The first thing I remember about New Orleans is the humidity and its accompanying smell. It was like the world was embracing me in a way it never had before and the musty, subdued smells of seawater swam into my nostrils instead of the harsh, foggy barrage of the air in my native San Francisco. As a fifth grader, I was enchanted by the drunken, party-all-the-time bourbon street (we walked down this famous thoroughfare at 8pm on a Tuesday), the delicate Spanish moss hanging off the trees in the bayou, the quaint old-fashioned streets, and especially the old plantations along the Mississippi river just outside the city.
This was my first experience of that place we call the Deep South—the states that fought as members of the Confederacy during the Civil War. I didn’t know anything about the Civil War, of course, or slavery, or even civil rights apart from that Martin Luther King, jr. was a great man with a dream. But, at ten years old, the history hadn’t hit me yet and all I could remember was the humidity and the smell.
Since that first trip, I returned to New Orleans once (pre Hurricane Katrina), and have also spent considerable amounts of time in Virginia, North Carolina and Georgia. Throughout my teenage years, I retained a certain amount of interest in those Southern states and to this day I relish biscuits and grits with breakfast and breathe deeply each time I step off an airplane into that warm humidity. Every time I visited the South, I made sure to take some time off of touring colleges and stopping by points of historical interest—of which there are so, so many. I’ve read Gone with the Wind some Civil War history and, of course, a little bit about the history of the Civil Rights movement. So I know that the South, like any other place with as long a history, is complicated.
However, through my time in high school, I have found that many people from the Bay Area (like me) pride themselves on being northern, coasterly, liberal types with no interest in going to the Deep South or learning about its culture and history. They prefer to see a swathe of red states and historical oppression, confederate flags and country music, bars and brawls and a little bit of Jesus thrown in there. And sure, the South has all of that. (I drove through Alabama once on the way to Atlanta and couldn’t find any non-country radio stations outside of Birmingham.) But, as I said before, the South (and the United States as a whole) is a complicated place. Southerners are proud of their history (many Civil War historical sites in Virginia sell cute little Robert E. Lee bobble-head dolls) and their identity in a way that Californians don’t really experience themselves.

 

Sadly, throughout the South (and the United States and the rest of the world), racism remains a problem. As a kid, I was struck by the richness of the multiracial culture of New Orleans—and then news coverage of hurricane Katrina, especially shots of those unfortunate enough to be stuck in shelters while those with more money were able to leave shattered my vision of a city in harmony. When I toured Davidson College in North Carolina, I read an article about a racist incident at one of the recent frat parties in the school’s newspaper. When I read Gone with the Wind, I loved it for its strong female leads but had to hate it for its antiquated, pre Civil Rights views.
And yet, the Civil Rights Movement itself is probably one of the reasons the South continues to capture my interest. The Civil Rights Movement, to me, is the zenith of grassroots American accomplishment and one instance in history that gives me the most hope for the future of my country. During the Civil Rights movement, African American activists, through massive nonviolent demonstrations, were able to sway political opinion and persuade the federal government to pass and enforce civil rights laws. I have always loved this great nation that is the United States, but have grown to learn that it needs to improve so much. However, the Civil Rights Movement, born out of southern African American culture and Christianity, reminds me every day that forward movement is possible in the United States and around the world, even though its goals are not yet entirely realized.
So, from my past nine years or so of learning about Southern history and culture, I would like to remind Californians that every place and every history is more nuanced than anyone can imagine. Broad generalizations about certain regions of the country and certain types of people inhibit constructive, non-biased communication, which inhibits progress, because people who harbor prejudices are less willing to consider other points of view. I would remind myself and those around me to back up what they say with facts and not allow their prejudices to blind them to a world of complexity that they cannot possibly unravel. When exploring places and cultures throughout the world, I would recommend that everyone try to view a new place through the senses of a ten-year-old and the sensibility of an adult: to smell the humidity, but to also do research.

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