My South and your South might not be the same. What some call America’s Deep South includes Georgia, Alabama, South Carolina, Mississippi, and Louisiana — aka the cotton belt. But for some, like me, Tennessee and Arkansas feel so much part of my southern appreciation, whereas Florida and Texas appear to totally be their own things –- almost in isolation. And harder for me to love.
Some travel industry people are calling it the New South. I guess it’s less controversial than Dixieland right? I think what they mean is that a bunch of hipsters have opened up design-centric decor stores and themed boutique hotels, or found new ways of barbecuing and are getting tattooed whilst they’re at it. But I feel that if I choose to live in America, the least I can do is to get to know it. All of it.
“The South” sounds so monolithic to me, that I was determined to unpack it and allow every region, every county, every piece I could discover, to show me what it is and what it isn’t. Charleston and Nashville are the current gems in the travel game and the cool kids have descended. But I had also wondered about Greenville, South Carolina (There are 31 Greenvilles around the country apparently) and also about Little Rock, Arkansas. And even Atlanta, Georgia.
So, I orchestrated a series of road trips across The South over the course of a few years. Some cities like Memphis, Tennessee and Savannah, Georgia, I returned to numerous times because there was so much to find that I simply love. And the road from Knoxville, Tennessee, to Asheville, North Carolina to Spartanburg, also North Carolina I could now drive in my sleep. But then there are parts of the South that I still need to get to — see you soon Montgomery, Alabama and rural Texas.
My friend Sue and I decided that if we wanted to understand a little more of America – the good and the bad, we needed to road trip through Mississippi. I’ve always loved the many Ss in that word –- and the iconic slinky Ss on road signs thrilled me. We started off with a wild weekend in New Orleans for her birthday which ended with us in a car driving over the Twin Span bridge from Louisiana into Mississippi. Oh look she said, a Dollar General Store, the first of the trip. After a week in the state we counted nearly a 100 different of these –- it was our official road trip game. We also came up with a new slogan for the Mississippi tourism board, “BetterThanYouThink” and tried it on locals we met, who seemed to like it a lot.
But the first stop was Biloxi, a beach town with large casinos, plenty of surf and even more shrimp. Back in the day the casinos were on floating barges –- for tax and regulation sneakiness I suspect — but today they are all on the beach, and of course Sue knew how to gamble. In Mississippi they have “crapless craps,” a craps variant in which the player cannot lose a pass bet on the come out roll. Yes, I don’t know what that means –- but it was fun to watch Sue make a couple of thousand dollars within minutes.
The town also boasts the Frank Gehry designed Ohr-O’Keefe Museum of Art, dedicated to the mad potter of Biloxi, George E. Ohr. In the late 19th century, pottery was taking America by storm, and usually it was French floral or Japanese minimal, but good old George had other plans: pots in anatomical shapes, a hole filled coffee mug that required you to drink from it in a specific way to avoid a spill. Long after his death, the art world caught up with him – and Andy Warhol became a collector.
Right next to Biloxi is a little extension of the area called Ocean Springs. A sweet little town with incredible chefs and young people who are from the area and revitalizing it with an entrepreneurial spirit. And this is where I pondered about gentrification. Here it feels less like hipsters moving in, and shaking things up by kicking locals out, and more like rebuilding a defunct part of the state. In fact, the whole coast fell under disrepair with weather disasters and people moving away. But the Ocean Springs community, albeit small, pulled together to create a place for progressive people to come live a healthy, creative lifestyle. I entered us into the local Southern Biscuit Competition – where town folks were competing every Thursday. With no family recipe it’s no wonder my sneakily store bought biscuits lost to the Savory “Bless Your Heart” bacon and cheese entry.
No trip to Mississippi is complete without a stop in its capital, Jackson. Home to the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum that opened not so long ago. So here we were two white people standing next to Confederate flags and Ku Klux Klan costumes in display cabinets. An eerie darkness descended on Sue and I. This was and in some ways is America. I was standing in this museum room when an older African American lady came to stand next to me. She looked at me, and I looked at her. Silence. And then we held hands, and we both started to quietly weep. All I wanted to do is say sorry, to apologize for something I didn’t understand. I felt some of the pain that African Americans must experience walking through this museum. And I felt shame for the world. We stood there for a long time just trying to process our emotions.
