NC Literary Hall of Fame



Writing the New South

"Writing the New South is a brilliant, exciting, and NECESSARY project---sign me up, count me in! The 'New South' is a cauldron of change, a fertile field of art, a proving ground  for new possibilities.  I can't wait to see what everyone has to say, and in what genres. This is a real opportunity for us all to deepen our understanding of where we live, who we are, and what we believe in." --Lee Smith

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February is a time of testing in North Carolina.  The skies seem to stay dark, like God redecorated and ordered a gun-metal gray theme.  We bundle up and listen to the wind outside shrill against the eaves, and hope there is enough salt pork and flour to see us through to the spring.

Lucky me, I married Louise, Warrior Queen of the North.  My wife has recently become as hot-natured as a boiling cauldron.  Icicles hang from the kitchen cabinets, the dog is frozen in place with one icy paw pointing up towards the thermostat, and she says, “Is it just me or is it hot in here?”  She steps over a penguin to lower the temperature . . . again.  Outside it’s so cold squirrels are throwing themselves on electric fences.

I do not argue with the Queen.  I go outside in 21-degree weather and walk around a bit without a coat, go back inside and feel warmer.  There is cold and there is less cold.  Sometimes you just need perspective.

Luckily I grew up on a farm in eastern North Carolina, where you accepted winter the way you accept your looks – with resignation.  Nothing you can do about it, really.

There was no TV weather forecasting for people on the farm, just a sudden sense of doom and old people saying their bones ached while we inventoried the jars of canned beans, corn and okra.  As far as meat, we were good Baptists and believed that God would provide.  A family of 10 would be reduced to a group of 8 by spring and everyone would appear well fed; there were never legal inquiries.

Winter on our hog farm was intense and gave you a shot of determination.  Can you survive?  Yes, but only if you really wanted to.

So with your jaw set you trudge outside to do chores at six in the morning, while the air still has the sharp bite of the cold night and the sun has yet to rise and give you hope.  My job was to take a hammer to the water troughs and break what had frozen overnight so the hogs could drink.  The big swine would stand in the unheated shelters looking at me.  I remember one very gentlemanly Berkshire boar hog, his eyes staring at me, icicles hanging from his snout.  His eyes seem to say, “Kill me now. Please.”  I swung the hammer and hit the trough of ice instead, and you could just see the disappointment on his face.

My father thrived on adversity and winter was his special challenge.  If he could not see your breath while you worked outside then he called the whole thing off until the temperature dropped a bit more.  He would put on long johns, two pairs of pants, a heavy flannel shirt, winter coat, gloves, and a hat, and then go outside to supervise my work.  He would stand bundled up and watch me clean pens, repair broken gates and slats with my hands numb from the cold and say, “Winters just don’t get cold like they used to.”

But today the farm in the new South is different.  The farmhouse has a special room in it called the “office,” complete with filing cabinets, swivel back chairs, desks with “In” and “Out” mail baskets sitting beside computers with wireless internet service.  You can track pig production and the health history of a Yorkshire sow while talking to your friends on Facebook.  Download an MP3 file of “Boot Scootin’ Boogie” and you can listen to it while you use software to plan corn crop rotation.  And while you’re at it, check your email and stock portfolio (Yikes! Halliburton dropped 2 points--Sell! Sell! Sell!).  If my father were here today he would sniff and turn his head away in disgust: not enough sweat involved.

Winter on the farm is no longer a test of endurance.  You just crank up a green John Deere tractor the size of a city block, complete with central heat, around-sound stereo and an overhead TV, all strategically placed in a soundproof cab, and you’re good to go.  The dashboard controls look like they belong in a Boeing 747 and there’s enough room in the cab to raise a family of four or build a sauna.  You sally forth into the fields not to break ground as a farmer, oh no – these days you’re a professional agriculturalist ( PA) and you’re about to modify a crop site.

While plowing fields that now lie next to housing developments, you talk with your wife on your Blackberry (blackberries originally grew on bushes; did you know that?) and you  both decide about supper – Bojangles, or call in a pizza?  Pressure cookers for canning tomatoes, okra and corn were long ago donated to poor countries.  Thus cell phones and fast food have now become a farmer’s necessity.  The bumping sound you hear is my father turning over in his grave.

Days of old-fashioned farming, cows with names like Clarabelle, and gentle old mule teams are a thing of the past.  Farms have gone wireless, turned into corporations and embraced the 40-hour work week.  There was a time on the farm when we walked ten miles to school in the snow and 20 miles back, but obesity put a stop to that.

Meanwhile this old farm boy fights bravely to save marriage and soul.  I’m sitting here freezing, trying to write this column while my wife wonders if we should take the quilts off the bed as she fans her face with both hands.  Menopause, like hybrid corn seed, is a mystery I intend to ask God about first thing when I see Him.  But right now I’m thinking about calling a professional agriculturalist and renting his tractor for awhile.  I’ll watch TV, stay warm and eat pizza.

