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The Last Essay on Southern Identity

ISSUE:  Autumn 2000

“There was a time I was pushed to the river and didn’t intend to jump,” Ora says, pressing her hands tight together, then dropping them flat to her lap. “It was that gas man who did it. Came ‘round here every week to check our meters, then started showing his privates, trying to get in the house at my girls.”

Ora looks beyond me at a wall of pictures, little black girls in pigtails with snaggle-toothed grins, their faces open and trusting, white peter pan collars circling soft, sloping necks.

“He kept trying to get in, but my girls locked him out. They just sat real still and didn’t say a word till 1 got home.”

Ora sighs, telling me she was at work at Miz E’s, cleaning for the family, doing the kitchen, the laundry, changing all the beds, pushing away all those cats. “When I got home they told me the story and next morning I told Miz E, told her I’d been pushed to the river and didn’t intend to jump. Miz E went right to the phone, called her husband and the police, and it was taken care of.” Ora straightens in her chair, her starched blue denim skirt crackling as she leans forward. “But I bought me a rifle, Pat. I wasn’t gonna have nobody hurt my girls.” She gazes beyond me at the pictures on the wall, shudders, then closes her eyes. “But he didn’t come round no more. Miz E took care of it. I knew she wouldn’t stand for that kind of behavior. She always stood up and said what she wanted. But I kept the rifle. Used it too.”

I settle back into my seat, staring at Ora, then at Jesus on the cross two feet from my chair. An evangelist is shouting on the radio, then crooning in a soft, Southern voice, “With Goooodddd, everything is possible. Everything, my friend.”

I think of the rifle. I think of Jesus. I think of Ora sitting as prim and proper as any antebellum lady, and I feel a jangling of the nerves, a ripple of excitement. I’m back in the South. Back with the women I love.

It’s 1997 and I’m driving down a dusty blacktop, past miles and miles of weedy pasture, blackberries and kudzu growing from ditches wide enough to build a house. A spread of light cuts through my window, warming the length of my thigh. I look from side to side, waiting for something, anything, a bird, a possum, a movement in the trees. Then I see it, a burned out house, its tin roof sliding quietly, effortlessly into the dirt. A gust of fear prickles my shoulders. Abandoned houses. Ditches. Shanties. I’m out in nowhere, in a place I don’t belong. I’m going to Ora’s house in what we used to call “colored town.”

“You come on,” Ora said when I called earlier this morning. “I be here all day, so you come on.”

Though it’s been more than 40 years, I still see Ora sitting in the back seat of our Cadillac in 1956, a sack of greens in her lap, her head turned towards the window, her face moody, distracted as if she’s burdened with thoughts so distant from mine there’s no way in. Her eyes flicker at the ditches like a horse ready to bolt. I watch her furtively, curiously, her body so rigid I dare not touch it though I sit right beside her, my knee wedged up against one of her sacks. And yet there’s something I want from her, something that has to do with the right questions and the complicated answers, not the easy, paint-by-number kind. The questions I know how to ask go something like this: why do they live here, Mama? Why doesn’t Ora have a nice house? And why are black people so courteous and respectful to us?

Mother looks away, frowning at the evening sun. “It isn’t fair the way it is,” she sighs, glancing towards me, singling out the permissible question, “but Ora doesn’t make enough money to live in a nice house. You have to go to college and make a good living if you want nice things. That’s just the way the world is.” I try to put Ora and college in the same thought—Ora strolling across the green lawns of a college campus with books in her arms—but she slips silently, effortlessly out of my grasp. This, of course, is the simple answer, ignoring the facts of the color line, implying that this is just “their condition,” something intrinsic, inevitable, unremarkable, just the way things are, the way things have always been.

