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Why we love the South despite its dark history

Jan Hearne • Feb 20, 2012 at 8:41 AM

As it often happens when friends gather in the South, the conversation turned to The War. No, not Iraq or Afghanistan, but the Civil War. Please note, this was a gathering that included a former Peace Corps volunteer (ca. 1960s), a poet and anti-war activist and former founding members of a NOW chapter. People who might be labeled liberals. We happened to be Southerners, too.

One friend, from Nashville, told how her great-grandmother “Miss Tiny” had as a child sat on the knee of Nathan Bedford Forrest, Confederate general and founding member of the Ku Klux Klan. I suppose Miss Tiny’s family considered it an honor, but her great-granddaughter couldn’t be more opposed to Forrest’s views.

I told the story of the day I learned the South had lost the war. My family and I were at a high school football game in Savannah, where my sister was cheer leading. All of 4 years old, I, who had the vaguest notions of that war, assumed the South had won. During the football game, for some reason my parents told me the South had lost. I was crestfallen.

My friends and I spoke of our love for this part of the country and our frustration with it. Only one of us would like to live outside the South, though several of us have at one time or another.

“I have to ponder this,” I said later. “Why are we so loyal to a land whose history we despise?”

Is it about family? I am at least a fifth-generation Georgian. Though at least one ancestor fought for the Confederacy, he didn’t live on a plantation or own slaves. His family came from Ireland, and the Irish were met with extreme prejudice upon their arrival in America. Like many soldiers in that war, I suspect he didn’t know why he was fighting. Bound for glory, those boys were.

Certainly our loyalty is about culture: food, music, language, literature, landscape. Though people make fun of our accents, I have grown proud of mine, but I must admit at one time I did work hard to pronounce my g’s and not say things like “winda” for window.

I think of the brilliant people — Eudora Welty, William Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor — who spoke with thick Southern accents and wish mine were more Georgia and less TV.

I love grits and bacon, black-eyed peas, butter beans, rice, okra, corn bread and sweet tea. There is nothing lovelier to me than Spanish moss draped upon the branches of a live oak or ancient mountains rising up from green meadows or a river moving slowly between two red-clay banks.

Perhaps it is the way the past here is palpable, as Faulkner said. I have met a woman whose grandfather fought in the Civil War.

Go back three generations, and we are sitting on Nathan Bedford Forrest’s knee.

Let it go, people tell us. How can we when the air is thick with ghosts?

Jan Hearne is Tempo editor for the Johnson City Press. Reach her at [email protected]

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