Two Souths

I got an email this week from an acquaintance from my university days in North Carolina. He like me was an economics major and I remember him being a handsome, nice guy. This is despite the fact that he was a member of a notorious (or prominent, depending on your point of view) southern fraternity that will forever be characterized in my mind by their decision to hang Jesse Helms campaign posters in their fraternity house windows.

He had found me on a social networking site, and so I went and looked him up. His profile revealed that his barber uses a ruler to cut his bangs and he is the fourth generation head of a “retail strip center leasing and management” family business in North Carolina. Where he grew up. And went to university. And will grow old and die. He also declares his personal goal of having “the business in position to be ready for the next generation of family leadership: my two sons.”

I thought for a moment about whether or not to respond to him, but decided against it. I was afraid I’d lose control of my fingers and reel off an interrogation along the lines of: “What if your boys don’t want to work in the family business? What if they want to step foot outside of North Carolina? What if one of them is gay?” In ten seconds everything I hated about the south came rushing back.

The American south and Gloucestershire (the main Cotswold county) have a lot in common: family money, a sartorial sense that would be mocked in any other context but somehow compels you to participate when living in its midst (cue bad memories of Bass suede bucks and a J. Crew corduroy patchwork shirt from my university days, or picture husband now in flat cap and tweeds), manners, conservative political views, bumper stickers about guns (“Toot if you shoot” spotted recently in a country pub parking lot), racism, and undiscussed excessive drinking (replace bourbon with scotch). Thankfully Gloucestershire does not have evangelical Walmarts known as mega-churches, not that I want to give the C of E any ideas about boosting its flagging membership.

But why does a social network site profile of a seemingly successful Southern American family man whip me into a frenzy, while a solemn faced comment from our Gloucestershire barman R. about Obama’s absolute unelectability due to certainty of assassination (this was months before the convention “plot,” even before Hilary invoked RFK as an excuse to stay in the race) is met with little more than a shrug? I think R.’s logic is preposterous, but I’m not about to start interrogating him on how he’s going to react if his son comes out of the closet.

The best answer I can give right now is that I am more tolerant of an older generation, of which R. is a member, and old memories die hard. What still winds me up about a college fraternity parading Jesse Helms campaign posters – other than the obvious bit about Jesse Helms being the devil – is that these were the actions of 18-22 year olds. If there is one time in your life you are supposed to be liberal and open-minded, it’s at university! Even I, between beers, managed to march on Washington once during my four years at college.

Still, I suspect my differing relationship to the American South—from which I fled screaming all the way to Singapore after my four years of hard time at university—and the Cotswolds is more than a generational thing. After all, I am still in my freshman year in Gloucestershire. The romance is young, and my tolerance is high. The question remains: will I stay on after graduation?

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