But I know it isn’t so. I know as Mother drives Ora down the dirt road past the familiar shotgun shacks, past houses covered in fake brick siding, past Folger’s coffee cans blooming with gladiolas and petunias, past the smell of collard greens and wood smoke, that whatever poses for reality is a big fat lie; later I’ll understand that the underclass is politically determined, a ready workforce of cultural pariahs, sustained by custom and primed for obedience, but as a child, I know this only through feeling. Ora shouldn’t have to live in that house.

It would be foolish to pretend that I’ve figured out the questions as I drive this morning toward Ora’s house or that I understand precisely the anxiety of my position. The only thing I’m certain about is that my discomfort also resides in me, a woman who’s had a hard time claiming a Southern identity, a woman who’s drowned too often in the quicksand of her own failures, flailing and squirming, sometimes begging for help. And yet I’ve always had the choice to pursue these failures, to wander aimlessly or tenaciously down my desired path. Now as I buzz down the highway to visit a woman who’s had few choices, my own life looks plump and privileged by comparison. For a moment I think of myself that way: I roll down the electric windows, peer through the windshield of my fully paid for car, and smell the dust as it rises from the sides of the road. Cotton plants thrust their thick, white blooms into the air. A cow turns it mournful head towards me and moos in dismay as if the sky might fall. In the thick heat of the day I’m released from my anxieties; I am going to visit Ora and I wonder what she will tell me about her life.

When Ora emerges from her house, she’s slumped, a little shrunken, her grizzled hair smoothed back in a pageboy. She hugs me to her thin, spry body, neat and prim in a blue denim skirt and blouse, her feet in white tennis shoes laced up tight. I pull back, looking in the clear darkness of her eyes. She drops her gaze and says, “You Pat, you came all this way from Iowa.” But before I can answer she’s staring beyond me, her face alert, expectant. “Where’s Miz Foster? Didn’t she come with you?”

I tell her Mother stepped on a nail yesterday. “Wearing those thin-soled shoes and it went right through the ball of her foot.” I can see Mother hobbling around the kitchen, pouring boiling water into the pitcher of tea, her face flushed, her foot in a pink terrycloth slipper, the kind she wouldn’t be caught dead in outside the house.

“A shame,” Ora says. “I was thinking I’d get to see her. I always like to see Miz Foster, but you come in.” I follow her through the porch where the plastic screens are torn and flapping. A humid wind blows through the cracks; flies buzz indolently above my head in a halo of motion. I smell mildew and musk and automatically breathe shallowly, anxious to get inside. In the living room, there are two chairs, easy chairs draped in white sheets with an end table in between. Above us a tiny Jesus slumps on a peeling gold cross beside a curtained door. There is little furniture in this room, only a couch, a TV, and two chairs, all lined up in a row, facing the sagging porch. I look out the door at the empty fields, at the hazy sun and blazing strip of road, imagining hordes of mosquitoes rising out of the ditch at dusk, floating in waves towards this house, vigilant as bombers; revulsion shudders inside me and I look quickly at Ora’s face, but she’s gazing beyond me at Jesus whose head bows down towards his bloody chest.

Then she sniffs, blows her nose on a white paper napkin. “Allergies,” she says, stuffing the napkin into her pocket. “It’s this heat make you sick.”

I nod, feeling the sweat trickle down my collar as we talk about the usual things, about the weather and family, flying through the dailiness of the present until there’s a lull in the conversation when impulsively I ask how she came to work for us in the late 50’s. I can still see Ora getting out of our car, hefting up that sack of leftovers while we turn around in her dirt drive, leaving her in the sweltering heat while we race back to our air-conditioned house with its wood floors and carpets, its chandeliers and antiques, its washing machine and dishwasher, all the comforts of middle class life. Glancing up, I notice a cheap chandelier hanging cheerfully in this desolate room, its plastic prisms cascading in a waterfall of yellow light, sprinkling the floor with patterns that shift when a sudden gust of wind breezes through the flapping plastic of the screens. It’s one of the ugliest chandeliers I’ve ever seen.

