Southern pride, pride in southern toughness or roughness, is not something I know, not really, though I grew up here and I ran away from here when I was a teenager. Well, not here exactly. I ran from Tennessee and returned to Appalachia over twenty years later, this time in western North Carolina. I wasn’t proud of being southern when I left, and I wasn’t proud when I returned. But was proud enough to know being employed in the South was better than being unemployed in the Southwest, the place I now think of as home. My neighbor has pride though, something about survival and progress—a new South. She speaks of her extended family and their lived-in trailers. Though her family had managed to own a real house, she wished for trailer living because trailer courts meant having neighbors, and her house was too far away from the next to count as anyone’s neighbor. When she says there is no shame in roughness, in trailer park living, I say there is, and she snaps back, “Not where I’m from.” I let it go, what is there to say? I am southern, too? Where I come from trailer and shame are synonymous.

There is a scar on my foot where it caught on flimsy fake wood paneling, broken and chipping where it met the floor of the too narrow hallway of the small trailer that housed me and my five brothers, my parents too. I know that not having the right clothes for church, when we bothered to go at all, embarrassed me and shamed my father. I wasn’t a believer anyway, not then, not now either, and though my beliefs are no result of the disparaging looks my clothes and dirty hair earned me at church, I can’t say it didn’t make straying from the presumed straight and narrow easier. It did, of course.

I work hard to keep a roof overhead and a fridge full of food because I have known the absence of both. And I know there’s shame in being hungry. I don’t tell my neighbor that the trailer I lived in was an upgrade from a car. I don’t say that if you live in a car long enough, pushed tight against three little brothers and two older, that a two-bedroom trailer is an upgrade, though one stinking of decay and halfway brokenness where hunger still thrived. It’s not a fit conversation for our little yard-party of neighbors being neighborly. I rise to their level, I speak their speak, almost. Mud daubers and magnolias, dogwood trees, biscuits and grits, catfish and butter. I stay mostly quiet when talk turns to kin.

I grew up on Country Crock and the occasional taste of my mother’s concoction—salted peanuts dropped into plastic Coke bottles, fizzy and delicious. I leave those parts out and the switches on bare legs, my mother laughing with every flick of her imparted wisdom. That was easiest to take, those stinging switches, but the shoe leather she had fashioned up special for hitting…that still makes me take a deep breath and hold it.

At night, I wake up from a pressing on my chest, recollections of spider bites on my face, rusted nails left out back—torn down structures of two-by-fours and concrete catching shoeless feet. Crying babies. The humid hot frizzing my hair. I don’t feel southern tough or rough. I feel a consistent sadness that has crept underneath my years of living. It’s there for kids like I’d been—raised in dirt and rust. Economic disparity handed down generation after generation after generation.

It’s not that I can’t see beauty, it’s just that I get stuck on how it’s often intertwined with shit. This southern land is beautiful, but there is blood in it. Ours is a young history. There is shame out here, some of it a personal kind of shame that comes with poverty and violence, or of knowing you are one of the lucky ones who escaped it. And some of it is the larger kind—Dixie really is a hateful word. I don’t know how we live with it all, each day so full of past wrongs and present ones. Good, bad, and all that in-between tied up with each other—collectively interwoven like leftover fabric pieced together to make an uncomfortable quilt. I wonder about what new thing we could make, and what it might change in this broken land.

To be honest, I don’t come up with much these days. I’m tired and I drink too much. Sometimes though, I find myself actively listing off the good things about this land—an attempt to stave off my all-too-annoying melancholy. My tomatoes grow best here, so do my peppers. There is a creek near my house for my Blue Dog to do her swimming, which for the longest time was really just her splashing and biting at the water, me standing knee-deep and close-by to give her confidence. Now though, she swims across the deep while I stay on shore, enthusiastically praising her for being so good and strong and brave. I love her. I have a job that’s not the back-breaking manual ones I’ve known well in the past. And there is the light in Nantahala Forest, breaking through thick tree limbs to cast itself upon the river in the heat of summer until the rain comes and fog settles over all these Blue Ridge Mountains. That is something. That is something. For a moment, for a collection of moments, for an afternoon, sometimes longer than an afternoon, that is something. 

© Rachel M. Hanson
[This piece was selected by Sarah Broderick. Read Rachel’s interview]