Bittersweet Southerners: What our reaction to the Sun Kil Moon incident says about us
by Angela Perez
I won’t give you the details of the actual incident from the Sun Kil Moon show during the Hopscotch Music Festival in Raleigh, N.C. – that’s been covered ad nauseam. What I want to talk about here is why Southerners – especially the North Carolinians – got so goddamned bent out of shape about it. This incident sparked by the precious little singer from the band wasn’t really that big of a deal – calling the audience a bunch of hillbillies and telling them to shut the fuck up. But our overheated reaction here in the South points to a much larger phenomenon, one that most Southerners deal with regularly when they leave the Southland and, quite frankly, we’re just fucking sick of. The bitterness you might have gotten a sense of has been come by honestly. I’ll tell you how I came by mine.
Back in the 90s as an undergraduate, I studied in Budapest, Hungary for two years. While there, I lived in a dorm with other American students, most of them from the northeast. That very first semester, during our orientation to the ways of Hungarian universities, I met a moderately good-looking guy from the University of New Hampshire. We’ll call him Clive. Clive and I got to be sort of friends, often discussing Hungarian literature while having coffee together in the dorm’s snack bar. Towards the end of that semester, I passed Clive on my way to class and he stopped me and said, “You know, Angela, I was thinking about something you said about Ady Endre last week [he’s a Hungarian writer] and I realized you are really actually pretty damn smart – you know, to be from the South. When I first heard your accent, well, you know, I wasn’t sure about you.”
I walked away dazed. After all, living in Hungary was one of my first extended stays outside of the South. And my first exposure to the fact that people who were not from the South might have a rather outmoded vision of people conducting endless swooning Gone-With-the-Wind shenanigans and cavorting Hee Haw antics.
The resentment blossoms further
A few years later, while I was at Duke University working (and drinking and fornicating) towards my Master’s degree, I often encountered students from the northeast (they seemed to make up a large part of the campus population) who made comments about my Southern accent, laughing and wondering at the fact I could be so intelligent. On many occasions as I took the bus from East campus to West campus and listened to wealthy little blonde prep-school girls from up North speak in clipped tones about partying it down at Martha’s Vineyard, I dreamed of rubbing them all down with fatback grease and Duke’s mayonnaise and throwing them into a pit of wild dogs. But that was just bitterness taking over. I was taught better than that. So I never did rub any blonde girls down with pork or anything.
For a long time, while I was at Duke studying Russian language and literature, I tried to hide my Southern accent so as not to be discounted as dumb, or, at least not as smart as everyone else there. And since I wasn’t able to hide the battered blue Chrysler LeBaron I rolled up in and parked daily next to dozens of Lexus, BMW, and Mercedes luxury rides, well, I could indeed hide the accent. I could swath my Southerness with a disarming cloud of New England erudition. I’d seen it played out enough on Duke’s campus. But one day, in the midst of all that painful play-acting, I faltered.
I was standing in line at one of the campus cafeterias, passing through the buffet line, telling the women behind the hot table which items I’d like to have. There amidst the steaming steel pans of food, I spotted collard greens. What the fuck? Why would anyone cook collard greens and cast those pearls before those Northern swine? The tray of collards was full. Naturally, no one had chosen them. But I wanted them. Badly. Collard greens are my favorite vegetable in the whole wide world. But to order those collard greens would expose me. Ah, but that smell! So I not only went for it, I went one better.
I asked the woman serving food if I could have an extra-large bowl of the collard greens. The woman, a plump, middle-aged black woman in a hair net, looked at me a little bit surprised. “Oh, okay,” she said, “sure.”
“I can’t believe you even have collard greens,” I said.
“We don’t serve a lot of them for sure. But we offer them from time to time.”
“One question,” I said, “did you happen to cook these in fatback and if you did, can I have a piece of it?”
She almost dropped her spoon. “Little girl,” she said, “what do you know about fatback?”
“I know I want some,” I said. “Have you got any?”
“Wait a minute,” she said. And she disappeared into the kitchen. About two minutes later she emerged with a Styrofoam bowl overflowing with three cooked pig tails. There were two other women with her.
“Girl, we had to come out here and see who was ordering up fatback,” she said, with a broad smile. “We made these collards with pig tails. If you want ‘em, we want you to have them. I can’t believe this.”
I smiled back. “Hell yes, I want them. Thank you so much. Finally, I feel like home here. This means a lot to me.”
They all laughed and the third woman said, “You can have all the pigtails you want sweetheart.”
After I sat down and ate my pigtails and collard greens, I decided that I was going to be ashamed no longer. I was living a lie. Not only was I brilliant, I had a rich, exotic, horrible, wonderful history coming from the South and a beautiful accent that was slow and easy – for me, well, I take words and roll them around in my mouth, savor them, play with them, and use them to mean a lot of things at one time. What’s to be ashamed of?
Granted, since the Duke days, I have lived in other places outside of the South and experienced the same sort of reaction – wonder at my words and turns of phrase. Once, when I was living in Oregon, while at the checkout counter at the supermarket, the clerk said something about the weather. I responded and he stopped mid-scan of a bag of curly fries and said,
“Oh, wow. You’re from the South!”
“Yes,” I said, a bit wearily. “I am indeed.”
“You know,” he said, “I like grits. I really do. And one of my favorite movies is from the South. It’s that movie, ‘You Might Be a Redneck If’ – you know it, don’t you?”
I started to say, “Asshole, that’s no movie. It’s a stand-up comedy routine by a Southern comedian, Jeff Foxworthy.” But I didn’t say it. Because I am too polite to say things like that. I just laughed and said, “Yeah, boy, that’s a good ‘un.”
The point of all of these fascinating little vignettes from my life is to show that Southerners deal with this parochial bullshit all of the time from people who don’t seem to know any better. And yet those same people are themselves demonstrating a fundamental lack of knowledge of the world. It’s amazing in this day and time that anyone could be this uneducated about the South. I don’t even need to shout out the laundry list of authors, filmmakers, musicians, chefs, etc. from this part of the world who have influenced or even changed the entire trajectory of those art forms and of American culture. But we remain mired in and conflated with the worst parts of our history and present.
So, yes, Southerners, in this case Raleigh-Durham residents, get wildly bent out of shape (and actually, more wearied than anything) when the lead singer from a cute little precious melancholy band from San Francisco yells out “fuck you hillbillies” during a show. It’s just so very damned backwards. Sad, really. Just sad.