“That’s a long story,” Ora says, following my gaze. She stares at me with hooded eyes, and for a split second I think she’s reading my mind, and I’m ashamed that I’ve come here as much out of curiosity as friendship, but then her face softens as she knots and unknots her hands, worrying her paper napkin. “I can’t remember things like I used to.” She closes her eyes as if she’s thinking about where her mind has gone, where all that stuff really does go. “But I’ll try to tell you, Pat. Yes, there’s some things I can tell you. You was just a girl, you know, when I come to work for Miz Foster, but it starts before that. It starts . . .well, I guess it starts after my divorce, when I had to choose between the bottle and Jesus.”

The bottle or Jesus. I lean forward, staring into the stillness of the air like a little girl waiting for a story. A fly buzzes against the screen door, worrying its wings as Ora begins telling me about her divorce, how afraid she was, afraid of being alone, afraid of raising her two girls, afraid of not having enough money, afraid of all the heart pain of leaving her husband. “After I left him, I had me a hard time, Pat.” Ora looks at me with silent knowing and I nod, thinking of my own divorce, how crazy I was, ricocheting from room to room, quaaludes squeezed tight in one hand, a bottle of tequila in the other as I drifted through my shadowless world. I try to imagine Ora in her early 30’s alone in a shack with two little girls, but my imagination falters, for in my mind she’s ageless, always sitting in the back seat of our car. I look up at the ugly chandelier and see a bare bulb, fly-speckled, dangling from the ceiling, or maybe a paper shade covering its rawness.

“I didn’t drink much,” Ora continues, shifting her gaze and looking at me with sudden gravity, “maybe a beer or two every now and then. But I liked it, you know. And sometimes I went to this colored club in Mobile where you could dance and drink. I’d go there and forget.”She frowns, sucks in her breath, sends out a little whistling sigh. “This one Saturday night I sat with my friend, had me some beer and I started telling him my worries. Told him how the beer just eased my troubles, and he looked quick at me and said just as solemn as you please, “Well now, Ora, you can go out on weekends and drink all you want, but come Monday morning your troubles be on your doorstep just waiting for you.”“

Ora pauses, glancing up at Jesus on the cross. “And that just made sense.”

I want to look at Jesus, wondering if he’s happy for such a convert, but Ora holds my attention, saying insistently, “I didn’t know if I could make it, Pat, ‘cause the bottle can be awfully sweet. But I said to myself, “you gotta give Jesus a chance.”” Again I nod, for I know the psychology of choosing Jesus over the bottle is the choice of self-preservation in a small Southern town that depends on “good women” to bring up their children and “do right.” Black women weren’t exempt from such customs, their lives as scrutinized as white women’s. I’m not going to help you with that car loan if you’re still hanging around with Luster Hadley. Now he’s no good and you know he’s no good! He’s just feeding off you, doing what you know isn’t right. If black women didn’t “behave” they wouldn’t find work, wouldn’t be given the extra little privileges a white employer might bestow.

“And Jesus took me in,” Ora nods. “He did.”

For a moment I grow quiet, sad. Everyone, I imagine, comes eventually to this crossroads, this split in their lives where the choices are elemental, primal, downright hard. I see myself at age 24 after my divorce slipping a quaalude in my mouth, waiting for the dreamy softness of surrender, my mind sap-sweet with hope, my body’s tension drifting above me, scattering like dandelion fluff in the air. I’d waltz around the kitchen in my pajamas, getting a little dizzy, everything blurring to romantic confusion, my body as light as a feather. I’d linger at the stove. Why, it looked wonderful, the shiny aluminum eyes locked behind each black barred grill, the illuminated clock a brilliant emerald green, the nicks on the dials as bumpy as braille. Why hadn’t I noticed that before? It amazed me that the world could feel so good when inside I was locked in a shameful battle with myself.

“Jesus said come home,” Ora whispers, staring not at me, but through me as if she’s seeing into the beyond where desires come unraveled and lie loose and sweaty as old clothes.

