Southern Shadows

LOOKING BACK

Strictly the Southerner had no mind; he had temperament. He was not a scholar; he had no intellectual training; he could not analyze an idea, and he could not even conceive of admitting two; but in life one could get along very well without ideas if one had only the social instinct. --Henry Adams

The Education of Henry Adams

He would seem to listen to two separate Quentins now--the Quentin Compson preparing for Harvard in the South, the deep South dead since 1865 and peopled with garrulous outraged baffled ghosts...and the Quentin Compson who was still too young to deserve yet to be a ghost, but nevertheless having to be one for all that, since he was born and bred in the deep South...--William Faulkner   Absalom, Absalom!

MY FRESHMAN roommate tells the story better than I. It's her experience after all. She got her room assignment form, and on it appeared my name and Southern address. She tells me that she expected to walk into our Matthews room and find me clad in hoop skirts, drawling and sipping mint juleps. I was not what she expected, but I am no less a Southerner.

I cannot say being a Southerner at Harvard has been excruciatingly hard. I have enjoyed the sense of uniqueness and the distinct privilege of representing and defending my region. I realize now that it has not been as difficult to be a Southerner at Harvard as it will be to be a Southerner after Harvard.

After all what in this day and age does it mean to be a Southerner? Poor Roony Lee, Robert E. Lee's son, who suffered Henry Adams' acute description, completed his Harvard career three years before the Civil War broke out. It was a time when what it meant to be a Southerner was all too clear. Quentin Compson, who went to Harvard just before World War I, was so distressed by the Southern ghosts tugging at him in these northern climes that he killed himself by leaping off the Lars Anderson Bridge.

A fellow Southerner and I went to Anderson Bridge not long ago in search of the plaque commemorating Compson's mythic jump. Years ago a group of Faulkner fans are said to have placed a bronze plaque on the side of the bridge that saw Compson's tumble. It is also said that not long ago, a group of equally ardent fans stole the plaque. We did not know that as we approached the bridge, eager to pay homage to the desperation Compson felt; I understood a bit of his confusion.

I CERTAINLY feel the almost irresistable urge to return to the grimly comfortable and familiar surroundings of my hometown. It is not a unique force, for students from Iowa, Montana, or Manhattan feel the came pull. But the force that pulls me is wrapped up with an inexorable sense of peculiar history and culture. Some ghosts haunt me from a tiny cemetery in Alamance County, North Carolina, others issue from the acres of timber land that my family owns in Northern Louisiana or from my family's tobacco farm--of which I will inherit one-twentieth someday. It is land whose history is that of a great grandfather who played on the LSU football team that beat Yale and went on to win the national championship around Quentin's era at Harvard and of a grandfather who walked from Alabama to Texas because there were free schoolbooks in Texas.

This land and these people who are my ghosts, who loved their home and traditions, who felt profoundly comfortable in the heat of a stultifying Southern summer, these tug at me and tell me I must return to the South bearing gifts from Harvard, that I must give up my great love of the intensity and impatience of the North in order to regain a place in the South.

I feel as if I instinctively understand and can work with the biases and prejudices of my home. But I hate the home that requires such compromise.

I have found many Southerners to be anti-intellectual, unchallenging, sexist and racist. I have struggled to feel comfortable with a society where racists threatened to blow up my grandparents' home because my grandfather helped desegregate the state university in the 1960s. I have struggled to accept a society where intelligent, aggressive women subvert their ambition and fire to be attractive to the men around them. I have struggled to cope with the fact that most of my high school classmates went on to perfectly good schools, joined perfectly good fraternities and sororities and are well on their way to alcoholism.

ALL OF this contrasts negatively with Harvard. I cannot see how I could live in the South without either building up an almost unbearable sense of rage or sinking into the worst kind of apathy. Has Harvard given me the equipment to hate my region coherently and eloquently or to return to it with a love that springs from understanding the South's shortcomings and the tools to help reform them?

For almost 15 years after graduating from Harvard, my father told everyone that he was from Boston. He has never returned to the South.

But I am thinking that the racism of a sheriff in Jefferson Parish does not outshine the bigotry of some Boston schools or of the men and women of Elmwood, Philadelphia. And being here in Boston has taught me of the ease with which people dismiss the racism in their midst by focusing on more glaring evils elsewhere.

I do not want to be an apologist. Perhaps that is the burden of the Southerner at Harvard, learning to love and hate the South, struggling to reconcile the value of a mytholgized past with fears for the way it will shape the South's future. The further burden is that other Harvard students rarely understand this struggle. And the greatest shame is that it is far easier to turn one's back on the struggle and never return home.