessary. Because most of those people, with broken down trailers and trashed yards, are the nicest, coolest, most laid-back and fun people you will ever meet. They may not have the brick house in the suburbs with a white picket fence and a pretty little cat in the window, but they are not where they live. They are not their situations. They are people, above all. They may not have a new stove and a big screen TV, but they’ll feed you the best tomatoes you’ve ever had.
On that same visit, I learned about the rules governing overalls. The stereotypical image of a farmer in his overalls, wearing a trucker hat and dirty boots all the time? Almost true. In reality, there are dress overalls, town overalls, and work overalls. Dress overalls are usually worn with collared shirts, maybe a bola tie. Town overalls, a clean t-shirt. Work overalls, anything or nothing under them. Hats will tell you where someone’s loyalties lie. John Deere, McCormack, Alabama, Auburn, the NRA, the Confederacy—think a bumper sticker for your head, with the added bonus of keeping your head from freezing or crisping. Country bumpkins, right? Well, they may not be as sophisticated as a big-city dweller, or know a lot of fancy words, but when something needs to be grown, fixed, built, created, arranged, rearranged, they are your guys. And the one covered in dirt, with the blue bandanna handkerchief? He’s probably got more money in the bank than you will make in a lifetime.
Now, listening to and understanding Southern speech takes time. It was months before I could reliably understand what people were saying, and I did a lot of asking people to repeat themselves—I played the “weirdo from California” card for as long as I could. There are plenty of people who think that all southerners sound uneducated and backwards, that a Southern accent is some sort of character flaw, that if you have one, you’re sore sort of ignorant, knot-head redneck. I believe that the doctors, lawyers, engineers, rocket scientists, tradespeople, teachers, scientists, political and social activists, writers, musicians, entrepreneurs, inventors, builders, and every other sort of intelligent person with a twang would beg to differ. There are stupid, thoughtless, narrow-minded mean people with Philly, Brooklyn, Minnesota, and West Coast accents, too. Your voice does not determine your destiny, much as the media would like to make you think it does.
I’m not going to say that some of the darker, more brutal, more unpleasant things you’ve heard about the South don’t exist. We’ve got plenty of racism, sexism, classism, homophobia, and xenophobia to go around. We’ve got people who behave in the most unchristian-like manner possible but show up to church every Sunday. We’ve got people who would rather eat glass than share a bench with one of “those” people. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve flinched when the “n” word gets tossed around in polite conversation. The men-are-men and women-are-women attitude is not dead yet. But while that’s what gets the press, it’s only a tiny piece of the place.
If you look hard enough, you can find dirt anywhere. But give this place a chance, and you’ll see that we’re a lot more than camo pants and rebel flags.