Conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer once wrote, “To understand the workings of American politics, you have to understand this fundamental law: Conservatives think liberals are stupid. Liberals think conservatives are evil.” After my life in the South and my education here at Harvard, I think he has the first part backward.
The first inklings of this realization came to me during my pre-frosh weekend. “Where are you from?” asked a Harvard student, to which I replied, “Georgia.” Just plain, unexotic Georgia, one of the 50 states of the same country in which Harvard is a part. Then, for the first time in my life, my home state was confused for a former Communist satellite, and I had to clarify: No, I was referring to the Southern state. For the past four years, this clarification has inevitably been followed by statements such as “Why would your parents immigrate there?” and “Did you grow up on a farm?”
At first, my response to this insulting misrepresentation of my home was an indignant, “No, I did not grow up on a farm. I’m from the Atlanta area.” However, I’ve learned that often at Harvard, “Atlanta” generates as much recognition as “Timbuktu,” or perhaps even less—it’s a city that one vaguely remembers hearing about but doesn’t remember in what context. Although I accept jokes at the expense of my being from the uncivilized terrain of the South with a patient smile, I find it a bit frustrating that brilliant Harvard students can be so ignorant about the region. How is it that students who can spew out detailed histories of Shanghai or Cairo can look at me confusedly when I point out that the 1996 Olympics were in Georgia well within our lifetimes?
The answer, I believe, lies in our liberal hubris. I know, because I myself have been guilty of it. When I was accepted into Harvard, I rejoiced at the prospect of joining a liberal, intellectual community. There, I thought, everyone would be politically correct, sophisticated, and physically fit. I would easily be able to find non-pork options in restaurants. Boston, the birthplace of our revolution, would be even more vibrant than Atlanta. Basically, whatever I had in Atlanta I would find in Boston and Cambridge several degrees better (except as regards the weather).
Imagine my surprise when I found that Boston, although beautiful and sophisticated in a historical, stately way, was a far cry from my image of modern sophistication. I had fallen into the trap of viewing even my own home as an “other,” the land of Republicans—the land of George W. Bush, with his comical attachment to his ranch and his linguistic gaffes. Like others, I may have been influenced by the numerous studies and newspaper articles trying to convince me that once I left the red-state border, I would be met by nothing less than brilliance.
At Harvard, I have found myself having to explain that, actually, Atlanta and its surrounding areas are highly metropolitan. We even have schools. In fact, my high school offered every Advanced Placement class and was more diverse than Harvard. Atlanta is home to CNN, Coca-Cola, the world’s busiest airport, and the fifth-largest number of Fortune 500 companies, falling behind two shockingly Southern cities—Houston and Dallas. True, you can find serene, peaceful farms if you drive for a few hours outside of Atlanta, a similar experience to taking the train out from Paris or any other cosmopolitan city. I’ve been to a farm once, and that was because my enthusiastic parents wanted to show me what farm animals look like in real life. Yet despite Georgia’s decisive modernity, I am still the brunt of redneck jokes, all the more outlandish because I am not red, or even white, but just plain brown.
Perhaps a class on the South might help address Harvard students’ ignorance and help us in our quest to make General Education requirements more relevant; courses like “Southern Literature and Culture in the United States” seeking to illuminate this heart of darkness do exist, but they are rare. Alternatively, the Office of Career Services could encourage students to explore a broader range of job opportunities in economically vibrant areas of the South that remain relatively unexplored here. Or the dining halls could replace Nestea with real, brewed, Southern-style iced tea. There are myriad possibilities to alert Harvard students that civilization extends beyond the blue-state borders—but, until then, some of us will have to keep repeating that we’re more than just country bumpkins.
Nafees A. Syed ’10, a Crimson editorial writer, is a government concentrator in Leverett House.