What Moving to the North Taught Me About Being a Southern Black Woman

by Gabriella Lott

For many Southerners, it’s nearly impossible to find an easy response to the where are you from? question, especially when you’re miles away from the answer. During my first few months in Philadelphia, I’ve found myself answering a small town in South Carolina to amused disgust, subsequent disinterest, or straight-up pity. I’ve caught myself responding with yeah, it sucks a few times, largely referring to the rampant inelegant racism (gotta love those Sunday F-150 Confederate flag parades all down I-85 and SC-49) and inaccessibility of decent public transit, and then kicking myself later for such flippant comments. Yes, like hailing anywhere on this Earth, there are aspects of being from South Carolina that suck. Lately, however, I’ve felt like I have much more at stake when I make this comment.

It might be helpful to preface this argument by giving a bit of context about my school, which currently admits more students from our nation’s capital than they do my entire state, which has about seven times more inhabitants than D.C. I’ve often heard my classmates talk about the group of six or seven kids at Penn who were in their same class at some Northeastern feeder high school, without realizing how very rare this is. Coming from one of the best schools in this nation in a state with some of the worst schools in the country, I realized that for every South Carolinian kid who made it to an Ivy League school, there were at least thousand just as worthy students who weren’t able to attend any kind of college. This awareness of how many other people live, however, seemed to be a rare phenomenon at my school.

I thought this was surely just a privilege thing—white, upper-class, straight students had no incentive to think about how other groups experienced everyday life, and thus, they wouldn’t have any understanding of my home, just like they didn’t have any understanding of the low-income folks who lived in the same towns they did. To my dismay, there were tons of black students at Penn who also didn’t get the problem with their statements. When bringing up South Carolina, several of my black classmates have referred to the area (particularly anywhere in that isn’t Charleston, Hilton Head, or Myrtle Beach) as the “drive through, not to” region. They’ve asked if my family really chose to live there, and assumed that I couldn’t possibly miss such a backwards place.

I feel like this is as good a place as any to offer the disclaimer that obviously, I've met tons of black Northerners (including at Penn) who wouldn't dare say such things about the South. I must also say that I'm not sure I've met any black Northerners who don't ascribe, however subtly, to some part of the Northern communal logic about the South that led my bolder classmates to make such statements. This kind of logic, however, ignores several key facts about our relation to the South as African-Americans.

For one, historically, almost all black Americans have long-standing roots in and an unforgettable indebtedness to the South. Post-Great Migration America and its predominantly black cities are relatively new occurrences compared to the centuries where African-Americans were legally and then economically required to remain in the more rural parts of our nation. (Even today, all but two of the states with the largest percentages of black Americans are in the South.) Chances are that if you talk to any black descendant of American slaves, their grandparents or great-grandparents are from the South. In many ways, the disdain many black Northerners express for the South is a disdain for their own history, and for millions of their own people.

Furthermore, what many Northern blacks either don’t realize or fail to acknowledge is that a primary reason that black people live in the South is not because they’re less intelligent or bigger fans of camo culture, but because they can't afford to move. The cost of living in the South, specifically the Deep South (South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana) is notably cheap, so much so that many of our “upper-class” citizens would barely pass as middle-class residents in most other areas of the U.S. I say this not to discredit the value of Southern life (which can’t be measured in mere market prices of our homes), but to point to how many people who can afford to live comfortably in South Carolina couldn’t do the same in New Jersey. When you come from an area where most people don’t have the flexibility to risk more expensive rent, or gamble with obtaining a minimum-wage job with acceptable benefits in a new town, you don’t get to decide where you live. The belief that everyone has the flexibility to choose their own home is incredibly short-sighted, and surprising to me considering how many black people in Northern and urban cities are struggling with issues of gentrification and fair housing.

Black Southerners have long known that white people who either relied on our labor or competed with us were not from our home, no matter how close we were land-wise, so I was pre-conditioned not to trust the white boys I met from Georgia. But as a child whose family both escaped from and returned to the South, I was always taught that black Northerners were no more than our distant cousins. I’m starting to see, though, that in addition to having to explain being black and a woman to white people and men of all races, I’m also going to have to explain being Southern to Northerners. Up here, it seems, there are tons of supposedly progressive black people who have a hard time understanding why when you shame the South, you are also shaming the incredibly marginalized people who live there. I’m starting to see that people who don’t appreciate my home and the (black, brown, and low-income) people who live there can never truly be my people.

My people are the girls who’ve inherited the grits and groans of grandmothers brushing back fly-aways for Henderson church services, who harness these legacies into their poems, monologues, and dissertations. My people are the homemakers who dust off the dinner table even when there’s no one else home, even when the dinner table is a wobbling piece of half-varnished wood, because someone taught them to believe in never giving up on your family. My people are the matriarchs who can pull the weakest links back to Aycock Recreation Center for second-weekend-in-August reunions, like some sort of generational rubber band. My people are the women and children who understand how “nigger” and “boy” and “thug” can sprawl out of a white man’s mouth with the same slow vowel, and understand how it breaks the backs of our fathers in 1945 and 2009 just the same. My people are the women and children who anticipate the verbal, physical, and emotional blows these broken fathers and brothers transfer to us, like we are not also destined to be called the same things, or worse.

My people are the families who live with seven cousins in three-bedroom houses surrounded by red maple trees and rusted Pontiacs, but still know what their miles-down neighbors are having for dinner. My people are the geometry teachers who chart every small town they hear of on mental maps until they know every county and parish of their states, having long known not to despise the day of small beginnings. My people are the parents who name their sons and daughters after continents, countries, and Midwestern states they never expect to see in their own lifetimes, knowing there is no place that Carolina (or Alabama, or Louisiana, or Mississippi) hasn’t prepared their offspring for. Most of all, my people are the ones who have stopped expecting their children to live through the assortment of hypocrisies and beauties that we call the South, and encourage them to move elsewhere, without any thought for their own loneliness.

At one time, I believed my people to be the Northerners who’d find this post to be too dramatic or exaggerated, but now those kids talk about “driving through, not to” my home state and I’m ready to fight them in the same way any born-and-raised Gamecocks fan would be. I’m tired of feeling apologetic for the red dirt pulsing through my veins like blood. I imagine some of y'all are, too.

Photo: Shutterstock

Gabriella Lott was raised in Lake Wylie, SC, and currently lives in Philadelphia, PA. Her writing revolves around black women, church music, mustard-based barbecue, and other aspects of Southern identity. You can find more of her work at www.2blackgrits.com.

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