I sink back into myself. Unlike Ora, I didn’t wake up that fast, didn’t hear anything that “just made sense,” but when the quaaludes finally wore off, I too had a choice: to lie down or keep going, to follow the old life or begin a new one. But there was no Jesus to save me, no choir group singing sweet gospels in my ear; in the segregated South, Jesus redeemed the poor, the afflicted, the disinherited while the middle and upper classes sought salvation through ambition, affairs, another round of education. Instead of religion, I chose education with its sanction of upward mobility and intellectualization, the only transcendence I believed in.

Ora pauses, still staring beyond me, smiling with another memory. “And it was a few years later that I came to work for your mama.” She taps my hand and I’m startled back to the present. “Remember?”

And as suddenly I’m that nine year-old girl again, moving to our newly built house, racing from room to room, sitting on all three of the toilets in the new bathrooms with a burst of pride (we’d never had more than two), then watching Mother rush around the house, talking with gardeners and seamstresses and plumbers, measuring the paisley arm chair, the width of the sofa for Mrs. Mayberry, the upholsterer who’ll come with her carload of cats to pick up the material. Mother was always in motion, and we were right behind her, trying to claim her attention. “Mother!” we’d yell, running down the long hallway, anxious and excited until she appeared at the doorway, a pile of clean clothes in her arms. “What?” she’d ask, but immediately she was distracted, the phone ringing, the doorbell chiming, until we simply followed her around.

“What I always remember about your mama,” Ora continues, still holding my gaze, “is that she never scolded you children. Never raised her voice or said no harsh word and that made an impression on me.” Ora sighs, glancing up at the pictures of Earnestine and Willomena in grammar school, their faces close together in family pictures. Willomena, I know, has recently died of cancer, but as a little girl she worked with her sister in the fields picking beans and cotton, earning money for clothes and books while my sister and I rode our bikes around the neighborhood, read books and took swimming lessons and music lessons and tennis. I never once thought about earning money as a child. Perhaps it’s absurd to make this comparison between our lives, but it’s the only way I can see the emergence of a Southern identity, which was always a class identity, always a secret bullying by the haves of the have nots to accept their lot as individual and self-determined, never cultural and political. “A hard worker,” was the only praise black people ever got, rarely a pay raise, only a compliment denoting willful self-sacrifice. We were raised not to see black people, not to think of them as people but as shadows, servants, laborers with no interior lives. The interior lives were ours. We felt tragedy and joy, we burst into the kitchen in a rage because our clothes weren’t ready or our feelings were hurt, but Ora kept her feelings hidden behind silent eyes, masks of duty. Whatever emotions she had were kept from us. As for black children, they were invisible to the white community, cloaked by the apartheid of segregated schools and churches. I never saw Earnestine or Willomena except when they peeked out the door when we brought Ora home. “Bye-bye,” I’d sometimes wave to their darting shadows behind the screen.

“I wanted to be like that,” Ora says bluntly, staring not at me, but just beyond me to where Jesus hangs on the wall, “I wanted to be like Miz Foster, but seems like I had the tension in me when I got home from work, a pressure I carried with me all the time.” Ora is frowning now, her face knotted with remembering as if she’s trying to diagnose just what that pressure really was. “It’s like I just didn’t have no more energy to be nice.”

I think of Ora walking into her kitchen where there’s a busted screen, tree roaches scurrying through the widened mesh, their hard brown shells glittering in the overhead light. Flies buzz above the sink and gnats swim in shallow pools of light. I try to imagine Ora fixing supper, washing dishes, washing clothes in the sink, knowing the next day will be just like this one. All my life I’ve been taught to worship the future, to dream about tomorrow with its bright lights and possibility, never to be pessimistic, never to assume that failure or difficulty might prevail. Education and self-discipline, I was taught, opened the road to success, but in the 50’s and 60’s success wasn’t an equal opportunity endeavor.

