State of the South, Part 1 "There's Got to Be a Magnet Somewhere"
“There must be a magnet somewhere.. What else keeps bringing people back?
-Something I heard once.
Last month I had the privilege of participating in the State of the South tour by the Alabama Shakespeare Festival. On July 6th, playwrights Donnetta Lavinia Grays, Elyzabeth Gregory Wilder, Addae Moon, filmmaker Caleb Zorn, Artistic Director Rick Dildine, and myself piled into a Chrysler minivan and set out on a ten day listening tour of the south. Part of our contract was to write a personal reflection on what we learned from the various conversations. Since the trip was so inspirational, and because for some idiotic reason I have committed myself to blogging every day for the next year, I am going to dedicate this week’s writings to those reflections.
Please note- these observations are mine and not the groups. They’ll have their own responses. My soul sucking need for attention is forcing me to make mine public.
My last three years in New York I lived with a woman from Massachusetts. Side bar-I really wish you could have seen how badly I misspelled Massachusetts. Instead of saying, “No Suggestions,” my spell check said, “What is Wrong With You?” I looked it up on line. I spelled it so badly a second time that Google search yielded links to the GED.
The point it, I lived with a woman from Massachusetts. She was smart, she was beautiful, and she could not understand why I was so proud to be from South Carolina.
Not that she thought it was something I should be ashamed of. It was the specificity that confused her. When we would discuss it, I said I understood why she didn’t get it. “You’re from the cold, rocky shores of a God forsaken land,” I would say. “There’s no love in that soil.” In response she would pretend to play the banjo and say something about sex with cousins. Then we drink origin coffee, eat scones, and hold hands wandering the streets of Brooklyn.
It’s true. I am proud to be from South Carolina. I’ve always felt a great attachment to the state. The farther away I went, the more I felt it. When I lived in California I remember reading Charleston City Paper’s annual Best Of Issue and I felt so homesick I could barely breathe. I wanted to smell the pluff mud. I wanted to feel the humidity on my skin. When we left California to move to New York, the moment we crossed the Mississippi River and got out of the car in Memphis, I felt that air wrap around my skin. In suddenly I felt home, in a city I had never been in before.
That pull wasn’t quite as bad when I lived in New York, but it was still there. On Sundays I would listen to Blue Grass. I searched for grits. My sister got the state flag tattooed on her arm. I said ya’ll accidentally and on purpose. One of my stand up friends was from Alabama, and when we would get drunk and hang out my accent would suddenly appear. I didn’t even know I had an accent, but there it was, thicker than a grasshopper on a hay leaf. WHAT DID I JUST SAY????
I heard people talk about that pull, that longing, in every stop of our tour. The voices of people who had left and returned. Of people who should have gone, but simply wanted to stay.
Southerners aren’t unique in this feeling. My friend Joy has lived in Charleston for 30 years, but she’s from New York and still feels the pull back home. My friend Jesse is from Algiers. He loves New York City, he’s lived there for a long time, but just the other day he had a Facebook post in front of the Algerian consulate, saying how much he missed home. What must that pull have felt like during the Great Migration, or for the Africans who came over on slave ships. Or today, of the people who were displaced by Hurricane Katrina who can’t afford to return. Or the people from Central America willing to walk the length of Mexico to seek asylum in the United States.
The pull was so strong for me that I came back. I live in South Carolina again. Back in my home town. Not exactly the ideal place to make a living as a theatre artist, but I’m making it happen. What made me come back? What now makes me stay? It’s not just the friends, the family, the food. I feel a responsibility to here. To repay the investments made in me. To be a small part of fixing the mistakes.
“The problems started here, and the can be fixed here.” That was a sentiment I heard over and over as well.
I realize that I’m one of the lucky ones. I had the means and support to come back home. To feed that pull. To scratch that itch.
On this summer Sunday I’m thinking about all the people who want to be with their people. Who want to see their land, smell their air, but don’t have the means to do so.