I am a Southerner, for all that I’m expatriate—born in Alabama, raised in Virginia and the Carolinas and Kentucky, I graduated high school in John Hughes land and attended a famously liberal arts college on the North Coast of Ohio. Since then, I’ve lived my life in New York and Boston and the Pioneer Valley and Portland, Oregon, and I haven’t spent more than two weeks at a stretch south of the Mason Dixon. (And those stretches are sometimes awfully few and far between.) —But I cook up hoppin’ john for New Year’s, every year (though, apostasic, I make it without the fatback). I taught my Jersey girl how to eat grits and I make my biscuits from scratch. (Food? Don’t laugh. Look to the roots of your own tongue.) —I’m haunted by the smell of magnolia blossoms, plucked and left in a drinking glass on the mantelpiece. (They smell lemony, the same way apples do.) Long pine needles crushed underfoot, dry, not wet and silvery grey; evergreens burnt brown by the sun. I always forget until I see it from the window of the plane, how red the dirt is, scraped up, laid shockingly bare in circles of development scars that will always ring Charlotte: how wrong it looks, how raw. It’s not the color the earth is supposed to be. It’s alien; I’m home.
For a couple of weeks, at most. And then.
(“You will find no other place, no other shores,” says C.P. Cavafy. “This city will possess you, and you’ll wander the same streets. In these same neighborhoods you’ll grow old; in these same houses you’ll turn grey.”)
—If you aren’t Southern, I don’t know that I can explain the little thrill I felt when I saw the motto for the Levine Museum of the New South: “Telling the story—1865 to tomorrow.” Shock is hardly the word. Frisson even seems too strong. It’s a stifled giggle; a flash of a grin, at something you’d’ve done yourself, but never would have thought to do. It hardly seems worth mentioning, but—well, maybe the About Us page will bring it into focus for the Yankees among us?
What is the New South?
The New South means people, places and a period of time — from 1865 to today. Levine Museum of the New South is an interactive history museum that provides the nation with the most comprehensive interpretation of post-Civil War southern society featuring men, women and children, black and white, rich and poor, long-time residents and newcomers who have shaped the South since the Civil War.
New South Quick Facts
- A Time—The New South is the period of time from 1865, following the Civil War, to the present.
- A Place—The New South includes areas of the Southeast U.S. that began to grow and flourish after 1865.
- An Idea—The New South represents new ways of thinking about economic, political and cultural life in the South.
- Reinvention—The New South encompasses the spirit of re-invention. The end of slavery forced the South to reinvent its economy and society.
- People—The New South continuously reinvents itself as newcomers, natives, immigrants, visitors and residents change the composition and direction of the region.
To say that you are about the South, but dismiss the antebellum—not to forget, because who can forget, not even to repudiate it, but to wave it off as no longer important to the South you want to look at, here and now— Don’t throw out the cotton and the rice, the pastel dresses and grey uniforms, the stars and bars and whips and chains. Those things are all still very much alive and kicking. But cut out the thing that props them up, the hollow rites, the archly wounded pride; blithely (if a little self-consciously) announce you’re leaving the Civil War well enough alone, to all the many other hands that want it; you will turn your attention to everything else, and watch it all fall into some saner perspective—1865 to tomorrow—
(“How long can I let my mind moulder in this place?” says C.P. Cavafy. “Wherever I turn, wherever I happen to look, I see the black ruins of my life, here, where I’ve spent so many years, wasted them, destroyed them totally.”)
The Levine Museum of the New South is currently hosting an exhibit called “Families of Abraham.” Eight photographers spent over a year with 11 families in the Charlotte area—Christian families, Jewish families, Muslim families—recording their holidays and everydays, putting the photos together to demonstrate that when you set aside the different words we’ve each plucked from the same shambolic Book and just look at the people, going about their lives, well, under the chadors and yarmulkes and double-knit blazers we’re all, y’know, the same. Basically.
That’s a photo (by my mother, which is why the show is important to me, yes, but), a photo of Basheer Khatoon with her great-grandson, Raahil, taken in the home she shares with her son, a Charlotte cardiologist.
My South—the South in my head, the South I came from—doesn’t have a Basheer Khatoon. But there she indisputably is. Alien—and yet, from all the years I’ve spent since and elsewhere, heimlich. The world has come to the South; the South—my South—is becoming part of the world.
No matter where we go, there we are; we find no other place, no other shore. We wander the same streets, grow old in the same neighborhoods. —But those streets change.