Old Wounds and Southern Pride

Aside from the usual prose and profundity, Baldwin’s Nobody Knows My Name left me even more surprised than usual due to the simple fact that a Northerner somehow depicted the South more accurately than most Southerners can. Baldwin’s account missed a couple details, but in general, his understanding of Southern nature is incredible. 

Baldwin describes many aspects of the south that are still overwhelmingly true today.  Details like Black communities in Southern cities are situated on the far side (usually East side) of the train tracks are still relevant in every Southern city I have been to. In Durham, you can walk down the railroad tracks with high-rises on the left and projects on the right. It’s the corner of E Main St and Angier Blvd, conveniently where the police station sits. That corner is also where two of my dad’s students got shot when I was twelve. 

Baldwin also accurately recounts how pointless Southern education feels, and some forty years later this is what I remember from my school. All of the boundaries, mostly from money which is inherently tied to race in America, meant that all that time studying was useless. Even with a greater emphasis on college and going to higher education, a lot of people didn’t see a point. Anyone who got out alive and with a plan was either lucky or privileged. So much of what Baldwin talks about is still very much the case in Southern cities. 

Eerily, Baldwin described the status quo in the South perfectly. If I were to pick a single detail about the social structure in the South, it would be the status quo. Nothing ever changes meaningfully, it’s all about keeping the peace and keeping things quiet. Baldwin describes this as dealings between the Mayor and the wealthy Black community, each playing the game of ceding publicly but resisting privately. In my hometown, the status quo is maintained by the police and the gangs. Shootings happen weekly, especially on the East and North side, and there’s no backlash, no action from the police. The Durham Police keep most things under wraps, they monitor the “dangerous areas” and they throw their weight around, but never publicly enough to incite any more than a few people. And if the shootings get bad enough or if they cross that line on Angier where the police station sits, then the raids start, the public action, the media broadcasts and the investigations. Just the way it goes. 

But aside from the city descriptions, education, and status quo, the thing that stood out to me the most was Baldwin’s understanding of Southern nature. He touches on this most in regards to Faulkner and how Faulkner’s idea of a middle-of-the-road approach is nothing more than wishful thinking. Baldwin’s objections to this are as always pertinent, and a lot of the well-meaning, older white men I know take the middle-of-the-road way. As Baldwin rightly points out, this is emotionally dishonest at best. At worst, it is a middle-ground between hatred and love, which is ultimately ridiculous. But Baldwin gets to the very heart of the matter when he says, “Men who knew that slavery was wrong were forced, nevertheless, to fight to perpetuate it because they were unable to turn against ‘blood and kin and home’” (213). This might seem dramatic at first but there is nothing more accurate of a Southerner than this. That does not mean that Southerners weren’t motivated by hate, fear, and racism, we absolutely were, and are in some cases still. But it adds an extra layer as to why the South is the way it is. Because a Southerner will always choose blood and kin and home. Even if that Southerner hates their kin and home and disagrees with all of it, nothing is more important to a Southerner than home. That is still relevant today, in the people I grew up with, the people I worked with, and in myself. There is something about being a Southerner that means being resigned to suffer for home, that I have yet to see elsewhere. 

And I don’t think most people understand this, or understand why it leads to Southerners hating the North so much. Cause we still do. I say we because as much as I would like to distance myself from that hatred, I am still part of the culture I was raised in. I don’t think the North understands how much the South still hates it. As Baldwin writes, “The North was no better prepared than the South, as it turns out, to make citizens of former slaves, but it was able, as the South was not, to wash its hands of the matter,” (213). Southerners still see the North as condescending, uncaring, lazy, and corrupt. Because even though the South was wrong (which it definitely was/is), Southerners will take being wrong, being hurt, or being dead, over revoking their home. And the North destroyed our home. Rightfully so, again, I am not qualifying or trying to reclaim any morality in the South’s positions throughout history, there is no morality in this pride. This pride does not justify anything. But it exists. Because as much as I hate what my home stands for, hate what it has done to me and the people I care about, I would still die for my home. And that notion allows for so much ignorance, hatred, manipulation, and stubbornness to be overlooked, all in the name of home.

2 thoughts on “Old Wounds and Southern Pride”

  1. I really appreciated the personal details you incorporated into this post. You write descriptively in a way that I can imagine myself in the locations you describe despite having only visited Durham nearly 10 years ago. I think that the combination of “status quo” and Southern pride that you identify perfectly captures why there has been little change (or at least certainly not as much as we would like to see) to race relations in the South. It is interesting how these similar sentiments are replicated and taken advantage of in the North as well. Being from Chicago, we often overemphasize these problems as “uniquely” Southern. This not only makes us unaccountable for the bigotry, discrimination, and violence that occurs in the North but also further solidifies North/South animosity that you also write about. I agree that Baldwin demonstrates an incredible and powerful ability to name and call out what we (Northerners and Southerners) fail to see in ourselves and our homes on our own.

  2. I really enjoyed how you brought your personal experiences into this post. It definitely added another relevant and insightful layer to reading and understanding Baldwin’s description of the South in Nobody Knows My Name. I also enjoyed how you made the relationship between the South and pride much more comprehensible. I agree that the South was definitely wrong for allowing slavery, oppression, and many more injustices to persist, but I also understand the argument both you and Baldwin make about why Southerners still stick by the South given its history. I think it is a very complex situation especially for people born and raised in the South. How do you choose between being proud that you are from the South, given its horrible history of oppression, or denouncing your roots and your home?

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