Joshua Eaton

Independent Journalist

The Burden of Southern Identity, Part III

A one-room school house in West Virginia in 1921

A one-room school house in West Virginia, 1921

IT was a gorgeous, warm, light autumn day, and I’d just had a lovely walk through Back Bay, one of my favorite parts of Boston. I had come to the neuropsychologist after my first year wading through readings and constantly fighting distraction at Harvard, wondering if I might have an attention disorder. (I didn’t.) Now I sat waiting the results of his evaluation. He called me into his office cordially. “First, I want to say how impressive it is that you’ve made it to graduate school at Harvard,” he began, “coming from where you come from, without a good education system.” Later that night, my girlfriend, who’d moved with me from Athens, Georgia and was working part-time as a teacher, told me how she couldn’t believe that schools in Boston only have one fine arts teacher per district. The public high school I graduated from—the worse of the two in Athens—has an entire fine arts building, with two full-time teachers for visual arts alone.

• • •

The thing I find most personally frustrating about being a southerner living outside of the South—in Babylon, I often joke—is the common presumption that wherever one comes from must be a much worse place than wherever one is now. Near strangers will not hesitate to assume that the people back home must be poorer; the politics must be more conservative; the society must be more backward; the schools must be poorer, in both senses of the word; and the race relations . . . well, you know. The specifics of location are usually unimportant.

Of course, poverty, conservatism, and illiteracy are neither ubiquitous in the South nor absent in the rest of the country. Comments like the one my neuropsychologist made are most frustrating not because they imagine that this isn’t true, however, but because they shut down the possibility for nuanced thinking. Even when the South does live up to its stereotypes, those stereotypes prevent us from seeing the whole picture.

Take, for example, my alma mater, Cedar Shoals High School. In 2002, the year that I graduated, its retention rate was roughly fifty percent—even lower among black and Latino students. That’s terrible, but so is taking that statistic as evidence of the South’s failings in education. Doing so reduces a complex topic like education to a single measurement, ignoring the many ways in which my high school was exceptional; it also misses the fact that seventy-five percent of my school qualified for the National School Lunch Program—in 2002, that meant living on $33,000 or less for a family of four—and some 25% of Athens-Clarke County lived below the poverty line. Chalking my school’s poor retention rate up to a generally poor southern education system misses the good in my school, ignores the varied and nuanced reasons for the failings it does have, and turns a blind eye to the many problems of schools outside of the South.

I’ve written before that “there are Wal-Mart parking lots in Maine and California where racist good ol’ boys drive large pickup trucks,” and that “there are also financial districts in New York where equally racist good ol’ boys are driven in large sedans.” That’s true of all southern stereotypes, but it’s also true that the South sometimes lives up to them. Pretending we know something about the South—pretending, even, that there is such a thing as the South that can be known—keeps us from seeing how and why, and from ever being able to do anything about it. Nothing could be less impressive.

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  1. Even though I moved before graduation I can say that Cedar Shoals -though poorly constructed and often in dire straits- was certainly a better high school than the one I attended in Florida. I’ve often wondered why the south has be regarded as being the less intelligent part of the country. There was that period up to the civil war where we had a penchant for slavery, but that was a national obsession at the time. Regardless of the reasoning, I feel the same frustration when castigated for my southern heritage. All we can do is hope that we might prove ourselves as purveyors of a new southern standard.

    • This reminds me of what Sartre says in “Existentialism Is a Humanism,” that when a person acts he is “choosing all mankind as well as himself.” To Sartre, that was a cause for anguish; personally, I think it’s wonderful that in choosing for ourselves as southerners we choose for all the South as well. It means we can choose something better. (And I believe in “better,” which is probably the source of my difference from Sartre.)

  2. I bumped into the same negative stereotypes when I attended Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts. My partner and I, both Cedar Shoals alums born and raised in Athens, Georgia, experience similar assumptions out here in Boulder, Colorado, where we moved so that I could attend Naropa University, as well. A new one my partner heard, while conversing with a neighbor as they were both out walking their dogs was, “Oh, you’re from the South? They really don’t know how to treat animals there, do they?”

    The world is not so simple and conceptualizing it so rigidly does not help us make progress.

    It can be quite frustrating to attend graduate school for counseling with a bunch of well-meaning affluent white people who have never lived in racially or socioeconomically diverse areas. There is a certain attitude of entitlement while not being able to relate to a less sheltered experience that strikes me as dangerous. I hope we make effective therapists for the populations we end up serving. My partner and I, having lived in Athens, Georgia, Northampton, Massachusetts, Muncie, Indiana, Chicago, Illinois, and now Boulder, Colorado, are finding ourselves more and more drawn to the idea of returning home, to the South…

    • Thank you for sharing this, and for reading my post! It’s not exactly encouraging to hear that others have had similar experiences, but it is strengthening.

      It’s disturbing that otherwise liberal, open-minded people find it socially acceptable to make comments like the one your partner received about poor whites and southerners, while they would never think to make them about anyone else. Can you imagine hearing, “Oh, you’re Mexican? They really don’t know how to stay clean down there, do they?” Both comments are obviously wrong and offensive, but we’ve gotten in the habit of letting one slide.

      I have to say that I enjoy living in Cambridge, Massachusetts a lot, but I do plan to move back down South when I settle down. Maybe I’ll run into you and your partner in Athens sometime?

  3. Joshua,

    Hope this finds you well.

    Whilst I am not from the South (California/Oregon/New York now London), I can completely agree with what you are seeing. In the so-called ‘liberal’ northeast and west coast I have seen some of the worst racism. For instance, after proposition 8 passed in California, banning same-sex marriage (I am a gay man so this pissed me off), some gay men, because they assumed that black people voted against gay marriage and ‘tipped the vote’ hung ropes from trees in WEST HOLLYWOOD!

    Here in London, because of Europe’s new non-borders, the xenophobia and racism are incredible; additionally, people forget that New York City was one of the largest, if not the largets, ports for the importation of slaves. The first commodities sold on wall street were people!

    Such a refreshing blog, especially since I work in philosophy and it can be so esoteric and tiring.

    Thank you,


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