MAXWELL:  Olympic torch brings a chance for hospitality

7/16/1995– Printed in the PERSPECTIVE section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper


Even as the so-called New South prepares to represent the United States of America in front of the world as host of the 1996 Summer Olympics, some of its old intolerances _ homophobia, jingoism, racism _ are rising to the surface.

The Olympic volleyball competition, for example, was moved out of one Georgia county after law makers there passed an anti-gay ordinance. Then, another county refused to be the host for Somali athletes because a mob dragged the body of an American soldier through Mogadishu during our failed peacekeeping effort there.

From all indications, the New South is nothing more than a pastel version of its old Gothic self. It still is a tinderbox of contradiction, a place where _ sings Louisiana native Hank Williams Jr._ “We say grace and we say “ma’am. If you ain’t into that, we don’t give a damn.”

Williams portrays Dixie as being religious and mannerly. And a recent survey conducted by the University of North Carolina’s Institute for Research in Social Science supports this portrayal. The survey shows that Southerners, more so than other Americans, instruct their children to address adults as “ma’am” and “sir” and that more Southerners attend church and read the Bible.

But while Southerners can be nice and religious, they will not hesitate, as Williams’ lyrics also suggest, to show outsiders their behinds. This attitude is reflected, for instance, on the bumper sticker _ “We don’t care how y’all did it up North” _ warning expatriated Yankees to stop trying to change how things are done below the Mason-Dixon line.

Why are Southerners so defensive, and why do they seem to have an attitude? No single person has all the answers. But folklorist and historian Allan M. Trout has discovered a major clue in what he calls the South’s “irrepressible cussedness,” a perversity and stubbornness that define the region’s esprit.

“A streak of inherent cussedness keeps most men from acknowledging defeat,” Trout writes. “The combination of adverse circumstances at last reaches the point where the only thing left to do is to grin and bear it. At the moment an overburdened man grins he invariably says something that contains a trace of wisdom and truth.”

African-American writer Zora Neale Hurston, a Southerner, also grasps the puzzling nature of this cussedness, this unique _ although not necessarily good _ wisdom and truth that provide the context for relationships.

One of her characters is especially memorable because he is cussedness personified: “And all the time, there was High John de Conquer playing his tricks of making a way out of no-way. Hitting a straight lick with a crooked stick. Winning the jackpot with no other stake but a laugh. Fighting a mighty battle without outside-showing force, and winning his war from within.”

Folklorists, sociologists and others struggle to make meaning of the New South. Unless they spend serious time with rednecks _ those pork-eating, beer-guzzling, working-class white men who embody the contradictory traits the world associates with the South _ these academics will never understand this region that H. L. Mencken dismissed as “The Sahara of the Bozart.”

The redneck, the South’s Everyman, is independent and clannish, tough and thin-skinned, loud and menacingly silent, violent and gentle, hard-working and irresponsible, disciplined and wild, realistic and sentimental, honorable and rascally, mean-spirited and big-hearted.

More than anything else, though, the biggest contradiction of the redneck is found in his relationship with black people. This relationship colors how these Southerners treat other people and will influence how they treat the visiting Olympic athletes.

University of Georgia historian F. N. Boney accurately describes the redneck’s relationship with blacks: “The redneck’s main problem is that he has always been open and candid in his conviction that blacks were inferior to whites. Yet at the same time over the centuries he has blended his culture and his blood with blacks, and in many ways he understands blacks perhaps better than his white detractors do. In his rough, earthy kind of way he may be less a racist than those whites who denounce him so harshly.”

I am a native Southerner, and I, like Boney, believe that most Southern rednecks are less racist than most of their detractors in other parts of the country.

As the 1996 Olympic games approach, the South’s image is on the line. Politicians may pass more anti-people ordinances, but, ultimately, the athletes of other nations who will compete here, along with officials accompanying them, will judge the South based on how well local citizens, many of them rednecks, treat them.

The South has the best opportunity in many years to show that it, too, has savoir faire, that it can do more than utter perfunctory “ma’ams” and “sirs.” Moreover, the occasion can give other parts of the United States a chance to re-evaluate their relationship with the South and learn more about the region in general.

Southerners can learn some valuable lessons from their international guests. These are the 1996 Summer Olympics, and their hosts have the awesome responsibility of representing all Americans _ especially the best of the South. Now is the time to restrain the homophobia, the jingoism, the racism, the cussedness. Now is the time to make that mythical “Southern hospitality” a reality.

Bill Maxwell is an editorial writer and columnist for the Times.