Deep South

12 December 2018

My fast-paced, African-American, Yankee family and my Southern, suburban, small-town classmates come from two historically clashing cultures. In retrospect, growing up in both groups has given me personal insight and empathy for people of different backgrounds and perspectives. However, I definitely was not always pleased with my situation.

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At age six, my life took a 180-degree turn when my family moved from Detroit to Jackson, Tennessee. I would not live three blocks from my loud, laughing, porch-smoking nana any longer. Her beautiful, grand yellow house was the hub of our family every holiday, which were so magical for me and my cousins.

My cousins were more like my lower East Side brothers and sisters. Together, we formed the age-respective “Big Kids” and “Bay-bay” kids, and our dance routines and skits were the stuff of family concerts on Christmas Eve. “Detroit is still a trash can,” my cousin always told me, but I didn’t care. My family and I sang and laughed away the 10-hour drives there, but I was the only one who screamed and cried the whole way back.

When our trips became less frequent and my tantrums less tolerated, I began to accept that I would live here, in bland old Jackson, a town most travelers know only as a rest stop. “Oh, it’s the town you pass through between Memphis and Nashville.” Silence. “People live there?”

I was “supposed” to grow up amid the urban, black culture of the Hub-City, Detroit. I would have learned African dance and performed at Hart Plaza festivals and attended a Montessori school full of diversity. Instead, I attended one of the whitest schools in Jackson, brimming with Southern twang.

Despite my parents’ appreciation of Southern hospitality and warm weather, I resented the South from the start. It was the most difficult for me in middle school when I was a chubby mixture of resentment and paranoia. I knew I stuck out. I felt I had to earn my classmates’ approval, and I resented them for it. To me, Jackson could never replace Detroit and the people I had loved and known for so long. It never felt like home until one pivotal moment in an unlikely place.

During a family trip, I was waiting in line at a gas station with my dad when I noticed a man behind me. As I turned toward him, he glanced at me and bent to grab a bag of beef jerky. When he stood, I noticed his faded flannel shirt tucked into light blue straight leg jeans. Dark boots showed at his ankles. His face was tanned and leathery, and his top lip was hidden by a wiry gray bush of a mustache. Everything about him represented my idea of the people I disliked: insensitive boys at my suburban school and the Confederates and cowboys in history books who fought for slavery and waged war against Native Americans. Everything about him carried a negative connotation.

When he turned away, I felt a wave of air reach me, and I prepared to smell alcohol or unwashed clothes, or both. But as I braced myself, I noticed that it wasn’t either of my prejudiced first assumptions. The smell was cigarettes – a brand my nana had smoked for as long as I could remember. It was the smell of my friend’s “hammy-down” truck that we drove around in when we grew tired of sitting in Starbucks. It was the smell of grass-filled air on a warm night under a beautiful, small-town sky. For the first time, my Southern environment was familiar and comforting.

This warmed and unsettled me. On one hand, I felt connected to the city I’d lived in for so long. On the other, I had not known anything about this man yet found him off-putting. I had immediate repugnance for him, something I expected him to have for me. I had considered myself an unbiased and fair person. Inadvertently, I had discovered I was prejudiced, close-minded and, ultimately, hypocritical.

My actions suddenly seemed so disconnected from my principles that I was determined to never let it happen again. I was motivated to understand different people and their cultures and to bridge cultures like mine with others. I would do this with the hope of eradicating prejudices as I once had, by promoting knowledge about art and music – two fundamentally essential and universal facets of culture – in order to make diverse groups more familiar to one another.

This experience clarified my choice to study anthropology and to try to reveal the inner workings of human nature. I have begun service efforts within my city, spearheading community projects like a monthly art workshop at a center for abused children; “Note-able,” an organization that recruits children into music programs in the Jackson area; and a community art festival in downtown Jackson.

I believe that my endeavors as an artist, musician, and traveler have led me to better understand the connectivity between cultures and to grasp what it is that makes us different and the same.

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