As if Ora can read my thoughts, she says, “They didn’t hire us at the factories or the sheds around here.” She’s looking again at her hands which are work-worn and wrinkled, the knuckles knotted with arthritis. “So all we had was maid work. Course we only made four dollars a day, and it wasn’t much, even back then.”

I have the sudden disquieting image of those four dollars laid out on the bed while Ora stares intently at them, trying to figure out how to make four dollars a day, twenty dollars a week, eighty dollars a month equal rent, food, clothing, heat, and medical bills for three people. Forget about Christmas, Easter, birthdays, roast beef, movies, and a hairdo. But what I see instead of the money is the Christmas dress I bought when I was 16, how the gold peau de soie fabric was tucked in tiny pleats over the bodice, giving my breasts the added “lift,” how the skirt flounced out from the waist, hemmed just a little bit shorter than the other girls. “Why don’t you buy a cheaper dress and give the money to Ora?” I imagine someone asking. Now my mouth goes dry as I think how quickly I might have protested, “But I love this dress!”

Ora straightens in her seat, presses her hands into her starched denin skirt. “I didn’t make much money, but I made sure my girls always had something to eat,” she says, sounding as prideful as my mother who often said she’d do anything—clean toilets and scrub floors all day long—for her children, but being white and middle class, she never had to. “I never let them go to bed hungry no matter how poor we was, and when there wasn’t enough to eat, I just prayed one of them left me some scraps.” Ora smiles, a flash of white teeth, and leans forward. “You know, I was always a praying person, Pat, and usually they left me a little bit.” I laugh too at Ora’s joke, aware that I’ve never gone to bed hungry, never had to pray for food, but as quickly Ora’s face turns serious, her mouth set in a determined way. “You know, Pat, everything I have come from these two hands.” She looks down at her hands, then her head snaps up and I see a strident victory blooming in her face. “These two hands.”

It’s the tone of her voice that startles me, makes me glance away, staring into the hazy light as if a veil has been lifted from my eyes. Why Ora sounds just like my mother. They both have “the tension,” both have indentured themselves to the next generation, professing no bitterness over their lot, tough, brooding women, relentless in their sacrifice. Is it because they’re products of a more stoical generation, one that depended on Jesus and community to air their grievances, rather than activists and therapists? Did they learn early not to expect gratification other than for a job well done, no matter how menial? Did they agree to sacrifice everything for good children? I don’t know. Maybe I’ll never know. But what I realize is that my mother and Ora might have changed places had their skin color been different. My mother escaped poverty by going to college on a scholarship at age 15 from a small mining town in northern Alabama. Education and a white skin saved her from a dreary life in a mining camp, but had fate been different, Ora might have had the same possibility.

Again, I glance up at the chandelier, trying to imagine Ora buying it, wondering if it gives her pleasure: the gold fixture beams brightly, shiny in its cheapness. I remember the day Mother bought our chandelier, the one that hangs in the dining room with crystal prisms and ropes of crystal chains, elegant and baroque in its aesthetic complexity. While the workmen put it up, Mother stood inside the door, frown lines furrowing her forehead until it was fully in place, swaying gracefully over the dining room table, set with Royal Worcester china, Saint Louis crystal, and pale linen napkins.

Then I imagine Ora standing on a kitchen chair on some hazeless, almost airless day, her firm hands screwing in the tiny bolts, fingers caressing the falling crystals. Sneaking looks at Ora’s chandelier, I see both women tense and anxious for this symbol of “the good life,” and I can’t help but wonder if it gave either of them a moment of joy. I try to imagine Ora smiling with pleasure, but what I see is Ora coming out of our house in her white maid’s uniform, her face private, opaque, unreadable, and instead, I ask what I really want to know. “Were you angry back then?”

