I have a really complicated relationship with the South. I love it, and I also don’t know what to do with it. It’s the land of dilapidated tobacco barns and emerald green forest as far as the eye can see. Where rocking chairs live on front porches and any plot of uncultivated land is an impenetrable jungle. I love the color green, I love humidity, I love thunderstorms, I love narrow country roads weaving in and out of hollers under canopies of branches. I spent my summers wading through creeks and building forts in the woods. The South is where I grew up, and I’ll always have a really strong connection to the land there.
One of my strongest ties to my landscape came through horses. I started riding when I was eleven, and trail rides were always my favorite. We’d coax our horses through ponds and across streams, over logs and under low branches. When crops were growing, we had to ride along the edges of the alternating corn and soybean fields, always knowing that we’d get in trouble later for stepping on the plants no matter how hard we tried to follow those straight rows. Even if the horses didn’t step on them, they’d end up eating the tops of some plants. Sometimes we’d ride down the road to a neighboring farm, sometimes we’d explore cross-country or race along a fence line. We were always very conscientious on our rides, but our escapades were always at least a little tinged with danger. Whether it was when your horse started acting up and bucking on the edge of a cliff, or the eerie feelings you got when riding past the abandoned cemetery, it was always an adventure. This is how I grew up. This was my landscape.
However, the South, for me, was also the land of racism and religious fundamentalism. I could talk a lot more about this, but I think we all know what I’m talking about. Just go watch yourself some Fox News or a televangelist. Basically, I don’t necessarily feel comfortable when I go back to my hometown. Honestly, though, I’ve learned that it’s not just a Southern thing. You can find bigotry all across America. Still, it’s perhaps the worst when it’s coming from a place you love.
I lived at my mom’s house for three weeks during the month of August because I was between leases, and it was a thought-provoking interesting experience. I found myself getting a little nostalgic and wanting to document this land I love so much, and that’s where this essay came from. Most of the pictures I took are from in town or at my parents’ houses because I found that winding country roads are not very conducive to pulling your car over and getting out to take pictures. I also didn’t want to get shot. That part may have been irrational, but it still felt a bit too real.
That fear made me think a lot about privilege. It’s really not something you notice until you don’t have it anymore. Visibly, I don’t think I necessarily scream leftist, feminist, lgbtq spectrum person, but you never know, maybe I do to some people. Regardless, just knowing that someone might vehemently hate you if they only knew a few extra details about you can be really unsettling (note to self: be less judgmental toward others, too). What if they close enough that they can see my legs aren’t shaved? Will they connect that with my short hair and my jeans-and-a-tshirt look? What then? Obviously, I’m still a fairly middle class white girl, so I have a ton of privilege going for me, but driving around in rural Tennessee is still a strange experience for me. I both feel strongly connected and distinctly estranged. This, however, is nothing. I mean, it’s something, but I was processing all of this around the time of Michael Brown’s murder in Ferguson. Perspective is really important.
I’m by no means comparing myself to Michael Brown or Trayvon Martin or any of the other black men who have been murdered by the police. I’m a white girl who’s only slightly queer and slightly paranoid of getting shot by rednecks if I were to accidentally stray onto the wrong person’s land as I snap pictures with my iPhone. Instead, my point is that if you didn’t understand how people reacted to Michael Brown’s death, try to remove yourself from the world you live in and put yourself in someone else’s shoes. Try to understand another person’s perspective. Remind yourself the things you take for granted, and imagine a world where those things didn’t exist. Remember that everyone has different sets of privileges and hurts, and suspend what you think you know for five minutes and play with other another person’s thoughts and ideas. Get out of your comfort zone. Open yourself up. It’ll be worth it.
My senior year, I wrote a paper comparing feminist themes in Fried Green Tomatoes and Thelma and Louise. I’d always heard that Thelma and Louise was a super awesome feminist film, but I found it depressing. After committing murder in self-defense, Thelma and Louise run from the authorities because they don’t think the police will believe or help them. They commit suicide rather than go back to a society of rape and inept justice systems. Meanwhile, evil and bigotry exist in Fried Green Tomatoes, but it ends on a much more positive note. Further, it depicts a community that develops attitudes of acceptance and tolerance for all. That’s what I hope for in America, and not just in the South.