Bless your heart: a love letter to the true South

By Meg Richards, Staff Writer, Opinion

When I came to Boston this past September, I learned something about how relative the idea of “the South” vs. “the North” is. In Virginia, where I grew up, my friends and I rarely regard ourselves as Southerners. This could be because of the nature of the fact that my friends and family are predominantly liberal, or that, until this past year, both my state and district were blue. While this has changed due to redistricting and a poor Democratic nominee pick for governor in 2021, I still viewed Virginians as moderate, somewhere in between Northerners and Southerners. That is, until I got here. 

Now, surrounded by Northerners, oftentimes people will stick their nose up when they hear that I lived in “the South.” They’ll joke about hillbillies, incest, or even refer to the entire South as a wasteland. It always rubbed me the wrong way, but I could never pinpoint why. I realized that these dismissive sneers over an entire region of the U.S, while probably rooted in genuine criticism, were thinly veiled classism and ignorance that failed to recognize the ways in which the South makes up where the North falls short. 

In February 2021, a winter storm hit Texas in full force, knocking out the state’s power grid and leaving thousands without power, electricity, and internet. Aside from glaringly obvious infrastructure failures, there was also a lack of legislative and fiscal support for resources that Texans rely on. Senator Ted Cruz— whose job is to serve and represent the people of Texas —fled to Mexico to escape the cold and the responsibility. What baffled me the most was the complete contempt, disregard, and apathy flooding Instagram, TikTok, and Twitter.

My timeline was filled with posts refusing to support Texans because they’re “getting what they voted for.” This insensitive and ignorant display blatantly offsets the blame from the people actually responsible—people with power, such as Cruz and Texas Gov. Greg Abott, not the Texans who were stripped of their basic necessities after one winter storm and several government missteps.

Texas showed a twinge of purple in 2020, but regardless of that fact, political affiliation should not disqualify a state from empathy. People died as a result of the power grid failure, and millions more lost access to basic survival needs. 

The response from the rest of the nation should not have been to turn up their noses, crack jokes, and say they deserved it—it should have been an extension of compassion, aid, and support. 

While the South houses much of the nation’s conservative population, this section of the electorate does not and should not represent the entire South. Voter suppression—the act of taking measures to prevent marginalized groups from voting—affects predominantly red states at staggeringly higher rates than it does blue ones. This includes, but is not limited to, Texas, which worsens the accusatory attacks against people lacking power, electricity, and internet.

 Alabama and Georgia are two of the worst states for voter suppression, while being more racially diverse than most other states in the U.S. In these states, white people make up only 65% and 52% of the population, respectively. This, while bearing in mind their repeated patterns of voter suppression, is no coincidence. Both these states are racially diverse—more so than most other states in the U.S— yet they continue to turn red, due to white populations being overwhelmingly conservative. Despite white people making up merely half of the population, they hold the most sway in elections due to gerrymandering and voter suppression policies that specifically target voters of color. However, as we saw with the Georgia Senate Runoff race between Sen. Raphael Warnock (D-GA) and Herschel Walker (R) on Dec. 6 2022, the South is not completely hopeless. 

To give up on these states by refusing emergency aid is an injustice to a number of already disenfranchised communities that live in the South. Warnock’s victory was just the tip of the iceberg in terms of what Southern voters are capable of when given the proper resources. If voting were equally accessible for the whole state—and if there were active legislative efforts to undo the systemic racism in redlining and Gerrymandering—the map would more accurately reflect the diverse political views of the whole state—namely, people of color. According to the Visual Capitalist’s state-by-state breakdown of the U.S Census Bureau:

 “In the Northeast—particularly the states Maine, Vermont, and New Hampshire—the Non-Hispanic White population accounts for 90% or more of the total. In contrast, Black populations are highest in the District of Columbia (45%) and several Southern states.”

When analyzing the racial makeup of the U.S., the lack of diversity in Northern states shows that they really aren’t that much more progressive than Southern states. Outside of their own insidious history of racism, the North lacks diversity in many areas. Massachusetts in particular is nearly 71% white. Boston is one of the only major U.S. cities to never have a Black mayor. To look even more locally, Emerson College has come under fire for its lack of racial diversity on numerous occasions. 

The aim of spotlighting the North’s lack of diversity is to say that racism exists everywhere, not just below the Mason-Dixon line. 

This is not to say that the racial demographics make the South better than the North. Southern diversity often goes unacknowledged and uncelebrated—there is still a dark history there, dating back to when this country was founded to the rally in Charlottesville, VA in 2017, reminding us that there is a vast population of people who still hold harmful, racist beliefs—and the systems that enable them. We should not brush this criticism under the rug, but bear in mind that criticism of the South should not absolve the North of responsibility from their own prejudice. 

Another layer to Northern apathy comes from its classist critique of the South. Any implication that all Southerners are uneducated or ignorant is based on a warped perception of a majority blue-collar, lower income population. Of the top ten states with the highest percentage of blue-collar workers, six were Southern states. 

There is a dissonance in critical thinking when we decide to neglect these communities because their political beliefs are “beyond saving.” To ignore the Southern population is to ignore why they vote red. For some, it’s driven by a lack of adequate information and a culture of fear and anger preyed upon by people in power. Perhaps if these voters knew which party had the best interests of all Southerners in mind, they’d vote differently. 

Embedded in Southern culture are the rich contributions of marginalized communities. It’s the birthplace of the Blues and the mecca of country music—both genres that often draw on the experience of people of color and blue collar workers. It comes in the form of queer perseverance despite long-withstanding anti-LGBTQ sentiment in the church. 

Churches in the South have been making efforts to not only separate themselves from homophobic and transphobic hate, but to celebrate LGBTQ+ individuals in their own communities. When we dismiss the South as bigoted, homophobic, and racist, we are revoking much-needed empathy for already-disenfranchised communities—turning our backs on the same people we claim to care about. 

Texas-born country music artist Kacey Musgraves said it best: “Say what you think, love who you love, cause you just get so many trips around the sun.” This is, at its core, what represents real Southern values. To me, Southern culture looks like running around barefoot on a hazy summer day at my aunt’s house, with the Blue Ridge mountains cascading along the horizon. It looks like a community coming together on a Sunday morning, a congregation where the fabric that weaves them together is love, not bigotry. 

Home, to me, is sweet tea and barbecue pulled pork. It smells like honeysuckle and sounds like my mom saying “Bless your heart!” It’s “Wagon Wheel” by Darius Rucker, the solidarity found between mothers, wives, and daughters in Bible studies and craft fairs, and a calling to love everyone, regardless of what color their state turns on the map, as if they’re your neighbor.