Northern Attitude

How’s the foreigner?

Blair, Gabriel is from North Carolina. That’s in the United States.

Not by choice. Let me remind you of a little thing called the Civil War.

Gossip Girl, Season 2, Episode 23.

Every year in the days preceding Thanksgiving, my hometown friends and I get together to watch reruns of our favorite television series, Gossip Girl. Half engaged in a conversation with the group and half paying attention to the show, I turned my full attention to the screen when I heard the conversation (quoted above) taking place between two of the main characters, Serena and Blair. In this moment, I was instantly reminded of our discussion in class on Monday about assumptions made about the North in contrast to the South, and, more specifically, my own biases against the South. Though Gossip Girl is by no means the most academic example of Northern antipathies towards the South, I was struck by this random episode’s coincidental relevance to our discussion of this very theme in James Baldwin’s Nobody Knows My Name. It is worth noting that, while my judgements of the South are undoubtedly primarily a product of my upbringing in the North, it is clear that they have been reproduced and reaffirmed by various forms of media, making this supposed North/South divide even more pronounced, widespread, and, ultimately, concerning. 

Despite all our efforts in the North to present racial bigotry, discrimination, and violence as “unique” to the South, James Baldwin reminds me that we are guilty of the same problems in the North. In “Faulkner and Desegregation,” Baldwin insightfully captures the relationship between the North and South in writing, “The North escaped scot-free. For one thing, in freeing the slave, it established a moral superiority over the South which the South has not learned to live with until today; and this despite– or possibly because of– the fact that this moral superiority was bought, after all, rather cheaply. The North was no better prepared than the South, as it turned out, to make citizens of former slaves, but it was able, as the South was not, to wash its hands of the matter” (213). I find the phrases “moral superiority” and “wash its hands of the matter” to be especially appropriate in describing the North. Not only do we often express disdain for the South’s history of racism with a paternalistic tone but we also consider ourselves to be absolved of any similar sin. In doing so, we ignore the gentrified neighborhoods like Hyde Park in Chicago that push low-income Black residents into unsafe and unsanitary public housing, police brutality resulting in the murders of Black people like George Floyd in Minneapolis, and mass incarceration of Black men like my Inside-Out classmates at Westville Correctional Facility in northwestern Indiana. This reality is further evidence of Baldwin’s contention that “the racial setup in the South is not, for a Negro, very different from the racial setup in the North… Segregation is unofficial in the North and official in the South, a crucial difference that does nothing, nevertheless, to alleviate the lot of most Northern Negroes” (203). Baldwin emphasizes that racism is thus an American problem, not one contained to the South, as much as Northerners, myself included, would prefer to think (for the sake of our consciences). How can we ever move forward as a country if White Americans, no matter where they live, deny the long and continuing history of denigrating Black people?