Recently, both the University of Georgia and the University of Alabama, unlike other colleges who’ve gone online, are dealing with Covid-19 outbreaks. It’s not surprising considering the South had the highest number of Covid infections this summer. Sadly, many southerners can’t afford to go to the doctor or hospital either. Nine of the ten poorest states are in the South. And, if these southerners are looking for federal help to cover their medical expenses, they probably won’t find it in their home state. Of the twelve states still holding out on Medicare expansion, eight of them are in the South. What’s going on Down South anyways?
There’s a lot to love about the South. I know because both my parents were born and raised there in Kentucky and West Virginia. It wasn’t until after they married that they moved north looking for work other than coal mining. I have such deep southern roots my great-grandfather’s name was Stonewall Jackson Lankford, named after the confederate general of Civil War fame. My grandmother was such a hillbilly she chewed tobacco, played the banjo, and regularly exclaimed, “Lord have mercy!”
I’m not sure when or why the South lost ground, economically and in other ways. When my mother went to Beaver High School in Bluefield, West Virginia, one of her older classmates was John Nash, the subject of the movie, A Beautiful Mind. Nash went on to eventually win the Nobel Prize in economics. My dad never graduated from high school, but his school was Big Creek High School. Big Creek was also the alma mater of Homer Hickam, the former NASA engineer who trained the first astronauts, and gained fame as the leader of the “Rocket Boys.” These southerners were not just open to new ideas, they were the ones instigating them.
When I taught history I told my students about the differences between the North and the South before the Civil War. The North was founded by religious separatists like the Puritans who worked hard to build a life in the New World. The South was largely colonized by British nobles seeking to extract tobacco wealth from the land. Georgia actually began as a penal colony. One part of the country industrialized, and the other part was more agrarian and wedded to a medieval economic system based on slavery. This history set the stage for the humiliating defeat the South suffered at the end of the Civil War. Parts of the South still seem in retreat.
I recently gave my mother a copy of To Kill a Mockingbird, that wonderful classic by Alabama author, Harper Lee. I didn’t know if mom had read it before, she reads so voraciously, but, she seemed delighted with my gift. This week I visited her again, and asked how she liked the book.
“Oh, I loved it! I read it all in one day! I couldn’t put it down. She (Harper Lee) really got the way things were back then, the way I grew up (in the South),” mom told me.
Of course mom enjoyed this book: history and tradition are important to her. Lots of southern music is about tradition and the old ways: fishing in the creek and driving a beat-up pickup with a dog in the back. There’s nothing wrong with this, except sometimes the answers we need now, for example how to deal with this pandemic, can’t be found in the past. Country music star Eric Church gets this. I listened to a song of his the other day on my car radio:
“…Jails are full, factories empty,
Momma’s crying, young boys dying
Under that red, white, and blue still flying…
Stick that in your Country song…”