Ora’s expression doesn’t change, but she sits straighter in her chair, her legs sticking out of her skirt like brown stalks, veined and knobby. She clears her throat, sniffs, takes out her paper napkin. “You know, Pat, during segregation there was lots of things we couldn’t do. Lots of things I didn’t imagine doing. But one thing that got to me was the way we couldn’t eat inside a restaurant. Now that bothered me. There was this place Bill’s, and they had a window where the colored could come by and order food and take it home. But I never stopped at that window. I told myself, “If I can’t go in, then my money won’t go in.”“

Ora smiles at this, and I smile with her. “Good for you,” I say, but what do I really know about such courage? I’ve never been denied food, shelter, or medical attention, never had to “be careful” of my tone and bearing, never had to do more than rage and fret over the indignities of my life.

“But I felt hate too,” Ora says, frowning, her mouth tight, her eyes darkening. “During the bad times of integration, white boys used to come through here at night shooting their guns. All we could do was turn out the lights and sit in the dark, waiting. We knew we weren’t going to get no help. Who could we call?” She looks at me with a quick, penetrating gaze and I nod. “One night some boys come by and we heard them yelling and shooting. Must have had some old car because it rattled and squeaked when they stopped. I’d parked my car in the drive like I always do and I heard that car stop somewhere outside. I’d turned out all the lamps and I just sat in my chair, holding my rifle in my lap. It was kinda heavy but that night it felt light as a spoon. I heard them talking, you know, then rip-rip, a shot goes off-tike to scared me to death!—then sounds like something breaking, smashing against the car so I pointed my rifle at the door.” Ora stops and sniffs into her napkin. “I could hear them laughing, Pat. I didn’t know what to do, didn’t know if they’d try to get in. I’d never shot that rifle before . . .” Ora shakes her head “. . .and there I was just waiting for what would happen next. Seems like I could hear the moon turn over. Sure could hear the faucet drip.” She smiles. “Finally I hear that old car start up, rattle, rattle, rattle, but I didn’t dare move. I didn’t turn on no lights. Almost forgot to breathe. Just sat there a good long time. When I could breathe right I stepped out on my porch, saw they’d shot off my side mirror. I looked at it all broken on the ground and that did something to me. I lifted my rifle and fired straight up at the sky.”

Heat swirls around us and I see a spider making its slow crawl up the corner wall. Little fans of dust twirl in the air as a white Oldsmobile speeds down the road, then vanishes around the corner. The evangelist sings, “Hallelujah? . . . God is goooood . . .he is soooo gooood.

Hate. That word sits uncomfortably at the bottom of my spine.

It’s 1968 and I’m walking along the Mississippi River, holding hands with my new husband, looking at the wild, surging water, gray-brown and fast-moving, the tugboats passing under the Memphis-West Memphis bridge. We’ve just gotten married, are settling down to night classes and work, and I’m surprised when he pauses on the patchy bank, looking down at the grassy slopes, saying sudden, stinging words that stop my heart. “My parents got a letter,” he mumbles, “from someone in your town.” There’s a stutter to his voice, a tightening of his mouth. He looks frightened, uneasy, and relaxes his grip on my hand. “He said I shouldn’t marry you. Probably some crank”—his eyes widen in boyish concern—”he didn’t give a name.”

“What?” My voice rises up into empty air, the life-force sucked out of me as I drop his hand to clutch my own. A storm of weeping shakes me, and I crouch to the ground, my brain bristling, screaming, then darkening inside. Who could hate me so much he’d write an anonymous note, branding me as unfit for marriage? And why? What had I done? Was it because I was moody and quiet, not cheerful and optimistic like a well-bred Southern girl? Was it because I wore short skirts and hot pants like the models in Mademoiselle? Was it because I resisted the requirements of my class—to be gracious and subordinate, insisting that others go first while I lingered in the shadows? I stare into my open hands, feel the simmer of violence creep into my palms, and in that instant all wholeness shatters. The only thing I know is that I’m hated, and this knowledge changes me, shows me how arbitrary approval is, how—regardless of my conduct—someone in the world will find me repulsive, despicable, unworthy. Now I’ll spend my life trying to pull the fragments together, covering up the raw spots, using all my psychic energy to protect myself, building an external shell, hard and resistant, to cover up the softness.