Having lived in Harrisburg since 1987 does not qualify me for native status, but my twenty-plus years here have given me an appreciation of my little town perched on the broad shoulder of Charlotte-Mecklenburg.  Though I have witnessed its population grow exponentially, there is little likelihood that anyone will ever confuse my Harrisburg with the Pennsylvania city of the same name.  However, at one point the boom of newcomers did have me worrying that the town would lose its tenuous link to its rural past.  This fear was quelled in the spring of 2006 with the establishment of an old-fashioned Farmers Market.  In a shady haven by the railroad tracks, barely removed from the busy highway dissecting the town, the people of Harrisburg began to come together to experience an inescapable juxtaposition of Old South and New.

During the Piedmont’s protracted growing season, the Farmers Market presents a weekly opportunity for the community’s newer residents to mingle with local farmers whose families have tilled the land for generations.  With repeated visits, they often become attached to specific vendors, and the farmers in turn depend on the loyalty of their regular buyers.  In conducting commerce at the Farmers Market, all of us help keep farming a viable occupation, continuing a long cycle of agricultural connection across the South.

Visiting the Farmers Market makes me realize that life has spun full circle, with food shopping moving from the original outdoor markets to sanitized grocery stores designed for speed and now back again to tranquil open-air settings.  Parking is on a grassy field instead of a scorching sea of asphalt.  Merchandise lines both sides of a roughly graveled dirt road under a canopy of cool shade trees in place of cart-clogged aisles in an icy air-conditioned store.  Produce is pulled from the back of pickup trucks onto wobbly tables, not stacked on the usual counters under fake thundershowers.  Dollar bills exchange hands, with real people figuring how to make change since there are no cash registers.  Instead of matching shirts with nametags, vendors wear whatever they want, sharing only a smile as their uniform.

But it’s not just the pleasant environment of satisfied buyers and friendly sellers that coaxes me to the outdoor market.  Beneath the cheerful banter of shoppers and farmers, I sense a mysterious undercurrent of messages from the produce itself.  Cucumbers, zucchini, squash, tomatoes, and corn on the cob seem to beckon for customers to buy them.  Jars of prepared foods such as salsa, chowchow, and jellies shine in colorful rows, with a sign pleading, “Come have a sample.”  Bushel baskets of luscious apples and peaches cascade from tables, easily enticing purchase.  Baked goods catch the eye of children, who skip about seeking the most mouth-watering sweets.  Bright fresh flowers, swaying in tall buckets of water, beg to be carried to my kitchen table.  Hand-crafted tote bags, aprons, and seasonal wreaths tempt browsers to examine their clever designs.  To me, it’s a magical bazaar.

As I wander through the marketplace, I find the laid-back atmosphere infectious.  People amble instead of scurry, meander instead of dash.  Whereas standing in line at the grocery store often leads to impatient remarks, waiting customers at the Farmers Market engage in genial chitchat.  The air is filled with a mélange of sound, the sharp tempo of Northern speech swirling with the lilting cadence of the Southern-born.  Here and there my ears perk to the sound of international accents.  Visitors, curious about unfamiliar produce, linger by the displays and show true interest in the merchandise.  Questions are posed with no condescension; answers are given with no derision.  The farmers understand that it is not the old Harrisburg, and newcomers appreciate the jewel they have discovered.

Other treats awaits Harrisburg market visitors before they leave laden with their goods.  Those with small children often take free rides on the miniature train that travels a wide loop around a bucolic pond and through a patch of woods.  Some visitors enjoy taking a peek at the restored post office/store/depot sitting adjacent to the real train tracks.  Vintage rocking chairs on the porch allow shoppers to rest, and perhaps in a few minutes they’ll experience a genuine life-sized train up close and personal.  Inside the refurbished building, gleaming wood floors creak a bit as visitors explore.  An appealing wood stove claims the middle of the main room.  Artwork from local young students and adults, as well, fills shelves and walls.  In the smaller room one can snoop through the old post office boxes stuffed with aged maps, news articles, and recipes from generations before.  Stepping outside, long time residents reminisce about when Harrisburg was a sleepy Southern village not too long ago, and newcomers have formed a bond with the town’s history.

The Farmers Market is not just a trendy alternative spot to buy vegetables.  It’s a bridge to the past, linking the Old South with the New.  It’s an inviting place, one that sparks friendships that overcome differences in customs and cultures.  As I stroll down that sun-dappled lane, I feel lucky to call Harrisburg home.


We buried my mother in Vicksburg, Mississippi, where she’d been the first-born in her family, raised by a teetotaling auto mechanic with deep southern roots and a daughter of Lebanese immigrants with shallower ones.

