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Sunday, December 13, 2009

Travelling in the South

"Goin' down South" as R. L. Burnside would put it. Passing through Virginia, dipping into the Piedmont, pushing towards Charleston, South Carolina, the cradle of the War between the states. Savannah, Georgia, almost its twin sister, finally southern Georgia and into Florida. Small hick towns boasting religiously themed coffee shops which can count their daily customers on one hand. Ending the trip in Gainesville, Florida, a super-sized Chapel Hill with over 80,000 students living there.

How can one sum up 8 days on the road, constant driving, ever constant motels at night, ever changing landscapes outside the window? People have written books about these kind of journeys (well, maybe not, 8 days might be a bit short for that). This leaves me with a desire to express a few superficial remarks on the South per se, as far as that exists.

1) It is beautiful. The foggy Blue Ridge Parkway, the duned Outer Banks, Charleston harbor with its mansions, Savannah's moss-covered trees shading its many squares, the blackwater marshes of North Carolina, the forests and national parks in Georgia and South Carolina. Honestly, this trip could have lasted twice as long and I wouldn't have gotten sick of looking at those landscapes.

2) The Southern Drawl is, hands down, the most amazing dialect in the English-speaking world. No, I don't care what you say, you're wrong! Southerners are also extremely friendly, even though that might also simply be a small town thing.

3) Especially Charleston (but also, for example, the tour in Stonewall Jackson's house) is as depoliticized as to be ridiculous at times. In a guided tour of a mansion there, the erstwhile owner's riches were explained to have been based on the import/export business. I chimed in, wondering whether that included slaves (as at least some of his wealth had been amassed before the interdiction of the import (sorry for the word) of Africans into the USA in 1808 (or around there in any case)). My response was some jamboree that had not much to do with my question. Regardless of this it is clear that the whole Southern economy, especially in these rich trading towns and ports, was based on slavery as the undercurrent which was what made it profitable. After the Civil War, these towns and their industries fell into disarray simply because the whole business model was unsound when labor actually had to be paid for. Simply put, not only did every rich business man of those areas have a few slaves working in the kitchen and garden (and more), they also couldn't have become rich in the first place if it wasn't for the cheap labor input provided by human chattel.

I felt as if this subject was eluded by simply not mentioning it. Every tour was depoliticized, statues and plagues commemorating the Confederacy, its soldiers and individual generals or statesmen are still standing all over the place. I don't mind having left them standing, they also show what the South was like between 1890 and 1910 (when most of them were constructed by the Daughters of the Confederacy), but why would the city not put a little explanatory sign next to them? Why would tour guides not discuss openly that the beautiful houses which garnish their cities were made possible through one of the vilest and long-lastings crimes in the history of humanity? Not to become too self-congratulatory, but German policy towards its past has been far better in that sense with memorials and museum all over the place. Charleston has a museum of the Confederacy (that is kind of like a Holocaust Museum being called Museum of the Third Reich) and one city museum which tells the stories of maybe two or three of its black citizens over the last 200 years. The word reconstruction is used exactly once and the Civil Rights Movement seems to have never made it to South Carolina. It's almost as if people think by not talking about it, visitors will appreciate the beauty without dwelling on the dark side of history. What folly.

Hanging onto this thought for a second, it might very well be that this kind of refusal to deal with the past is not so much the Southern way of doing things but the American one. Maybe a country (a society), which believes as strongly in its own exemplarity and uniqueness, which boasts with as much pride of its history (the American Dream, A City Upon A Hill, Manifest Destiny, the pioneers, the puritans even) can simply not accept to face the horrible deeds its forefathers committed, regardless of whether this relates to Native Americans, the internments of Germans and Japanese, anti-Chinese legislation or the treatment of African Americans ever since their arrival in the colonies.

4) My last reflection is actually related to this bizarre perception of history. Savannah, Georgia, prides itself on its founder, James Oglethorpe. The irony of that is how life in the Savannah almost from the beginning on ran counter to Oglethorpe's desires, wishes and beliefs. His convictions when founding the city were for it to remain free of liquor, slaves and business activities. This again seems to be a rather common American (or maybe human, but I feel it is more developed in the USA than in most European countries) trait of glorifying past leaders whose advice and beliefs the US today (or even back then) ignores. Jefferson is a prime example for this as few people would ever consider living in his vision of a yeoman farmer society, yet he is a hero to the American people as such. Ironies of history I guess.

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