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Tuesday, March 1, 2011

"You look Southern."

I can understand it when someone says, "You look Chinese," or, "You look Mexican." I can understand that about almost any race of people. Not that I approve or condone those types of comments, just that I get it. I really understand it when someone says, "You look sunburned," or tired, sick, depressed, etc. But what does it mean when someone says, "You look Southern"? Yes, I’m from the South. I was born and raised in North Carolina in a little city called Gastonia, about twenty miles west of Charlotte. I try to be a "Southern gentleman" in every positive sense of the term. I have a "small-town, Southern" attitude towards life in general. But if you saw me walking down the street, you wouldn't think, "He looks Southern," because, barring the Beverly Hillbillies stereotype and cartoons like Li’l Abner, Southerners don't have a look. To me, when someone says, “You look Southern,” it has a negative connotation. It’s like they’re saying that someone looks stupid; that their clothes don’t fit properly; or that they look appallingly poor. “You act Southern,” on the other hand, would be quite the compliment!

We're just normal people, no matter what color our skin is, that tend to be raised in a much stricter environment than other people. We say "yes, ma'am" and "no sir" whenever the occasion calls for it...and most occasions do. We respect our elders...without question. We call women "ma'am" (Southern for "madam") and men “sir” no matter what age they are…even the children. We say the blessing before a meal. We open doors for women…simply because we respect them, because without them, none of us would be here. Many of us have family ties to the military – mostly for patriotic reasons, but it’s also one of the ways we try to get out of our “small-town” surroundings.

One of my grandmother’s neighbors wrote and published his own book, titled We Came from Nowhere. It was written from a child’s perspective about life in the Depression-era mill villages of the South. It sums up how most of the children in our area made it through life, including all the bumps, bruises and broken bones, up until the late 1970’s. My grandmother was one of those Depression-era children that started working in a cotton mill when she was thirteen, giving at least half of her wages to her mother to help support the family. Whenever I asked her or her mother about what life was like during the Great Depression, they would say, “What Great Depression? We were poor. We didn’t notice anything different.” One of my grandfathers only made it through the third grade before he had to go to work. It’s just the way it was. Third-World countries aren’t the only ones in the world to utilize child labor, but then again, the South was a Third-World country, too.

My aunt and my mother were the first two in their family to graduate from high school. My father and uncle were the first two in their family, as well. My mother and father were the first ones in either family to attend college. My little sister even has three degrees. My grandfathers were both WWII veterans; one in the Army and one in the Navy. They were both cooks, primarily, but they both saw combat – one in the D-Day invasion of Normandy; one on the USS Colorado in the Pacific. My father served in the Marine Corps; my mother in the Army. Both I and my younger brother served in the Marine Corps, and our baby brother served in the Navy.

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