What is it about the South? What is it that captivates people all over the world? Yeah, historically we’ve exhibited some bad behavior—and some currently— but it remains one of the most puzzling, yet intriguing places on the planet. So what is it with a place that is so full of contradictions and inconsistencies that makes it so fascinating to so many?
There’s plenty of strange and wonderful to go around, and without a doubt, the very paradoxes that baffle and confuse, are at least part of the answer to the enigma. For us lifers, many of whom don’t deny the injustices we’ve perpetrated throughout our history, it’s sometimes difficult to explain the visceral love we have for this place. But maybe it’s a little like the way we feel about our “crazy Aunt Erline.” We may not understand why she does some of the stuff she does, but we love her just the same.
Clearly, “place” has a starring role in our emotional attachment. There’s a climate for every taste, and a beautiful vista to accompany it. Contradiction is at its finest in the landscape arena, from the winter snows in the Appalachian Chain to the whitest beaches in the world on the on the Gulf Coast. The cypress swamps of the Louisiana Bayou are a shadowy and mysterious setting that have an almost primordial beauty, and the fertile black loom of the Arkansas and Mississippi Deltas is so intense that the smell of the rich earth permeates the air.
There’s the city of Atlanta, whose leaders—black and white, decided a long time ago that in spite of their history and differences, they were going to make a go of it, and their efforts resulted in the largest metropolitan city in the South. There’s the city of New Orleans, which once burned to the ground, and is a flood disaster waiting to happen, but whose spirit never dies. The music that originated there has influenced musicians and music lovers worldwide, and the food and restaurants in the city are comparable to any cuisine anywhere. There’s the city of Savannah, who surrendered, rather than be torched, by “you know who,” and so survived to become the beautiful, lunacy packed lady that it is today. There’s “Music City,” or Nashville, Tennessee, where yet another music form unique to our country reigns, and where the Grand Ole Opry, one of the most famous musical stages in the world was created. And there’s Memphis, Tennessee, which is the home office of pork barbeque, the place Elvis Presley called home, the place where B.B. King still strums his guitar, the place where Danny Thomas created St Jude Hospital, and the place which has the dubious distinction of being the city in which Dr. Martin Luther King was assassinated.
Throughout our history, southern writers have both compounded the conundrum, and provided some of the answers to the why of it all. William Faulkner delved into our psyches in a way no other author has before or since, and Miss Eudora Welty showed our dark side as well as our down-to-earth side, both black and white. Pat Conroy has taken us on numerous journeys through the low country of South Carolina and through the elegant homes and gardens of Charleston, while skillfully providing glimpses of what makes us tick. Harper Lee showed our racism while simultaneously showing our quiet elegance and our dignity.
Even our food is contradictory. The most delicious and original food in the culinary world is served alongside some of the most unhealthy food ever to be consumed. But remember: grits, gumbo, étouffée, barbeque, corn pones, hush puppies, and mint juleps were all brought to life in the South, and presented with Dixieland jazz and soulful blues playing in the background.
Extreme poverty, extreme politics, and rampant ignorance is countered by, wealth, less radical politics, and broad education. Our behavior is sometimes so outrageous that even we don’t know whether to laugh or cry over it. But most of us are kind, gracious, and giving people who live life intensely. We’re a land abundant with eccentrics, whom we embrace. We’re passionate about our art, our music, our literature, our food, the land, the sea, our family and friends, and yes, the SEC.
There’s a sensibility that exists in the South which is no doubt the result of living lifetimes surrounded by all of the ambiguities. Maybe our passion comes from that same source. And so we have it—our indescribable passion and undefinable sensibility may be the attraction. Non-Southerners can’t quite put their finger on it, but it’s a phenomenon that continues to fuel their curiosity.