Southern Manners

Bette Davis and Henry Fonda in 1938's 'Jezebel'

Bette Davis and Henry Fonda in 1938’s ‘Jezebel’

On reflection, of course, what finally drove me away from the South was the very same code of customs and manners I look back on today with such wistful admiration. For better and for worse, Southern manners were the defining influences of my life. They made me love the South and hate it, too, sent me away as surely as they now draw me back.

What I was feeling, it’s clear to me now, was a growing discomfort with the unforgiving rules of the old Southern social order. As a child I had lived within those rules as within a warm blanket, nurtured and protected by the sense of security they offered–but at a price. This culture of honour and chilvalry, which defines Southern society and gives it so much of its decency and beauty, has a dark side, and that is shame.

Honour, after all, is something that can only be conferred by others. So if you’re raised in a society obsessed with personal honour, you’re likely to spend an awful lot of your life worrying about what others think of you. And more often than not you’ll be willing to contort yourself to no end in order to save face, or to keep others from losing face.

–Sela Ward, ‘Homesick’, page 60*

I seriously pondered letting this week’s blog just be the above quote from a fellow Southerner whom I’ve admired since her Emmy-winning days on the ABC drama ‘Once & Again’. I thought to myself, she said it all; there’s nothing more I can add. But then I realized I was afraid to add anything else, and I still am. I’m afraid of slandering my upbringing. Reading this quote in her memoirs, however, made me realize how much my mentality has changed since I moved across the country nearly two years ago. I’m still a proud Southerner, but what has changed is that–just as I see Las Vegas–I can now see the South, Georgia, and my hometown as very flawed places. I mythologized the South the same way many born and bred Southerners do when I lived there. Probably more so, having been a daydreaming English major. The more you whitewash and sugar-coat something, the less the cracks show. (And, therefore, the less one questions the cracks.)

From a distance, I can now see the intolerance. I can now see the racial divide (from both sides, black and white). I can see the young man who was so scorned when he came out to a select few at 23 that he moved to Nashville to get out of town and start over. Nashville was still the South, but at least it wasn’t my hometown. I see all of that now instead of glossing it all over…just as I can see the ugly side of Las Vegas with its pandering to addictions of all sorts. That doesn’t make either place better or worse than the other; I love where I’m from and I love where I live now. But neither are perfect. The realistic outlook has served me well in that respect.

And I wouldn’t change my upbringing or where I’m from, or the name of this blog, for that matter. Southern Aristocracy was always chosen as an ironic, aspirational title. I’m proud of who I am and who I’ve become. I’m honoured to be me.


*Sela Ward and her husband own property outside her hometown of Meridian, Mississippi where they raise their children part of the year, away from Los Angeles. She’s also been very active in rehabilitating downtown Meridian and starting Hope Village, a safe haven for the foster children of Meridian. She, too, still considers herself a proud Southerner.

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