Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Southerners Then and Now

--Recently someone said to me that of course our friend would want to rent our cottage because my husband and me are good Christian people.

--She meant it as a compliment, and I took it as such.  But the English major part of my brain immediately went to Flannery O'Connor and her short stories, where being a good, Christian woman means something else entirely.

--Last week I was listening to an NPR program that discussed the newly published prayer journals of Flannery O'Connor (for more on that, see this post).  The show included a few clips of her voice, even a bit of her reading from "A Good Man Is Hard to Find."  I found myself marvelling at her accent--such a heavy, Southern accent, as you might expect from a Georgia native in the middle of the 20th century.

--I thought about how much has changed in terms of our regional accents.  Even actors who are trying to do an outragious paraody of a Southern accent do not approach the syrup of O'Connor's voice.  And I've heard recordings of other Southerners of that time period, like LBJ and Strom Thurmond.  I'm fairly sure that goopy quality that makes the words almost unintelligible was standard.

--I feel the same way about many regional accents of the past, before television homogenized us all.  There are times when I hear a recording of one of the Kennedies, John or Robert, and I think, "What is he saying?"

--I've been revisiting the U.S. South in literature, as my online students are reading Ellison, Faulkner, and O'Connor.  I confess that I hadn't read Baldwin's "Battle Royal" or Faulkner's "That Evening Sun" before.  They were tough reads for me.

--The everyday racism and cruelty was what made them so hard--plus the knowledge that these stories aren't stretching the truth.  Lives were really that difficult in the stratified society of the pre-Civil Rights momvement.

--And yes, I'm sure there are places where the racism is still stark and brutal.  But now we have laws that prevent some of the worst behavior.

--And yes, I know that those laws don't help when people are so brutalized that they can't seek help.  But at least there are some protections.

--What I find most hopeful is the disbelief of my students.  They see this racism as something that no longer exists.  They express their disbelief in the realism of these stories.

--Perhaps they are naive and unrealistic.  But I prefer to believe that life in the U.S. has changed that substantially so that the works of some of our finest southern writers seem like they're from a distant time and place.

--And in a way, they are.  Faulkner wouldn't recognize his Mississippi today.  O'Connor would be amazed at how Georgia has changed.  Heck, I'm still amazed that this nation has elected a self-identified black man not once, but twice.

--Maybe soon, we'll elect a woman to the nation's highest office.  If South Carolina can elect the daughter of immigrants from India to be governor, it seems a distinct possibility to me that we might have a female president sooner rather than later.

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