The arrangements were relatively simple, not counting the navigation between the old Durham funeral home that embalmed her and the old Vicksburg one that would lower her into the ground.  We fretted most about how to dress her, wandering the racks at Pemberton’s department store, named after the commander of the Confederate Army who had defended the besieged city back in the day.  When finally we made our choices, the saleswoman asked whether we would need a box.  “No, thanks,” one of us said.  “We already have one.”

Then there was the matter of the headstone.  There were only two stonecutters in town, the white one and the black one.  My uncle told us which one to visit, and knowing why he chose the one, we decided to visit both.

The white stonecutter, my uncle’s choice, was situated just outside the gates of the cemetery at the end of Lover’s Lane, like a box office to a strange ballpark.  We asked for a modest and respectful stone, for which we were quoted a price with delivery in three to four weeks, on account of the backlog of the dead.

The black stonecutter was located on a small lot on Washington Street, just up from the bluffs of the Mississippi River in an area of progressive decline.  A large metal floor fan cooled the rooms where he kept his business, his wife, and his baby daughter, who cooed.  He matched the price of his competitor and promised delivery before the funeral the next day.  We confirmed the spelling of my mother’s name and wrote the check.

At the funeral my uncle asked me where we bought the headstone.  In Vicksburg, neither grief nor decorum prevented a man from wondering aloud whether his kin had patronized a black-owned business in order to mark a grave.

I looked my uncle in the eye.  It was the first time I had done so as an adult.  “Gibson’s,” I said.

“He gave us next day delivery for the same price.”  It was a hard point for my uncle to argue.
“I have never known anyone to buy from them,” he said, moving his lips slowly and with a particular measure of care.  I held my breath for what seemed to be a year.  “It’s nice,” he said, and walked away.

This was nearly a dozen years ago.  People already were talking about the New South back then.  They had been talking about it for a long time, well before North Carolina turned electoral blue, before NASCAR became a middle-class sport, before the last Southern state adopted the federal holiday named for Dr. King.  People had been talking about the New South since General Sherman had burned the old one to the ground, which is why, through the turn of this century, like many others born and raised here, I had understood that when people talked about the New South they really meant Atlanta.

But this funereal encounter with my uncle, this familial rite of passage, challenged my thinking just a little.  I realized then that the New South is not about Atlanta, or Birmingham, or Charlotte or Charlottesville, all those Old South places now hailed as “metropolitan” by virtue of their Northern migrants, Unitarian churches, or voter demographics.  That New South is a statistical matter, suited better to the media, human resource recruiters, and various sorts of carpetbaggers.  The South I know is still creating itself, still finding its way, just like the rest of the nation.  What’s so new about that?

My grandfather liked to call us Yankees because we lived in North Carolina.  Mason-Dixon Line aside, any state with the word North in its name just plain was.   He would quiz us each visit to test our Southernness.  “Spell Mississippi,” he’d say.  “And do it right.  Don’t let me find out you’re some educated fool.”

“Emm-line-dot-crooked-letter-crooked-letter-line-dot-crooked-letter-crooked-letter-line-dot-humpback-humpack-line-dot.”  We could chant the old joke in unison.  In our sleep.  With our mouths taped shut.  Anything less was considered unacceptable.

We didn’t like being called Yankees, although our Episcopalian membership might have confused us for them.  It was an unforgiving thing to be considered so differently from the rest of the family, to be perceived as so far away.  For her entire life with us my mother regularly complained that living afar from family wasn’t healthy for a Southern woman.

But we knew that being a Yankee didn’t just mean distance, it meant being on the wrong side of things.  My grandfather, a World War II veteran who left school after the eighth grade, was serious about those educated fools—Northern graduates with a lot of  information, too many opinions and too little common sense.  They were a nuisance to hard-working people.  Snobs when they came down South.  Most Yankees, he told us, were educated fools, still smug because they won the war.

It was true that I grew up in what might be called a Yankee place to my grandfather and a New South place to others: Chapel Hill, a university town with liberal politics, “the best schools,” and plenty of good coffee shops.  Very few of my friends were born in North Carolina.  They had come with their families from other places like India, Canada, England, and Michigan.  By the time we made it to high school, none of us spoke with a Southern accent, but rather with an amalgamated, nearly neutral one.  Yet even in a place like this, a place teeming with educated fools, its southern identity was unmistakable.  As a high school junior, I could take a full semester of Civil War history.  I could shoot a cannon in one direction and hit an historic battlefield, and in another, a pretty good bait shop.  I could witness a Klan rally an hour away, an anti-Klan rally within a 10-minute drive, and afterward eat the best damn barbeque this side of Kentucky.  Mostly I could watch and listen as the adults in our town, both white and black, said some things publicly and others under their breath.

