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Becoming southern (in the Northeast)

April 12, 2024

Clara Jergins

It took living in the Northeast to come to know that I’m a southerner—that is, from the American South. I grew up emphasizing my Chicagoan origins rather than my hometown in Tennessee in forgettable introductions to familiar strangers, having learned from the moment of sentience (maybe age 4?) that the South was a place to be disdained and small talk was a thing to be tolerated.

Coming to Bowdoin, I found myself trying to prove that I wasn’t really a southerner. No, I was just another displaced body following in the tradition of my diasporic ancestors. My Puerto Rican father’s relatives are more the vines of El Yunque than any family tree I could draw, dispersed across continents and carried between island and mainland by hurricane winds. My mom’s side is closer to the more classic immigrant narrative: pastoral Germanic residents of Eastern Europe displaced by World War II. I’m a beneficiary of a flimsy white pass, at least during the winter, a phenomenon I’ve nicknamed seasonal oppression.

“Where are you from?” is usually a benign question; it takes its place among the other exhausted inquiries thrown about during Orientation and O-trips or in first-year bricks whose answers are quickly forgotten with a cursory “oh, cool!” added for politeness. With all these superficial niceties I’m reminded of the more malicious sweet-tea smile of the South, which passes caustic judgment on my queerness or a Spanish phrase that slips out of the screen door like the cinematic rebellious teen I never was in high school.

We seem obsessed with the environments in which people have grown, quietly cross-checking our ideas of the place and the kind of individual it produces against whoever is standing in front of us. I’ve come to revel in this wondering, scrawling poetry about how places are saturated with memory like coloring book pages covered in the waxy sheen of crayons. That last word is pronounced cray-ahn, and language was another point of distinction from the “real” southerners I went to school with.

To me, “real southerners” had parents whose accents pointed to generations of going to the state school in Knoxville and singing “Rocky Top” at football games, having a distant relation to a past Tennessee governor and maybe benefiting from traces of the latent politics that come with slave-holding ancestors. Sunday best was respected, pearls were donned (and clutched) and chicken casserole graced the dinner table with a prayer.

This description sounds like someone read “Gone with the Wind” a bit too literally, but even as a teenager, I wriggled against the label because of the political and cultural connotations. My queerness, racial ambiguity and loosely Marxist politics (that have, in line with my father’s joking fear, radicalized further at college) seemed wholly incompatible with the racist backwardness that I’d come to associate with the region, which for its part was grounded in historical reality and the hateful rhetoric that continues to be spewed by the fascist state legislature.

Barely skirting truancy notices my senior year, school attendance took a back seat to protesting the Tennessee General Assembly’s blatant bigotry. Over the years, I’d regularly walk some blocks up the street to the legislative chambers, where I watched the conservative supermajority reject gun restrictions in the wake of a devastating school shooting and expel two Black representatives who, with a white colleague who went unpunished, demanded recognition of the tragedy and meaningful policy change. Pushed about by state troopers who we watched detain a kid our age and screaming in the faces of cruelly apathetic legislators, my classmates and I lost our voices in a sacred expression of rage.

From the twin-XL constrained comfort of my dorm, this government-sponsored violence felt distant. Embraced by whispering pines, I felt the liberation of no longer being in a place where my right to exist (and the right of those I care about) was under threat, if not erased altogether.

Even so, I’m jarringly brought back time and again; over winter break, I found myself protesting a new measure that would make intoxicated police officers who operated firearms immune to prosecution. Most recently, from my winter-shadowed vantage point in Coleman Hall,  I witnessed the banning of pride flags in public schools, part of the larger family values crusades against queer Tennesseans known as the “Slate of Hate.” Actually, hateful flags are not addressed by the law. Around that time, I watched with horror as a neo-Nazi rally took place on the street of my high school and was once again shaken by a Confederate flag that I spotted on an otherwise scenic run to the Maine coast. Two weeks ago, a young journalist and friend of mine was arrested on the campus of Vanderbilt University—the place where I took classes for three years in high school. This week, a bill to arm teachers without permits passed in the State House with little Senate opposition expected.

But this isn’t a story hell-bent on eliciting shock or pity from those who have had the privilege of being unaware of local politics. (In truth, the only thing that seems hell-bent in this mess is the moral arc of the Tennessee government, which ranks 50th for democracy.)

I tell this story among the blustery coastal winds of a quaint Northeastern town to show reverence for the beautiful resilience of the people that make it out of the coarse-grit sandpapering of an oppressive government. The fierce tenderness, the living poetry, the soft strength that radiates from communities mired in struggle is always a cause for awe.

Recently, through my Medicine, Literature and Spanish class, I’ve thought about how narrative is the act of being, not just a recounting. It’s how we “sing our lives.”

So if you ask me where I’m from, I’ll tell you I’m from the South. Because:

“In the georgia peach dust of dusk I remembered:

the smell of childhood playgrounds & the first birds I learned to name

were grounded here. in this limestone-licked soil, cracked & imperfect,

The color of rust & old broken things. I don’t know if I’ll return,

but I do know that when my life flashed before my eyes last night in slo-mo

it was here & it was good,” as I wrote on an Instagram story on March 14, 2024, set against a photograph of a sunset in suburban Nashville, Tenn., with “Southern Nights” by Glen Campbell playing in the background.

I’m Isa Cruz. My O-trip was whitewater kayaking. I live in Coleman Hall. (I was born in Chicago.)  I was raised in Nashville and steeped in the rich tradition of protest grounded there.

Isa Cruz is a member of the Class of 2027.


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One comment:

  1. Jenn says:

    Your Instagram post excerpt was beautifully written. I am from the South and you captured it perfectly.

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