Black, Woman & Southern: Coming to Terms with the Intersections of My Identity

by Altheria Gaston

My husband, stepson, and I recently went to Alabama to visit my family. We flew to Jackson, Mississippi (the nearest major airport to my hometown) and took the two hour drive home. We passed through Meridian, Mississippi, a town where my late grandmother worked as a nanny and housekeeper in the homes of White families for many years. A few miles and a few dozen magnolia trees down the highway, we were in Kewanee, Mississippi, the last town before crossing the Mississippi/Alabama state line.

Though there was nothing in particular that I wanted to purchase, I insisted that we stop at the Simmons-Wright General Merchandise Store and Café, founded in 1884. As I walked aimlessly around the historical store, I was transported back in time to my childhood when as a little girl, I peered on tip-toes over the counter to see what Grandma was purchasing, most likely, bologna and hoop cheese by the pound, coconut cookies that cost a few cents each, Sunflower flour and cornmeal, or the soft peppermints that she always carried in her purse. During this visit, I purchased cheese and pork skins for my mama and banana pudding for me. I pointed out to my husband that the cash register the cashier used had been there since I was a little girl. I browsed a few additional items as we walked toward the door, looking for any reason to stay a bit longer.

As our drive into Alabama commenced, a roadside stand with massive watermelons caught my eye. We stopped to purchase several to give to family. My husband asked, “Where do I pay? Nobody’s here.”

“It’s an honor system,” I said, “Just drop the twenty in the box. We’re in Cuba, Honey.” Cuba, Alabama, specifically the small community of Morningstar, is the land my forefathers worked as slaves and sharecroppers for generations. It’s where they birthed and buried children. Where they worked and worshipped. Where they lived and died.

Though I have lived in another state for twelve years, Alabama will always be home. As I walk over stones with rough edges on bare feet, my “citified” husband no longer asked, “Where are your shoes?” He knows, “You can take the girl out of the country, but you can’t take the country out of the girl.” In fact, the qualities he appreciates most about me were cultivated in the U.S. South. My gratitude, kindness, simplicity, strong work ethic, and respect for elders are a result of being raised by poor people who appreciated what they had instead of complained, who valued people instead of things, and who believed that “Yes, Ma’am,” “Please,” and “Thank you” could take you a long way. I take pride in being an Alabama girl. And although my family tree’s roots grow from Southern soil, I consider myself “strange fruit” with deeply ambivalent feelings about the South.

While I love certain aspects of my home—our dialect, our food, our manners, our hospitality—I am an outspoken critic of the continued racism, sexism, classism, heterosexism and overall conservatism of the South, home of the “Good ‘ol boy system.” Our legacy of systematic oppression was recently thrust to the forefront of our country’s consciousness as a result of the terroristic hate crime that happened at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, SC.. Race and religion in the South intersected on center stage as Black people saw the massacre as a racial attack and Christians viewed it as a religious affront. Insisting on distinguishing it as race hate crime or a religious hate crime, most people did not see it as a violent act against Black Christians who were mainly female. The South is described by scholar Reta Ugena Whitlock as a place “where race, class, gender, religion, and sexuality interact continually and comprehensively.” Unfortunately, many in the South do not recognize these intersections and, consequently, are limited in the ways they seek to dismantle institutional subjugation.

I am troubled by the way some Southerners allow their religious beliefs to cause them to work against the liberation of other minoritized populations. They use justifications similar to those used by White supremacists and racists to withhold equal rights from their own people—mainly from Black women (who deserve the right to have autonomy over the bodies and to be treated equally with men) and from Black queer people (who deserve to marry as they please and to have all the rights of heterosexuals). Many misogynistic, heterosexist Southerners, blinded by their religious faith, fail to identify the ideology of White supremacist capitalist patriarchy as the supreme oppressor of people of color, people who are queer, people who are poor, and women. White supremacist capitalist patriarchy is the ideology that needs to be dismantled—NOT JUST RACISM.

Even though I scream the lyrics to the top of my lungs whenever I hear Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Sweet Home Alabama,” in my heart, I know that Alabama has never been and is not so “sweet” to many individuals and groups who call it home. I have disdain for my region because of the sheer brutality inflicted upon my ancestors in these states and because of the unrelenting physical and moral violence still perpetrated against Blacks and other minoritized groups. Despite its troubles, it is my “sweet” home.

A friend texted me a few weeks ago and asked, “Are you excited about the Confederate flag being removed from the Alabama capitol in Montgomery?” I recalled a few of the many civil rights battles that took place in Alabama--the Selma to Montgomery march, the bus boycotts, the sit-ins, the freedom rides. Perhaps this flag removal ordered by the governor is the latest in a succession of civil rights victories for Blacks in Alabama. Though liberation is not achieved through the removal of a symbol, I am, in fact, proud of Alabama. But in a state where 30% of Blacks lives in poverty (12% of Whites) and many Black children still attend poorly funded segregated schools, parity is far from a reality. Progress of this nature happens slowly—over generations and not without struggle. When I shop at the Simmons-Wright General Merchandise Store, I don’t have to enter through the back door, nobody calls me “girl,” and I’m not at the mercy of the owners to allow me credit. Progress.

Black|Southern|Liberal|Religiously Skeptical|Heterosexual|Woman. I am each of them and my identity sits at the intersection of all of them—making me “strange fruit” indeed. And I’m coming to terms with my strangeness. 

Photo: Shutterstcok 

Altheria Gaston is a regular contributor at For Harriet. You can find her on Twitter @altheriagaston.

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