And this is often how I feel in the South, I don’t quite grasp the race situation. Being born in Africa as a white boy fetters my understanding. And I wish that we could openly talk about it more, and maybe that I could shut up and just listen to someone for once. Unfortunately in most schools, and certainly the ones I attended, I wasn’t given the vocabulary to talk about it bravely. I had an English teacher at high school, whom I am still best friends with, that encouraged reading James Baldwin, and black writers from all over Africa. We debated race in class in ways that felt both respectful and challenging. But that was eleventh grade, and this is the real world.
My husband Michael and I found ourselves at a plantation house in South Carolina, just north of Charleston, as part of this tour of the South. We both felt uncomfortable staying on the property, but somehow felt that this uneasy feeling was probably something we needed to deal with and not run away from. And yes it was hard not to make a run for it, when there was a reenacted slavery section as part of the touristy tour of the grounds.
I, naturally, took this as the opportunity to question our tour guide and to rapid fire her with questions about the South and racism. But she wouldn’t let up. The more I wanted to talk about it, the more she wouldn’t.
The next morning I had my moment. Breakfast was awfully formal – served at a very long table in the old Slavemaster’s Home. We took our seats and the now-owner of the property brought our family style food. Soon enough I asked the woman next to me whether as a white woman she felt odd being here. She looked at me for a split second in silence, and started talking, fast: Hi, I am Annie and we’re from a small town nearby in South Carolina and we’ve come here to understand race a little better actually.
And on she went. Her daddy, who was sitting next to Michael, ran a chain of grocery stores aimed at lower income communities and her Mamma helped local women in their community get their kids through school. In fact her parents had adopted many local kids and helped them get educated — her brother, who is African American, is finishing up at Harvard in the Fall, she told us. She herself ran a clinic for women to get health care services at cheaper rates, even abortions, she added, if they want it.
We chatted to their whole family for about an hour and with the Presidential elections going on, it all of course turned political. At some point I said “I wish I could spend an hour of my life with Trump supporters, so I could better understand their viewpoints.” The room went silent and Annie said, “You just did.”
Those are the moments that the South keeps delivering to me. In Memphis I met a glamorous hat wearing woman named Karen, who owns a restaurant called the Beauty Shop. One night we were sitting at dinner, where you can sit under an old hair dryer, and she told me about her staff. I hire the ones who feel they don’t belong, she told me. And it’s true, I’ve been to her restaurant a number of times now and made it my business to chat to the servers and bartenders and line chefs. Many of them are LGBTQ and have come from a small town or a farm somewhere in the South where they were not welcome – I heard stories about them being chased from their childhood home by guns, and how some were sent to gay conversion therapy classes. But luckily news travels, many kids scared for their lives and needing to run away, hear about Karen’s safe haven. And as she says, I’ll hire just about anyone – everyone’s welcome here.
How can I not ponder how fortunate I am to have had an immediate family who embraced my sexuality, who never made me feel lesser because I happen to love men.
Of course the stories about race, acceptance and identity are everywhere in the greater South. Ready for anyone to take, and start discussing. The Savannah College of Art and Design transformed the electric city of Savannah, Georgia — and opened it up to a new generation of creatives from all walks of life, all over the world. There is nothing I love more than people who are Southern, and come back to the South to find those roots, like Mashama Bailey who owns the incredible Africa meets Southern meets New York City restaurant, The Grey. Nobody embodies the South, quite like she does.
But just a few hours south of the city, nearby on some of the beautiful Georgian islands, I found out blacks weren’t welcome at some of the resorts until about 20 years ago, the Jews weren’t until about 10 years ago, and only very recently are the gays welcomed.
In Dallas, I’m always stuck by how chic people are on the street — the most sophisticated Southern City by far. I think the Neiman Marcus HQ downtown could be credited. And close to Lexington, Kentucky, I learnt about the Shaker communities who had a model of equality of the sexes. In Raleigh, North Carolina, Michael and I became friends with a chef, of Indian descent by way of the Bronx, and a restaurateur who came to America as an adopted baby from Laos. Their expressions of being Southern is what America is all about to me — yes, I mention their ethnicity but just to make a wider point — the South is a place filled with everyone, the stereotypes of the South are useless, and dated. There cannot just be this one idea of the South – and people like Cheetie and Van in Raleigh show us that every experience is valid, and that every single person can open your mind. But only if you let them.
Without Maps is a weekly newsletter on Substack, by Daniel Scheffler, WONDERLUST Special Projects Editor. To subscribe and read more of his brilliant travel reports, click here: https://withoutmaps.substack.com/