I’ve been pushed to the river. . . .

I don’t look at my husband, but stare out at the Mississippi, knowing its secret, deadly currents can pull a body deep into the water, holding it fast against its mud-soiled bottom.

Though I remember this incident as a turning point in my life, undeserved cruelty was an anomaly for me while for Ora it wove its threads through the scratchy fabric of her life. She was denied the basic courtesy of human decency, the right of agency. That’s a torment I can’t hold firm in my imagination, though as a child I used to wonder, “how can Ora stand it?” Now, as an adult, I know that human beings are amazingly resilient and can stand almost anything, though the mental and psychological exhaustion takes its toll. Rejection becomes a “tension” sucking hope and desire out of your skull, leaving only the dry ashes of duty. Duty, I think, can’t heal souls.

“Do you hate the South?” I ask, knowing that Ora also worked in New Jersey and Michigan and Ohio, places where the politics of race were more liberal than in Alabama. Earlier in the day, Ora told me about going to Teaneck, New Jersey—”way up there!”—for a year as a live-in maid with her own room in the family house, then going to Michigan to pick cherries and apples. “They treated me good,” she said, “in both places. Treated me like a white person.”

But now she surprises me. “I always come back to Alabama,” she says, looking out the window at the empty fields and fading sun where glimmers of light torch the dying weeds. “It was something inside me, I guess. Something that kept me. I was from here and I said to myself it ain’t what the place do for you, but what you do for the place.”

And I smile, pleased at what she’s said, pleased that she prefers the South, as I do, not because it’s a better place (in so many ways, it’s absurdly anachronistic) but because it feeds something primal, a longing, maybe, that’s inarticulate and necessary, the way sleep is necessary. Or perhaps it’s only longing I understand. I think of the day in 1995 when I stood at the bend in the Magnolia River to watch the stillness of the water beneath a new growth of banana trees. It could have been 1955—the enduring silence of the place, fall leaves floating on the surface of the water like the open petals of flowers, a few boats docked under rusty tin sheds. Weeds grew up next to the shore. The air smelled of pine needles and mold. But most important there was no one around, only an occasional car thundering across the bridge, then roaring out of sight. Silence. A flight of birds. I’d forgotten the porousness of the soil, the ant beds that clung like smushed hats to the sides of trees and spilled voluptuously on to the ground. I’d forgotten the oaks and pines and palms all crowded together on a bed of soft pine. I stared at the river, breathing in the quiet. And for a moment I forgot myself.

And yet I didn’t come to this love easily. For years I couldn’t decide if I wanted to claim the South, to be Southern, to try to untangle its knotted ideas about race and class. During my 20’s, I hated its political and social conservatism, obstinately resented its parentage, longing only to get away, to be free of its lineage. When I left at age 26, I imagined myself saying, “I’m from here, but not of here.” And always I’ve asked myself what the South has created in me, whether that creation is a monster or a blessing, or something suspicious in between.

Perhaps every question has its moment, its season in the sun. Mine came not on that first visit to Ora, but almost a year later in early spring when the harsh weather of Iowa sends me scrambling once again to Alabama. In Iowa, I walk haltingly through the snow, looking up at the bare frosted trees into a hazy sky, longing for a golden sun. When I arrive in Alabama, leaves are sprouting, flowers blooming, grass turning a luxuriant shade of green. I throw my backpack on the sofa of my parents’ house and go outdoors, finally able to breathe deeply, to feel the comfort of soft air. That afternoon, I call Ora, asking if I can visit.

“Come on,” she says once again. “My great-granddaughter’s living with me now and I pick her up every day after school. Then I be here.”

