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Flavor of the South in its past and present

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By BILL MAXWELL

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 4, 2001


WINGATE, N.C. -- The South is the nation's most distinctive cultural region.

It is geography, emotion and imagination. The South is Janus-faced, looking to the front and to the back at the same time. Its contemporary identity is its past -- slavery, hangings, Jim Crow, provincialism.

In 2001, much of the region clings to an inferiority complex. All that said, outsiders should not forget that a fierce pride that, ironically, grew out of the Civil War defeat still shapes the world view of many native Southerners.

Many towns and institutions in the Land of Cotton overcome the negativity by celebrating the good things and those rare moments of redemption. I, along with my colleague, novelist Beverly Coyle, am participating in a six-day symposium at Wingate University titled "The Fine Arts of Being Southern."

We are performing "Parallel Lives," a reading of stories about our coming of age in Jim Crow Florida and our gradual rise above the milieu that separated us as children. Our program represents one of those rare redemptive moments.

The symposium made me realize again that the South inspires a special creativity, a signature expressiveness that the indigenous share across generations.

Award-winning singers Doc Watson and Bobby McMillon, who are performing, evoke the Old South and its social currents in ways that give meaning to the present. Watson, who is a blind guitarist, weds his Appalachian musical roots with bluegrass, gospel, country and blues to create a spellbinding energy. You live the South through his picking.

One critic wrote that McMillon's singing is "raw and shrill as a mountain cat's cry." Indeed, his ballads and folk stories create images of the Carolina mountains of his childhood.

As a writer, I am glad to be in the company of novelists Clyde Edgerton (Walking Across Egypt), Judy Goldman and Tim McLaurin. Southern writers are a breed apart, and Southern literature, unlike that of other major regions, is a genre unto itself. And nothing I have heard or read so far here at Wingate has changed my mind.

Today's Southern writers, like their forebears, write with wit and wisdom. But their special gift is their ability to peel back and expose the essential meaning of the personal, the mundane and the pedestrian that are in plain sight. Sometimes they imbue these matters with universality, while leaving the regional mark on the expression.

I attended the panel discussion "Race and Religion in Southern Literature." Although the panelists, McLaurin and Goldman, use race and religion differently in their work, they acknowledge the significance of these two forces.

Goldman, a Jew and author of the novel The Slow Way Back, said that religion gives her characters a sense of belonging, as it does for most Southerners. I know of very few Southern short stories, novels and plays that do not deal with religion in some way.

Goldman and McLaurin said that even when writers are not writing about race, they are writing about race. The very absence of race is an acknowledgement of race in Southern literature. As Goldman began her new novel in November, she resisted the very idea that she was writing about race. Now, however, she knows that race is the subtext of the book.

"I didn't want to acknowledge it," she said. "A major character in my new novel is on the wrong side of the race issue. We must start telling the truth about race."

McLaurin, who is white and who grew up on tobacco farms, is unapologetic about how race influences his writing. He worked alongside blacks in the fields of his childhood, and blacks were his friends. "The fields were integrated," he said. "There was one color: green. The tobacco was green. The money was green."

McLaurin's stories, therefore, are filled with white/black relations -- some loving and enduring, some violent and fatal. His understanding of sexual attraction between blacks and whites produces many edgy encounters.

The first meeting between Ellis, a major white character, and Nadean, a black woman, in the novel Woodrow's Trumpet, underscores McLaurin's unflinchingly honest treatment of race and sexuality: "Soon, the passenger door swung open, and two long, coffee-colored legs appeared, a bright, red skirt riding high on her thighs, exposing a glimpse of white panties. Ellis felt a flutter low in his bowels."

Their love is not one of lust. In the post-Jim Crow South, such open unions occur often, and most of today's Southern writers eagerly embrace the region's new reality.

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