the southern states from afar

Incredibly amped to watch Rich Hall’s program for BBC4 on the American South — which seems particularly apropos in light of the 50th anniversary of To Kill a Mockingbird. Both because he’s from the region and is more apt to sympathetic to its not-usually-very-favorable-representation-elsewhere, and because it will likely go into much more depth than similar kinds of fare that only flits over huge swathes of geographical territory in an attempt to make some kind of sweeping generalization utterly lacking in content.*

Hall contends that one Hollywood movie above all others has cemented our perception of Southerners as a bunch of deranged hicks: Deliverance. John Boorman’s searing 1972 picture about a group of city slickers on a rural white-water-rafting weekend who are ambushed and raped by a family of deadly, banjo- and shotgun-wielding yokels has imprinted itself on our minds as the authorised version of the South.

‘Because it’s so powerful,’ Hall says, ‘Deliverance has created this image of the toothless, small-town, inbred hill-billy that has stuck. When you start doing that banjo music, even kids who have never seen the film know what you’re talking about. That banjo riff has become shorthand for an entire region!’

Precisely. Every region, every country, every place has its yokels and freaks. I need only direct you to the terrifying white-power enclave that is Eastern Washington/Oregon, where folks consider themselves the “Real Confederacy.” (I don’t know what that means, either. But unlike many of the arguments about the Confederate flag, which often masquerade as ‘heritage’ or ‘history,’ this is about race, pure and simple).

Once, in Spokane, or as I now refer to it, scrub-brush-Devil-country, we stopped at a Perkins, where, in the smoking section, one booth away from us, was a guy who had three swastikas etched into his forehead. Like Vivian from The Young Ones, but less discreet. He sat there, snarling, with a cloud of flies encircling his head like some kind of mad insect entourage. (I AM NOT MAKING THIS UP.)

I appreciate the effort at rehabilitation because it strikes me that Southerners are one of the last marginal groups that it’s okay to mock and ridicule. It’s why I make sure to intersperse my speech in high-falutin’ situations with y’all and all y’all** as much as possible, and why I contemplated spending a whole quarter at the University of Chicago talking like Julie from the first season of The Real World just to see what would happen and how differently people would treat me.

Wonderful that Mr. Hall has a dedicated following on the other side of the pond. I treasured his Sniglets books as a child. Example: Ufluation (yu flu ay’ shun) – n. The peculiar habit, when searching for a snack, of constantly returning to the refrigerator in hopes that something new will have materialized.***

*For which see: Stephen Fry in America. Just too much material to cover in too little time, it ends up looking like a crack-a-loon highlights reel of our shattered society swizzled together with some broad-brush strokes about the states and their inhabitants. And I am pretty much on board with anything Mr. Fry takes on, but this series did nothing for me. John Barrowman did a similar “road trip across America” for Children in Need, not that I’ve watched it. Because: why?

**This is the grammatically correct plural form of y’all. Really.

***Otherwise known as “How I spend the majority of my time, if you include the pantry in this definition.”

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One response to “the southern states from afar

  1. This saddens me b/c what nobody remembers is that the point of Deliverance was that economic imperialism is a bad thing. That buying poor people’s land and making them leave makes them angry.

    Instead, what everybody remembers is Ned Beatty being made to squeal like a pig.