Column: Southern and Me

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I was reared in Polk County, Florida, established 1861, in Lakeland to be precise. Or rather, where we lived is now part of the town but would have been the outskirts back then. Our next-door neighbor was the local sheriff. Frank Lloyd Wright designed many of the building in Florida Southern College. The Detroit Tigers have winter training there still. You might also recognize the city as the place Edward Scissorhands was filmed.

Florida has long had a complicated history with Southern culture, never mind its colonial cultural and linguistic ties with Spain that lasted for almost 300 years and the presence (and suppression) of indigenous American culture that existed thousands of years before European arrival. That’s a separate yet critically important issue for our community to understand. For the moment, I’d like to keep to “Southern“ culture, the one that emerged when Scottish lowlanders and the northern English migrated and dominated enslaved Africans in an essentially agrarian, frontier, and forcibly-stratified society from the Appalachian Mountains to the southeastern coastal swamps of the North American continent; that Southern culture.

It encompassed the area that would become states from Virginia to Texas. Florida was included, but different. The Panhandle and border areas were fine, but it was also far less penetrable, less hospitable than the typical pine forests and lowlands of the region. The sparse population connected with Southern identity.

Southern oaks [M. Tejeda-Moreno].

Even today and into deep south Florida, there is maintained a romance with Southern identity. It is an identity that is increasingly strained the farther south you travel. The interstate migration that began in 1970s infused into the state many new residents from North America, and the migration and exodus of Latin Americans and Caribbean emigres have added to its character. Today, Florida is liminally Southern.

Of course, that’s now. But 40 years ago, Florida had a quarter of today’s population. The Gold Coast of Miami-Fort Lauderdale-Palm Beach was dramatically different than the rest of the state. From Lake Okeechobee north, Florida was distinctly rural and inarguably Southern, with all the politeness and gravity of that homology.

Lakeland was founded by a Kentuckian, and when I was growing up, the Southern culture was ubiquitous and reinforced. I grew up with a Southern accent that had to be tempered in later life because is unintelligible to my foreign colleagues and students. It comes back when I go home. I had a rebel flag on my bike and a t-shirt that read, “Southern by the Grace of God”.

I still use expressions that clearly link me to where I was reared even though I lack my original and prominent drawl. “Coke” refers to every carbonated beverage even though I drink far too much of the diet version, and have to explain that just about every time I place an order. I say “y’all” as well as “all y’all” and offer commentary with what I’m told are colorful  expressions like “that dog won’t hunt” or “hell’s’ half-acre.”  I’m also usually “fixin’” to do something, and speaking of which, if you come over to our house, you are as likely to be served ajiaco as you are potlikker greens with cornbread. I’ll even make you a chess pie.

I also went through the uniquely Southern experience at college where faculty suggested I temper my accent to sound a little more educated. In college, I also learned that many weekend activities of my youth were alien experiences to others. Hunting was anathema. The idea of Saturday-night bonfires as entertainment was met with glazed looks of horror. Suggesting that we drive around old county roads for fun made some think I was drug runner. I remember saying to a faculty member that another student had “one oar in the water” and being asked if I was on the rowing team.

I was accepted as Southern by most; my skin color helped, my name didn’t. You see, I’m also not a Southerner; at least not to some other Southerners. When I lived in Lakeland, I was also went by Matt because some teachers could not pronounce Manuel. I would get “Man You el”  or “Man Well,”  neither is right.  Let’s not even go to the last name. It was unsayable ait that J in the middle, and then, they got to a hyphen; sweet Jesus, what did that even mean? Yes, curious reader, it happened once: Ta Jay Duh High Fen More No, by a middle-school teacher.

That liminal space has multiple edges that cut all ways. I also continue to hear  — just as frequently — statements questioning my own recollection of my childhood. True story: I was asked — less than six months ago — if I was sure I was reared in Lakeland. When I said yes, I was asked, “Are you sure, sure?” “Well,” I answered, “saying it twice doesn’t change the fact.” That statement seems harmless enough, but it is also saying that at worst I’m a liar and at best I’m deranged. I’ve been challenged with comments like, “why do you say that?” referring to my use of one of those “colorful” expressions.

I’ve been told — bluntly — ”well, you don’t act like you’re from the South. You act like you’re from Miami.” Well, now I’ve been told I’m on stage. In Atlanta a few years ago, “You sound like you’re from the South, but are you acting like you’re from the South?” Still on stage. Really? A whole show for the convenience of one counter attendant while ordering hot dogs at a well-known location in the area?

Any time I travel in the South and I use a credit card with which I am guaranteed — at least once —  a “you’re not from around here” at the moment they read my name. Any time I travel in the North or West of this great country and use a “prestige” credit card I am guaranteed — at least once but usually twice — an “is this yours?” once they read my name. I may look white, but I’m not that white.

