I was recently profiled for AL.com, the digital outlet for three of Alabama’s largest newspapers: the Birmingham News, the Huntsville Times and Mobile’s Press-Register.
During the course of the interview, Roy Johnson, the story’s author, noted that it was interesting that I identified as a Southerner, considering my transient background:
It’s intriguing that Jackson so identifies as Southerner because, by some definitions, he’s not really a Suhthun-ah.
He wasn’t born in the South (nope, in Panama ... really). His father, though, was born in Buffalo, AL, (Chambers County) and grew up in Five Points; his mother was born in France, emigrated to Michigan, where she now resides. Jackson spent some time as a toddler in the state and, later, visited during summers.
“The way I was raised was very much in line with Southern families,” he says. “That’s part of the reason I embrace my Southerness.”
Honestly, it was the first time I’d really ever thought about whether I was actually a Southerner. One of my best friends—we met at age 16 at Bob Jones High School in Madison, Ala., and went to Morehouse College in Atlanta together—used to joke to me often that I wasn’t really from Alabama when I’d claim it (or the South in general), pointing out that I’d lived in and had real ties to too many other non-Alabama places for it to be home. But I never really thought much of it until Mr. Johnson asked.
In the past six months, I’ve done so much consideration of my identity and who I am as a person that the question itself sparked an internal dialogue: Am I actually a Southerner? Spoiler alert: I’ve decided yes.
The idea did, though, percolate in my mind for a few weeks. I thought about all the places I’ve lived and why I feel such a closeness and kinship with the South. I can’t think of another place—with the possible exception of Germany—that feels like where I’m from.
I’m a military brat who grew up overseas, which complicates things. I lived in Frankfurt, Germany, from 1985 to 1993, going from first grade to eighth—the vast majority of my schooling. I moved to Madison in 1993 to attend high school. Like most of us who are military brats, we have ties to the U.S., but those ties don’t always help.
For instance, my oldest sister lived her entire life—until age 18, when she graduated from high school—in Frankfurt. All of her formative years were spent there, mixed with summer trips back home to Georgia and California, where my mom is from and where her dad lived, respectively. One of our sisters was born on base in Wiesbaden, Germany, and lived there until we were 14, when we moved to Alabama.
Here is a list of places I lived before I moved to Germany to live with my dad at age 6: Panama (born), Alabama, Kansas, Indiana and Michigan. Some of those stints were longer than others; I lived in Michigan from age 3 to 6. While I lived in Germany for the school year, my summers were often spent between Jackson, Mich.; Five Points, Ala.; and Atlanta with various family members.
In total, by the time I was 18 and off to college, I’d lived a total of four or five years (accounting for summers) in the South. Most people don’t count college in the “Where are you from?” calculus, so I’ll leave that off the table. So basically, I spent a solid quarter of my preadult life down yonder. Though I’ll bet if we weren’t in the military, we’d have lived in the South.
Now, I think high school years carry significant weight in crafting a person’s identity. Independence and discovery are hallmarks, and they’re a lot of why I refer to myself as a Southerner; I “grew up” in the South.
But for me—and this gets to the all-important “What makes somebody a Southerner?” question—I was raised by a black man from Alabama and a black woman from Georgia. I feel like the things that were native to them and the ideals they held were rooted in their own Southern upbringings, and they held fast to those values and imparted them to their children.
Added to the fact that we were often sent to Alabama and Georgia for summers to spend time with family and to reinforce those values and hone our Southern hospitality, I think I’ve always just viewed myself as part of that lineage. My parents are from the South, and we lived in Alabama when we moved back; therefore, I’m a Southerner. Had we moved to California, I’d probably feel differently.
When you get to college, one of the most common questions you’ll hear is, “Where are you from?” It’s a way for people to gain some insight into who you are and what you’ve seen and been through. Where you’re from is an indicator of your identity, whether you embrace it or distance yourself from it. I’ve always enjoyed being a Southerner and the South in general. I suppose it helped that the South got super popular for pop-culture purposes during my coming-of-age years.
But also, there’s a rooting in the South that many people tie themselves to. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve asked folks where they’re from and they say Chicago (for instance), and I mention Alabama and Georgia, and they immediately point out their family in Mississippi. It happens all the time. Southern ties are very real and very present.
As a point of note—and just to complicate the issue further, I suppose—since 2001 I’ve lived in Washington, D.C., and surrounding areas. I’ve lived here longer than anywhere else in life—even longer at this point than some of the folks I know who claim D.C. and wore their freshest Madness, DDTP and HOBO bedazzled headbands and drop socks in college. D.C. is as much home for me as anywhere else I’ve been in life.
I mentioned that my Southernness was up for question to a friend of mine who told me that she also doesn’t consider me Southern. I had no idea others didn’t consider me a Southerner, and until Roy Johnson asked, I’d never really thought otherwise, but I guess the question is worthy of asking when delving into what shapes identity: Am I a southerner?
When I go South, I’m going home. Plus, I don’t understand how any self-respecting person can drink unsweetened tea or look at grits with hesitation. Now, I wouldn’t say that to anybody’s face.
See? Even my hospitality is Southern.
I’m from the South.