Southern Comfort, Harvard-Style

Is Cambridge too cold for those that hail from south of the Mason-Dixon line?

In high school, S. Maggie Spivey ’08 had to be careful about dating—to be sure she wasn’t about to make out with her cousin. And no, it’s not just because she’s from the south.

Spivey lives in Hephzibah, Ga., a town of about 4,000 just south of Augusta, where her family has resided for more than two centuries. That has given her kinsmen quite a lot of time to spread the love. She claims to be related to approximately 60,000 people in her area. “It gets really complicated when you want to date,” she says. Fortunately, a family member wised up and made a comprehensive genealogy book, and as yet no Saturday night dates have turned into impromptu family reunions.

After the Revolutionary War, Spivey’s ancestors earned a plot of land for their service in the Continental Army. “My whole family still lives on this giant piece of land,” she says in an accent straight from “Gone with the Wind.”

Spivey’s close family ties might play into unfortunate stereotypes about southerners, but she self-identifies with an American Indian community, can quote Stanley Kubrick, and indulges in improv comedy with the Immediate Gratification Players.

“The stereotypical southerner isn’t going to be here,” says Spivey, “because the stereotypical southerner doesn’t exist.”

Regardless, she and her fellow students from the South have had to buck positive and negative stereotypes. Over 300 of them have joined the Southern Society (or at least their e-mail list), an organization formed to provide a community for those trying to acclimate to a place that doesn’t quite remind them of home.

Since it was founded last year, the Southern Society (SoSo for short) has actively promoted a more complicated and nuanced picture of the South. They still throw Beirut competitions, but they also co-sponsored Senator John Edward’s recent visit to the Institute of Politics. They might still love Southern Comfort, but there’s more to SoSo than liquor.

STUMBLING BLOCKS

Robert E. Lee’s son would have graduated from Harvard if he hadn’t left to fight for the Confederacy. But while here, William “Rooney” Henry Fitzhugh Lee roomed with Boston-born writer and historian Henry Adams, class of 1858.

Like many Harvard roommates, Adams wasn’t always nice.

“He was simple beyond analysis,” Adams wrote of his roommate in 1907. “As an animal, the Southerner seemed to have every advantage, but even as an animal he steadily lost ground.”

Most Harvard students would like to think that 19th century enmity has been replaced with 21st century amity. But some southern students aren’t so sure.

Emily S. High ’06 is the secretary of the Harvard Southern Society. Her family has lived among North Carolina tobacco fields for generations.

“There are some assumptions that are more or less harmless,” she says. “There’s definitely a stereotype of being less…” She pauses to select her words carefully. “Cosmopolitan.” She hopes that Southern Society can help refute that image.

Sharon O. Doku ’05, a North Carolina native with Ghanaian parents, says the pigeonholing is more problematic.

“People think southerners are from the backwoods and not too bright,” says Doku.

Benjamin E. Click ’06, another Southern Society founder, agrees.

“Southern-bashing is a full time sport,” he says. He believes that the condescension stems from a lack of knowledge about the South. “Some kids [at Harvard] have been to every capital city in Western Europe,” he says, “but they’ve never been south of D.C.”

Spivey concurs. “After pre-frosh, I almost didn’t come to Harvard because I was treated like a side-show.”

Generalizations about intelligence have often been tied to assumptions about racism, and while High and others believe that few people still subscribe to the idea of the bigoted southerner, Spivey thinks that the notion hasn’t quite gone the way of the boll weevil.

“It’s almost appalling,” she says. “People assume racial and religious intolerance.”

IDENTIFYING WITH AN IMAGE

Click has a slight southern accent. He drops the g’s at the end of his words, so that going becomes goin’, talking becomes talkin’. He draws out his vowel sounds. The middle ‘a’ in Atlanta, his current hometown, is drawn out slowly.

But Click elected to be a southerner. Though he grew up in Georgia, he was born in New Hampshire. For him and for most Harvard southerners, being southern means identifying with a lifestyle, not a birth certificate.

“To be southern is to take life more slowly,” says Doku, “and bask in food.” She looks forward to going home not just to see her boyfriend or her parents, but also to recharge and get a taste of southern cuisine not available at Brother Jimmy’s.

High thinks that besides the slower pace, the south also has a gentler attitude. “There are certain things that southerners prize,” High says, “like hospitality and grace, as well as certain codes of manners and kindness.” Unlike her fellow Cantabrigians, she says that she approaches others as potential friends, not strangers.

Since its inception last year, Southern Society has tried to offer a community for its members. Next on its list: offering a more nuanced view of the region to the rest of campus.

“We do a lot of social events,” says Vice President of Southern Society John A. Epley ’07, “but ideally in the future our political events could foster a discourse about the South because we think it’s an under-appreciated region.” Despite some of the contradictions between the regions, students like Doku have found a balance between life and culture in the North and South.

“When I first started at Harvard,” she says, “I thought I wouldn’t return to the South.” Doku thought that she would have to forego parts of her southern culture to adapt. But after a little more reflection, she changed her mind.

“I started to notice that the worlds weren’t exclusive,” she says. “I could be a part of this world and that world and be just fine.”