The South – backwoods, not backwards.

Graphic by Rainier Pederson | Mercury Staff

Those who stereotype the South as backwards ignore all the civil rights leaders it has produced.

I spent a long time hating the South. I hated the music, I hated the incessant chirping of insects outside my window during the dry heat of the summer, and most of all, I hated the fact that the triple-meat Whataburger exists and that I could get it with a 72 oz. bottle of Sprite without a second look from the employee taking my order.

Anti-Southern language like this only gets worse the further you get into school. Somewhere along the way, discomfort with the pledge morphs into turning your nose up at trailer parks, and suddenly you find yourself in a college classroom arguing the South has nothing redeemable about it at all. This works for a little while … right? It’s refreshing to establish distance from this place. There is a level of control in being able to “transcend” the South, but the distance I try to put there has always been hollow.

I think there are so many things about the South that are valuable and worth giving the region a second glance for. Reducing Southern culture to a dramatized caricature erases the rich diversity and history that also exists here. Hating the same place I call home does not fix the problems that exist here — it only makes them worse.

I do see racism and sexism and extreme nationalism in the South, but there is also the work of Southern civil rights groups and grassroots political campaigns born out of a fierceness unique only to Southern upbringing. Women like Fannie Lou Hamer, Ruby Bridges and Diane Nash are all examples of Southern women who fought for Civil Rights in the heart of the South. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Jane Roe from Roe v. Wade, the woman who provided so many people around the country bodily autonomy, was a Texan. I don’t think it’s an accident that today, the five women who are suing over life-threatening pregnancies are Texans. So much change is a product of Southern value in loyalty, hard work and determination.

Maybe this is just an overly hopeful look at the harsh reality of Southern ideology. I still walk by the “pro-life” tables and groups picketing on campus trying to pander their harmful agendas. But I can’t help but think about a famous quote from late author James Baldwin.

“I love America more than any other country in the world and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually,” Baldwin said.

Replace “America” with “the South” and you’ve got a succinct summary of the posture I think self-proclaimed anti-Southerners should have toward the place we call home. Sustainable, long-term change in the region can only happen when we accept the flaws of the system we live in and choose every day to make the South better for ourselves and the people around us.

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