“A culture is not a collection of relics or ornaments, but a practical necessity, and its corruption invokes calamity. A healthy culture is a communal order of memory, insight, value, work, conviviality, reverence, aspiration…It clarifies our inescapable bonds to the earth and to each other.” – Wendell Berry, the Unsettling of America.
From my personal experience traveling, both within the United States and abroad, when people think of “southern culture” they tend to reference a set of clichés. Many of these invoke our current problems or historical demons: a history of slavery, segregation and racism; high rates of obesity; low educational rankings. Some aspects of the South, while not outweighing the evils, are positive: beautiful landscapes; southern hospitality; amazing food. When the negatives and positives are compared, it is easy to disparage the South, especially the rural south. My heritage, like many other southerners, is this South: the good as well as the bad. Like many of my peers, I grew up with no greater desire than to escape from this reality. Yes, the weather is nice and warm, the landscapes are beautiful, and the barbeque is, properly, slow smoked pork, but the racist, sexist, homophobic South, is nothing to be proud of. Truly, I think this is why I decided to start traveling. Moreover, for these reasons, I never expected to re-settle in the South permanently.
As I mentioned in a previous blog post, despite my desire to find a new culture into which I “fit,” all of my travels were tinged with a distinct sense of fraud. The self-confidence I learned in Argentina, with its macho tango culture, changed how I interacted with the world, but pretending I was a descendent of gauchos was as inauthentic as wearing a Che Guevara t-shirt. Being able to take part in the hard work of the campesinos on the coffee farms of Nicaragua for mere pennies per pound of “Fair Trade” coffee helped me to rethink the global relationship between rich and poor, but these charitable efforts of well intending expatriates only encouraged me to apply my passion for justice to my home context, which I better understood. Finally, as well as I felt I fit into culture of London, I constantly found myself extolling the value the U.S.’s burgeoning micro brewing culture as I drank delicious real ale and defending Southern food as ‘more than just fast food’ with the same vigor as an Englishman defending British Cuisine as “more than just fish and chips.”
Despite the myriad problems, I always missed the South when traveling. More than idealizing that which you don’t have, being away from the South, and, honestly, defending it against the stereotypes that persist abroad, learning to appreciate the good and the bad, the past and the present, of my adopted cultures lent a new perspective and value to my own. However, the value of this place isn’t always readily apparent to everyone… and for good reason. Take for instance an act of homegrown, southern terrorism: a young white racist murders nine black churchgoers that accepted him into their prayer meeting. Every part of me wishes that this could be written off as a case of isolated racism, but it can’t. And, as evidenced in last year’s debate about the confederate flag, the meaning of “southern culture” is far from settled. Dealing honestly with the legacy of racism is central to the emergence of the South that I believe can exist.
Much of this year, as public ‘debate’ about race came to the fore (manifested in police shootings and incidents of violence like the one I described above), I have felt powerless to contribute to this debate, finding myself with little time to finish a blog post about the issues, much less get involved in any hands-on capacity. As I reflect on this debate on Martin Luther King Jr. day, I am unsure how much progress we made in 2015 on this topic. Moreover, it occurs to me that we are unlikely to solve these deeply entrenched problems through discussions of race and oppression in the abstract. Rather, we must call out and deal with these issues honestly as they manifest themselves in our daily lives and in our particular spheres.
It seems appropriate that we might begin with the legacy of racism in farming. Farming, after all, served as the setting for America’s original sin of slavery. For those of us interested in the creation of a new, just food system, we must first exorcise those aspects of our agricultural, and by logical extent, cultural tradition that threaten this ideal. Symbolic victories like the removal of relics like the Confederate Flag from public space are important, but the creation of a new south must be more than symbolic. We have to foster a cultural memory that admits that these sins are built into more than our symbols. We like to think of racial division as a thing of the past, but it is not an accident that all of the landowning farmers in my neck of the woods are white and that most of the folks of color live on smaller parcels nearby and do contract labor if they are able to find work at all. Similarly, it is no accident that, in our southern cities, race, more than economics, dictates who has access to fresh, healthy food. Exploitation did not end with the Emancipation Proclamation or the Civil Rights Act. We can easily draw a line from slavery all the way to our current industrial system via sharecropping, exploited migrant labor, and the so-called “Green Revolution,” all of which are systems designed to increase the profits of the powerful to the detriment of those actually doing the work. As recipients of the cheap prices these systems produce, none of us are immune from the effects. Even as a producer, on a personal level, I am forced to acknowledge that if freed slaves had each received the “40-acres and a mule” that they were promised, I might not have family land to farm.
As Wendell Berry implies in his writing, and as I’ve experienced in my travels, every healthy culture maintains historical memory. In order to create the just food system that so many of us believe is possible, we must remind ourselves of this history every day. It is only then that we can put the ‘positive’ southern values into proper perspective. As previously mentioned, I truly believe there is still something in the South’s agricultural tradition that is worth holding onto and that warrants holding up. These ideals include an ethic of hospitality and neighborliness; the sacrament of the “potluck supper, a dish / from each house for the hunger of every house”; the aspiration to self-sufficiency; and the value of honest, hard work.
These values are not going to solve racism alone, but when combined with proper historical memory, they can become powerful tools that can enable the “good food movement” to be a “just food movement.” In turn, the “just food movement” might play a role in transforming the South. The path that leads to this more just future will require the utmost humility and will be strenuous. Like soil building, it will take time and patience.
 Wendell Berry, “The Mad Farmer, Flying the Flag of Rough Branch, Secedes From the Union.”