“What I’m trying to say is, it was just interesting for me to look back and realize how typical my upbringing was in some ways as a white womyn from the South… In some ways it seems unusual, and in some ways it is so typical.”
-Virginia, August 2014
Looking at this quote from my oral history again, it reminds me of parallel conversations I have had about being from the South. These conversations seem to take one of two routes. 1) Why do I care that I’m southern? Isn’t it like being from anywhere else? As a matter of fact, isn’t the South just a backwards version of other places in the United States? I’d play that down if I were you… Or, 2) You’re right, it is the most unique, mysterious, fun, quirky place on earth! Ahhh, the people, the food, the PRICES. Oh, you’re from Connecticut? Sucks for you! Well, you can come and visit any time and come back after that, ya hear?!
I am not going to lie, like any good southerner, I’ve fed into either of these stereotypes depending on the circumstances. As comfortable as it is for me to operate between these extremes, there are tangible realities in the grey area that this quote hints at. This quote also speaks to the doors that live inside me.
Doors. Doors open and close. They are a passageway and a divider. You must go through a doorway to get to what’s on the other side. Doors are easy to hide behind. They are what you invite others through. They are a space of negotiating identities. They are built to mark gender, class, race, and physical ability. They are held open for some and left closing for others. Doors are connected to walls. They are designed to permit entry or say “Keep Out!” I have many doors inside me. My doors come in many shapes and sizes; some are hand-made by yours truly, others were made for me, and others are the cookie-cutter, home-depot variety I picked up somewhere along the way that match the neighbor’s. Some swing open, leading me into knowing myself better, others are heavy and remain closed until I push them.
My identity shifts with the flow of time; I constantly take on various aspects of new and old experiences. I am not always one type of southerner, one type of white person, one type of womyn. These doors inside me, however, make me who I am now and connect me to the many “whos” I will be. They move, but are always there. I am and can be many things according to how I work my doors, but that fluidity does not absolve me of responsibility or mean that my way of being is inconsequential. The doors I choose to open and shut inside me have consequences. For a long time, I wanted to keep many of my doors closed; fearing what would happen should I reveal them to others. I clung to them as my secret friends. Instead, I am choosing now to see them as resources. I am responsible for knowing those doors–using them intentionally and with care–and in order to do that, I must dig into their meaning.
In the selection of doors I have included below, I reflect on specific moments in my oral history. They are a collage of three pieces that resonate with a feeling of coming home within myself. In sharing this collection of vignettes, I am trying to open doors of communication about what it means to be from the South.
Whispering Behind Closed Doors.
Listening to my oral history, I realized that much of my experience talking and hearing about race as a young person occurred behind closed doors, in hushed tones, and with other white people. As I had to strain in order to hear, these memories are seared into my mind. After getting back in the car and rolling the door shut, a family friend I spent nearly every day between ages 1-9 with would tell us “the truth” about people we had just seen in the Walmart based on their race, and reminded us to marry white boys. I heard hushed stories about my great uncle, a man with dwarfism who endured being a guinea pig for “stretching” experiments, performing in blackface as a form of income. Hearing my grandmother talk about race, she whispered. I picked up on this behavior and whispered questions about what it meant to be a white family with roots in the South. I both wanted to open that door and was terrified to hear the answers that might come walking through it. The muffled reply was usually, “I don’t know much about that.”
The register of these conversations reached an audible level at school. There, it seemed perfectly normal to talk about race and gender. The first time I remember recognizing my whiteness as part of my identity was at the lunch table in middle school. My friends often discussed who was an “oreo” which meant being “black on the outside, white on the inside.” In my case, the “uh-oh oreo” phenomenon was the question. Was I white on the outside and black on the inside? I wanted to be an uh-oreo, but no one could be sure because so many of the things I said or did were “white things.” What did it meant to do a white thing, I wondered. Sure that my parents would be confused if I asked them and trusting my friends who seemed to be assured of their statements, I decided to go with their explanations. I was pretty much white.
In my oral history, I talked about how my dad “really opens doors for me”. That’s another way of saying, “I have a really great dad who cares a lot about me.” It’s also code for the ways in which I receive class privilege from him and the white and class networks in which I participate. It signals to the privileges I have from growing up in a classically nuclear white family and alludes to what opportunities are open to me as a white, upper-middle class person. For example, two weeks after I graduated from college, I began working for a consulting firm. I first learned about the job three years prior after my dad met the head of the firm on a plane flying from Florida to North Carolina and they exchanged information. Over the course of two years I formed a professional relationship with the (white) woman my dad had met on a plane. Upon graduating from college, I had a job offer. There was no formal application process. There are a lot of reasons why this all worked out the way it did, but one of those is the undeniable fact that my dad was on a plane, was bumped up to first class, and had a business card at the ready (as he always does).
Don’t stand in the doorway
The mobility this job afforded me made it possible for me to move to Providence, Rhode Island. Yes, you may be wondering, out of all options, why did I choose to move to Providence, Rhode Island? Well, after a few beers with a dear friend, I just up and agreed to move with her. That’s how it went down. The fact that I, without much thought at all really, decided to move 681 miles is in part due to what supportive friends might euphemistically call spontaneity, but is really my enduring impulsivity. It is also a manifestation of ability to think in those terms. The historical and literary narratives of escape from the South to the North have taken on new and weighty iterations today. My story is far from most of the political facts and motives that lead people to move out of the South. Making that decision over a few beers had little to do with getting “the hell out of the South.” Behind the hastiness of my decision, however, was a longstanding curiosity about how I had been shaped as a white womyn who grew up in the South. Clearly, I’m still figuring that one out. And I always will be.
Throughout my oral history, I struggled with wondering: Is my southernness a door? What do I do with that door? Class, race, gender, sexuality, and other structures of privilege and oppression that make up ourselves and society are as central in the South as they are in any other place in the U.S. Yet, my story is based on a specific history of a specific region. Michel Rolph-Trouillot, a complete badass, once wrote, “We are never as steeped in history as when we pretend not to be, but if we stop pretending we may gain in understanding what we lose in false innocence.” These vignettes don’t tell my whole story, but they tell some of it. While this is but one outlet for me to explore the doors that live inside me and why they are important for me to know, move, and swing, I hope they offer at least some insight into the important questions that arise out of confronting the lands that produce us.