We set a time for later in the afternoon when Ora will be home, and I rush off to another appointment, a visit with my old music teacher, Mama Dot, who’s just had a pig valve put in her heart. She’s ailing and wants to talk, so we sit in her sun-drenched living room with the baby grand and the sprouts of cotton near the fireplace, taking up where we left off years ago. When I try to leave, Mama Dot starts another interesting story, keeping me pinned to my seat, intrigued and yet anxious. I want to hear what she has to say, but I also have to meet Ora. When I finally pull my car from her driveway, the air’s turned gummy, thick, the sky a gray blanket of clouds. As I race down Highway 98—the a/c on high—I know it’ll take me 25 minutes to get to Miller’s Corner, but this isn’t my only worry; I’ve borrowed my mother’s car and she hates being stranded so I decide to check in with her before I rush to Ora’s. I’ll call Ora from mother’s house, telling her why I’m late, hoping she’ll still have time to see me.

But the signals are already crossed, the path split, the day once crisp turning limp and stale. When I arrive at home, my parents are furious at each other—my father huffed and muttering in the den, my mother silent and seething as she strings celery in the kitchen. Coming into the midst of their boiling energy, I forget to call Ora. When I remember, it’s 5:00 in the afternoon and I get the buzz of a busy signal. That night, trying again, the line crackles with static.

It isn’t until I’m at home in Iowa City that I talk to Ora. It’s a dark, bitterly cold evening and I’m wrapped in several sweaters, my feet in socks and fluffy slippers. I dial slowly. When Ora answers, I apologize profusely, describing what happened, my rush home and the family argument. But we both know there’s been four days lapse between that afternoon and this call.

Ora allows it—I can hear her soft breathing on the other end of the line—then subtly scolds me, telling me how she went early that day to pick up her great granddaughter just so she’d be there when I arrived. “For our meeting.”

I look out into the darkness where shadowy branches wave stiffly in the howling wind, and feel ashamed, guilty, thinking this is written into our history, this caste system of black and white, and I’ve unwittingly obeyed its rules. But of course, it’s more than that.

Later that night as I huddle beneath the blankets, I wonder if Ora had been someone of my own class, my own race, would I have behaved differently: gone by, if only to say I couldn’t stay? Made a more conscientious effort? Called sooner? Behind rudeness, there’s always hierarchy . . .it’s just a matter of stripping the behavior down to its roots. And I know that in white culture Ora is expendable; she’s not worth interrupting a family crisis for. No matter which way I cut it, my own rudeness indicts me, aligns me with my dominant culture which says that Ora doesn’t count, isn’t a part of me, is just a woman who sits in the back seat of our car. For years I’ve told myself that I’m different from other Southerners, liberated from my past, but what if I’m not? Can I ever talk to Ora about this, not just about the racism, but the “classism” of our lives, the way even the style and value of a chandelier separates us? I shake my head, knowing that this is the conflict I’ll never lose, this sense of myself as caught between two worlds, unable to speak.

As I’m fretting about this, I hear a loud crash as if something has exploded just outside my window. I sit up, heart hammering, excited but waiting for disaster. And yet when I lift the curtains to peer out, I realize it’s only an avalanche of snow falling from my roof, thundering to the ground. I sigh with relief and snuggle back in bed, staring at the silvery moon frozen in a winter sky. But oddly, the metaphor holds: being Southern I’ve often felt this same lurch of disaster, the surge of love and guilt crashing through my psyche, startling me to attention, waking me to a quivering rage. In the midst of this anguish, my heart seizes up, opens and empties, my nerves buzz like high tension wires. Just as I see the slit in the universe, I’m already falling, bathed in a blistering light. Maybe, for me, that’s all the South will ever be: an emotional jolt, an arc of feeling, a racehorse in my blood. I’ve thought for a long time that I’d simply grow old and die trying to figure it out, but lately I’ve come to see that this ambivalence is my Southern identity.


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