The first thing wrong with the term the New South is the word New.  When I think about what most people envision as the Old South, the Gone with the Wind kind of South, perhaps it makes a little sense.  But when I think about the deer-killing, hardscrabble, real-life South of my Uncle Junior, who, until the day he died, lived in a double-wide trailer on Jeff Davis Drive completely frightened of black people, there are reasons to object.

There have been a few obvious changes since 1861, all for the better, but these changes do not belong to the South alone.  Slavery had been tacitly supported by those in other places, by virtue of economic interest and just plain human prejudice.  Jim Crow and segregation were institutionalized throughout the nation, if not legally, then as a matter of business and social principle.  To name the South as New, then, simply diverted attention from still-old places that had yet to claim their own painful past.  To me, it’s like a salesman hocking a used car—his own.

The second thing wrong with the term New South is who generally speaks it, and I don’t mean the people who, upon passing Latino day laborers milling about at the corner store, say beneath their breath, “Now, there’s the New South for you.”

What concerns me more is that certain vein of college-educated white Southerner, not the transplants from Ohio and New Jersey that decided to stay once they figured out the weather is nice.  The kind of Southerner I am referring to is in every state of the Confederacy, is of every political persuasion and in all lines of work.  Some come from old money, some from new.  All suffer from a kind of latent guilt and also some sincere indignance, and as if to prove both their distance from the Old South and their worth in the New, they do some things differently than their parents or grandparents.  They eat and vote a little differently, spend money differently, socialize, marry and hire people differently.  They raise their children to love all people equally, with varying levels of success.  All of this is very nice and there’s nothing wrong about it.   In fact, I am one of these people, just without the children.

Here’s what bothers me.  In the end we are all just like those Christians who call themselves non-denominational and wear jeans to church.  It’s splitting hairs, I tell you.  We are all still sinners no matter our clothes.  Despite some social evolutions, demographic revolutions, and a few revised moral codes, the circumstances in which we move through our South have not changed, because the system in which we move has not changed.  White people still call the shots, especially the wealthy ones.  It is that way here in the South, and also in the Old Boys Network of the North.  It is simply the way it is, the long version of an even longer story.

I do not understand everything about the South, but I understand just enough to know that it is not a new place, not even a renewed place in the way so many would like to think it, as though the process is finished.  Since we returned my mother, who attended segregated schools, back to her home in Vicksburg, I have come to realize that the changes that will matter most in the South are those that have yet to happen.

Last year, on a business trip to Louisiana, I drove over the bridge to Vicksburg to visit family and my mother’s grave.  I arrived on a Sunday morning, when there are only three things to do: gamble, hunt, or go to church.  My uncles and cousins were hunting and so I opted to attend services at St. George Antiochian Orthodox Church, founded at the turn of the century by Lebanese immigrants.  The church rolls once thrived with extended Arab families like mine, but now Eastern Europeans and Baptist converts increasingly fill the pews.  To the neophyte, Orthodox services are truly old world.  The sanctuary is lined with gilded icons and ablaze with ornate chandeliers.  It reeks of frankincense, smoldering in small pots.  The priests wear headdresses akin to the Pope’s, and worshippers chant for most of the service.

I am a neophyte and nearly passed out from the incense.  After the service I stopped at a local restaurant for lunch and some stiff caffeine.  I sat near a window with a view of Pemberton Plaza, the mall where years before we had purchased my mother’s burial clothes.  The department store was no longer there, but at the entrance to the mall was a monument to the commander.  Everywhere in this town there are monuments like these, eight miles of them alone in Vicksburg Military Park.  There are the intentional monuments, and the unintentional.  The empty Pemberton’s.  The casinos rising against the river bank, like the caves where Confederate families once hid.  The Orthodox Church.  My uncle’s trailer.  Out on the highway, Mr. Gibson, the stonecutter, has moved into larger digs.

I had an early supper with my uncle, aunt, and two generations of cousins.  Over catfish and fries I told them about visiting the old family church.  My cousin, a freshman at Southern Miss, told me all about polymer science and the fact that he is dating a Democrat.  I fed some catfish to the youngest cousin, just two, and nodded with approval.  “Sounds like my kind of woman,” I said.

My uncle looked up from his fries.  “Lord, Beth, don’t tell me you voted for Obama,” he said, with the same, measured tone he had used a dozen years ago.  I looked him in the eye and caught what I thought might be a glimmer, a tease, at once a sense of humor, recognition, and resignation.  My cousin smiled.

“Yessir,” I said. “I voted for him.  I liked his ideas, and someone’s got to do things a little differently around here.”

My uncle sighed heavily and glanced at his wife, then watched as I offered the baby another bite.  She sucked in the catfish with tiny wet lips, innocent of her place in a New South.

“I hope you did the right thing,” my uncle said, and swallowed his sweet iced tea.

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