All of these represent a surfeit of microaggressions that forcibly impress identity, belonging, acceptability and judgment. When expectations about who someone should be and how they should behave becomes inconsistent with the person in front of you, our words tell others if they are wanted. Microaggressions are the covert tools of discrimination and tribalism that have been used against people of color, Jews, homosexuals, gypsies, and — if history has taught us anything —  eventually you, dear reader. No matter who you are and what you look or act like, it will eventually be you too, even if you are not Pagan or polytheist. Eventually, whoever “they” are, unless you are “them,” you won’t be “them.” That’s how exclusion tactics work: inclusion becomes narrower and narrower.

Nazi ID emblems 1936 [public domain, U.S. Holocaust Museum].

Right now, the immediate targets of that exclusion are blacks, Jews, and LGBT folks. If you do not belong in one of these communities, you may not see it, but if you happen to experience a liminal identity but can “pass,” you have likely also experienced the markedly increased pressure to conform. If you are “known” in one or more of these communities, like me, your liminality has likely been stripped.

I personally believe that racism is the most critical social and economic issue of the moment, possibly our time. The violence of recent weeks, I would hope, has unequivocally demonstrated our deep and unresolved — perhaps even barely addressed — understanding of how skin color is used to shape social advantages and disadvantages.  Tribalism, though, is not far behind; and the two have been frenemies haunting and undermining our society. We see it most plainly when “white” is confused with culture. They work hand-in-hand to create an old brand of fascism that has endangered minorities and stripped many of their liminal safety.

it’s been around for a while. Trust me on this. I’ve seen it before. At the end of the street where I grew up, during a cross-burning. That fascism is not erupting; it is being unmasked.

In coming to terms with racism and tribalism, we will each have to come to terms with the host of other ways we use behavior and language to keep others excluded in our communities and lives, all too often with deadly force. That is deadly force that comes from language; the written and spoken word that we invoke to manifest events like the one I just mentioned.

In the tradition of spellwork, Pagans and polytheists have cultivated a profound understanding that words write our world, from alphabets whether Latin, runic or Hebrew to speech from Armenian to Yoruba. We can write great and magical things just as well as we can write disasters. It is precisely that recognition of the power of language and symbols that our most experienced ritualists regard as they agonize over the most minor of details to assure that the meaning of magical work comes through in a positive way. They spend interminable amounts of effort to engage, to absorb and to discern the meanings of each word, each letter, each rune, each sigil and each veve. Our ritualists and magicians intimately respect the power of the symbol and the word. because know that together they create the world we live in. Reality is written by the language we choose: “From a word to a word.”

With that Pagan mindset, I am aware that those who speak the spells of bigotry — from microaggressions to overt hatred — are trying to affirm and even change their reality and promote exclusion. It won’t work.

Blacks, Jews, and LGBT folks are seeing this language full-on, and our ancestors are talking to us. They saw it 1,000 years ago in Europe when Pagan symbols came under assault. They saw it 500 years ago during the genocide of the First Nations of the West. They saw it 400 years ago during the decimation and enslavement of West Africa. They saw 100 years ago during Jim Crow. They saw it 70 years ago in the Holocaust.  They saw it 30 years ago as the AIDS epidemic raged. They saw pink triangles, yellow stars, whips and nooses. Trust them on this, they’ve seen the words and images that have summoned hate and they see it now.

All those events, all of them, are still happening. We are still coming to terms with their impact and the weight this world inherits from them. The damage is still present, and more dangerously, the language and symbols that caused them are still whispered and honored today by too many today even in circles of faith.

I’m also aware that some people — even in our community — are trying to reinterpret or even deny the meaning of some symbols, whether they be swastikas, othalas, or Confederate statues. They are trying to use language to obscure the true meaning of those symbols much like Nazis also stole two stylized sowilo runes for the Schutzstaffel insisting they meant “victory” while transforming them into the calling card of elite murderers. They will take anything to serve hate, sacred or mundane to twist as they choose. It is how hate works.

Ultimately, I believe those spells to create opacity and confusion won’t work either. We already know the meaning of repressive symbols and we know the outcome of that magic. As a Southerner, I know what what those statues and those symbols  mean: oppression. They honor a rebellion to keep slavery. Yes, they were rebels; rebels willing to fight and die for the right to keep slaves.

Just as our ancestors speak to us, we have a responsibility to be good ancestors. Many, if not most, of us will  resist and, I believe, soon quell the growing waves of fascism in our Western nations, from Europe to North America to Australia. Our real challenge is to recognize what our words — and the words of our ancestors — have already woven so that we can change the reality to be lived by our descendants. We can each speak commandingly against hate. We can each begin repairing — even in the smallest of places — the paucity of statues celebrating emancipation, suffrage and equality. We can each teach the truth of the Shoah. We will work each root, each spell, each symbol because we know — we Pagans in particular know — that important people will inherit the history that is now.

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The views and opinions expressed by our diverse panel of columnists and guest writers represent the many diverging perspectives held within the global Pagan, Heathen and polytheist communities, but do not necessarily reflect the views of The Wild Hunt Inc. or its management.