I SHIFTED uncomfortably in the hard lecture hall seat, bored and barely even listening. The professor was explaining the importance of context in religious studies to the relatively small, mostly undergraduate class. Suddenly, something he said made me bolt up rod-straight in my seat: “So, for example, my context is going to be very different from the context of a snake-handling Pentecostal in Alabama.” My hand shot up like a bolt. “Excuse me, professor, but snake-handlers are called signs-believers and aren’t part of the Pentecostal or Holiness movements. Also, signs-believers are limited to the Appalachians, which never make it into Alabama, ending, as they do, in Georgia.”
The professor had begun a halting apology when another hand shot up at the back of the room, this time from one of my Divinity School colleagues, a Lutheran gay rights activist from the midwest. “I’ve traveled in Alabama before, and I talked to some Pentecostals who I think handled snakes.” I didn’t even know where to begin . . .
• • •
My professor was right, of course. The various denominational and nondenominational churches that believe in signs—i.e., handle snakes, and, in some cases, drink poison—are located roughly within the Pentecostal Holiness movement. One branch started in Grasshopper Valley, Tennessee with George Went Hensley; the other started independently in Sand Mountain, Alabama with James Miler, both around 1910 or 1920. What’s more, the Appalachian Mountain Range does extend from Georgia into northeast Alabama, though the Appalachian Trail ends at Springer Mountain, Georgia. I was very wrong, and more than a little self-righteous in the process. It was not my most graceful moment. Still, both my professor’s comments and my unfortunate reaction can show us something about southern representation and identity.
There are signs-believing churches as far north as Canada and at least as far west as Ohio. True, they started, and probably have their highest concentration, in the South; however, I also think that there is something else at work. It is the same thing that is at work when poor white characters on My Name Is Earl have decidedly southern accents in the middle of New Jersey, or when someone asks me if Ohio or Kansas or Indiana is in the South. In the popular American imagination, southern has become a convenient shorthand for poor, white, ignorant, and conservative, no matter where poor whites—be they ignorant and conservative or not—actually happen to live. In short, the American antithesis of my professor’s context had to be in the South because the South has become the American antithesis of every other American context. It has become a scapegoat for the body politic, a nation within the nation, an Other.
Of course, for southerners to consistently see themselves, and by seen by others, as representative of everything that is wrong with white America—southerner are almost always means white southerner in the popular imagination, after all, no matter how many blacks actually live in the South—is bound to breed resentment, defensiveness, and hyper-sensitivity. To constantly be the butt of the national joke—indeed, the only acceptable one in polite company, as Ed Wood pointed out—is bound to leave many southerners with a chip on their shoulder. That doesn’t excuse my brashness and arrogance, but it does go some way in explaining it. To paraphrase John F. Kennedy, a way of viewing the South that makes understanding impossible will make being reactionary inevitable
The professor in question is one of my favorites, someone whom I consider both an academic and a personal role model. I do not believe for an instant that he holds any personal prejudice toward either poor whites or toward the South. I also believe, perhaps naively, that my own intentions are usually pure. The most insidious thing about isms is how they can operate and endure even among the intelligent, the self-conscious, the sincere, the good-natured. Hurtful and destructive ideologies are so woven into our ways of acting, speaking, feeling as a society that they need no conscious prejudice or ill-will on our parts.
Fortunately, while our actions, words, and feelings might be formed by society, they are not determined by it. My professor can re-imagine snake-handling, Pentecostalism, and the South; I can be less reactionary, less defensive, less self-righteous; and together, we can create a society in which it is easier for everyone to be better about these things, “a society,” as Peter Maurin said, “where it is easier for men to be good.” We just have to know where to begin.
Note: The title and first two paragraphs of this entry come from an earlier, deleted, entry, “The Burden of Southern Identity: Vignettes of Anti-Southernism, Part I,” originally posted on 1 June 2010. I am grateful to Andrew Merz for his helpful criticism.