Who are we and where do we live?

by DG Martin

‘“To read Hal Crowther is like watching Michael Jordan dunk.’”

I like this way that one critic describes the experience of reading Hal Crowther, whose new book is Gather at the River: Notes from the Post-Millennial South.

Much of Crowther’s best work centers on his efforts to understand and explain what the South and its people are like today. The essays collected in Gather at the River all have something to say in response to the question, ‘“As Southerners, who are we and where do we live?’”

Unlike many column writers and editorialists, Crowther goes sharply and unambiguously to his points. When he writes about political leaders or the lingering racism in his Southland, his pen turns to a hot torch.

Crowther’s torch burns brighter because he bases his opinions on rigorous research and delivers them with carefully crafted, vivid language.

Ironically, his torch is hottest when he writes about ‘“non-southerners’” whose opinions about the South are uniformed, naïve, and insulting.

In an essay titled ‘“The Columbus Syndrome,’” his target was Sitting up with the Dead: A Storied Journey through the American South by Pamela Petro. This outsider missed seeing the true South, in part, because, ‘“Sly storytellers mesmerized her with small talk and never delivered the goods’…. The Southerner yields to no one when it comes to denial’…. But he’s no innocent savage who lives an unexamined life on the thin ice of unexamined history, who unwraps his darkest secrets for any rank stranger with a tape recorder.

‘“Never tell the South you understand it better than it understands itself. Like Brer Rabbit, it may outfox and outlast you.’”

But can Crowther himself do this job?

In his opening essay, ‘“The Tao of Dixie: A Stubborn People,’” Crowther confesses that there are moments of hesitation and confusion. ‘“And then,’” he writes, ‘“there are moments when it all seems crystal clear.’”

One feature of Southern culture, its ‘“stubborn tribal attitude, its adamant embrace of a separate identity even as the floodwaters of mass culture wash away its monuments and shrines,’” Crowther says is a reaction to being misunderstood and excluded. He writes, ‘“Tribal consciousness ‘— the chip on the shoulder underdogs wear as a fraternal badge ‘— persists as long as the tribe suffers misrepresentation, misunderstanding, prejudice and contempt’…. As long as popular culture persists in presenting them as incestuous hillbillies, church-burners, mule-beaters and randy evangelists, Southerners will dip snuff and fly Confederate battle flags just to make New Yorkers wince. This unlikely mixture of defiant pride and self-mockery is a joke Northern liberals never grasp. I think it helps to explain why North Carolina kept Jesse Helms in the US Senate for thirty years. He’s a monstrous mascot, a gross pet we harbored in the same spirit as people who keep pythons and ferrets. Tar Heels reelected him as long as he was capable of throwing the Eastern media into apoplexy.’”

In other provocative essays, Crowther looks at the South through its music, art, politics, sport, literature and sense of place, and through the eyes of other Southerners who have tried to understand our region.

About our music, Crowther gives some positive impressions. He is clearly taken with the ‘“genuine’” music from the movie O Brother Where Art Thou? and quotes favorably the words of Susan Ketchin: ‘“This music is haunting and haunted. It reaches in and grabs your heart, scrapes your bones.’”

He visits Dolly Parton and reports that ‘“beneath a blinding surface of deliberate, exaggerated, self-satirizing artifice lurks one of the most engagingly authentic individuals in the Nashville pantheon.’”

What about a solution to the South’s lingering problem of race? Crowther is not optimistic. But in ‘“Who’s Your Daddy? Fathers of Us All,’” he asserts: ‘“It will take not a color-blind but a thoroughly colored population to put such nightmare nonsense behind us.’”

Yes, Crowther is suggesting widespread intermarriage might be the only long-term solution. Knowing that he has alarmed us, he rubs it in. ‘“Jump into the melting pot, the gene pool of the only possible future. Last one in is a racist pig.’”

Can you stand up to such provocations? If so, Crowther can teach you things you never knew about the South and entertain you along the way.