Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.
I debated whether or not I should write this article. My brother, a sophomore at Brown, told me that it sounded like I was going on the defensive. Did I really want to create a division between North and South? This isn’t 1863, the United States isn’t in the middle of a bloody war. I understand that. My intention with this article is meant less as a defense and more as an explanation of my journey.
In my hometown of Charlotte, North Carolina, I am not considered to be much of a Southerner. My dad is an immigrant from India, and my maternal great-grandparents journeyed to this great nation from Greece, although my mother was raised in Atlanta. And the first question I was asked throughout elementary school was “Where do you go to church?” — a question which sounds strange, until you realize that a church existed on literally every street corner from my house to school.
Despite my surroundings, though, I had never identified or been identified as “Southern.” I don’t say y’all. I don’t go to church. I don’t say pen the way another person would say pin. But when I came to Swat last year, the South became a critical part of my identity. I wanted people to know that I come from North Carolina, that I drink sweet tea, that I say y’all every once in a while (mostly when I’m playing a team sport). Where did this regional pride come from? Why did I feel the need to defend a state and a region that I had never before claimed as mine?
I think most of my concern (and righteous indignation) came from an emoji-laden exchange with one of my good buddies from Massachusetts. He seemed to think that by virtue of living in a Southern state, I was familiar with farming and farmland. I’m pretty sure that he was messing with me. But the point is: I know nothing about farmland. I live in a city, not some hick town. The exchange made me realize that people who aren’t from the South know nothing about it. They make assumptions based on history lessons that cover the Civil War (read: slavery), the inventor of the cotton gin (Eli Whitney, whaddup?), and the classy port city of Charleston (okay, Charleston is very classy). Most people know about a South built from ignorance, oppression, and hatred. When I realized that this negative summation of my home permeates much of Swat (and maybe even much of American) society, I claimed my identity as a Southerner.
This personal recognition that I am Southern has gone through a couple of adjustments. At first, it meant going on the defensive. I recall many a conversation-turned-rant with my brother about how people here just don’t understand. I saw it as my job to educate. Yes, the South is flawed, but it is more than its flaws.
That’s not to say that I wasn’t angered at some of my home state’s failings. What kind of place refuses to extend to the LGBT community the same rights that it extends to heterosexuals? What kind of place contains pockets of people who proudly fly the Confederate flag?
There are many problems in the South, but I wanted my fellow Swatties to know that I didn’t choose to migrate north because I was trying to escape those problems. I came here because I wanted to explore, to grow, to get the best education possible. I could have gone to UNC-Chapel Hill or Duke or Davidson (all of which have a high standard of education), but I chose Swarthmore because it was new and different, unpredictable.
There are so many things to hate about North Carolina, but there is so much to love, too. I love the contrasting smells of spring rain and Indian street food each year at the Festival of India; I love the slight drawl that I slip into when I discuss religious philosophy with a person who is truly of the South; I love walking into an art museum downtown and hearing the stereo sound of Belinda Carlisle’s voice at Charlotte Pride proclaiming that heaven is a place on earth. The love outweighs the hate, most of the time, and that gives me hope. I wish that people who aren’t from the South could see more than rednecks and racism. I wish that they could share my hope. I wish that they understood that I am not the outlier or the one who managed to get out in time. I am the representative.
Featured image from http://www.persiabaptistchurch.com