A fresh, new, hardback book appeared under the tree for me this year, and I was delighted because it was plucked right off my wish list. The book was called New Southern Style: Inspiring Interiors of a Creative Movement, and I was drawn in from the first word. The photos are refreshing; the interiors are gorgeous, and each one perfectly represents it’s style-type. The interviews are delightfully interesting, with candid answers from interviewees about their perspectives and experiences. While I am not usually one to collect coffee table books, this one already has a spot on our sitting room table right in between The Poky Little Puppy and The Weary World Rejoices.
However, as I read it, I must confess feeling my stomach flip-flopping the tiniest bit. You see, most of the creatives interviewed in the book are from other regions, and they’ve come to the South for a variety of reasons. The pandemic has brought loads of people specifically from California and Texas to the South, and I don’t blame them one iota. I understand the difficult reasons they’ve chosen to leave their home turf, and I know many of them must be experiencing deep sadness over the transition. But as I read, and as I felt the flip-flopping, I found myself wishing I could have coffee with these New Southerners, so we could talk with each other about the space we are sharing. Since that’s not really possible, I thought I might write a letter with some thoughts about our evolving culture. Here it is:
Dear New Southerners,
Welcome! We are truly honored that you’ve come to the South! We have known for a long time that it’s a great place to be, but it’s always the highest of compliments when someone else celebrates our strengths by arriving to enjoy them with us.
In many of your interviews, you mention how excited you are about all of the newness you are finding here. New creativity, new design, new places to go and eat and shop and live. Fresh thinking is invigorating, and we welcome it! After all, even with our many virtues, history books feature some grotesque parts of Southern past; parts that are undergoing what will probably be a multi-generation-long process of redemption and renovation. Our history is stained, and we know it. Many of us are deeply sorry for it, even though we’re still learning how to put that into words. So we are thankful for the fresh perspectives you bring with you from the coasts, from the midlands, and from Texas (I know, I know, you’re the South, too—but you’re your own South). I know your creativity will make the place better.
There’s probably a reason or two you chose to come here—maybe several reasons. Even with our brokenness, there’s a deep and long standing beauty in this place that draws people to it, and that beauty has been hard-earned by the people who live here.
With all due respect, please don’t mess it up.
Let me explain what I mean: let’s start with food. Our food is more than food to us. It literally makes up who we are. Please don’t water down our collards with watercress and micro greens. Don’t make us grill everything. Mental Health Cooking involves vastly different ingredients here than it does in other places. We know our menus put people in early graves when eaten with reckless abandon. But when eaten in moderation, Southern food has the mysterious power to connect us with our grandparents, and our childhoods, and places and spaces—now gone—that were inexplicably sweet. One plate of fried chicken, mashed potatoes, green beans, and a fluffy roll enables us to travel to kitchen tables from other eras, set with an affection that time and death have stolen from us. We are keenly aware that our historical approach to the culinary arts is not good for our bodies. Believe me, we’ve been told. But both Black and white Southerners agree to hang onto it in doses, and there are soul-related reasons for this — which is why we call it soul food. You are warmly invited to experience the mental health benefits of soul food at our collective Southern table. I hope you’ll sit and enjoy, even if you have to do an extra Peloton the next day. There’s something worth preserving there. And anyway, you won’t fully understand the place you inhabit until you eat a meal at a decidedly Southern table.
Another area around which you might care to tread lightly is the subject of our manners and here’s why: we know they can seem antiquated and sometimes come off as odd or silly or too much, but they are actually our way of elevating you. Emily Post, the mother of all etiquette said, “Manners are a sensitive awareness of the feelings of others. If you have that awareness, you have good manners, no matter what fork you use.” That’s our goal. So, while we aren’t asking you to have your children say yes ma’am and yes sir, we ask that you don’t giggle if you hear ours saying it. It’s their way of acknowledging your decades of life experience, which—would you not agree?—is worth something. If all else fails and you are really having trouble embracing our cultural idiosyncrasies, consider another Emily Post quote: “To make a pleasant and friendly impression is not only good manners, but equally good business.”
Since so many of you are settling in Nashville, it’s worth mentioning Southern music. If you were settling in Memphis—which you are not, and that’s ok—we would be having this conversation with different, nuanced specificities. Memphis and Nashville, while only three hours apart, are like those twins you grew up with who are absolutely nothing alike—they don’t even look like siblings—but our cumulative contributions to the American music scene are dramatic. You see, Southern music is a product of centuries of sultry weather, stunning accents, sparkling storytelling, and strife-filled conflict. A lot of people had to go through a lot of hard days and nights to get the music that dances through the air here. It exposes the very souls that were nurtured by that fried chicken you and I talked about earlier, and our music gently invites you to share your own soul with us. Your own soul story will make our music even better. The religious hymns, songs, and spirituals are of particular interest to me. I encourage you to play them (on your record player, if possible). Listen to them. Think about them. Maybe even talk to God about them. And see what happens.
Speaking of God, you’ll hear more about him here than you might in other places, and I can see how it could be startling at first. But, start with the music, as I mentioned. Talk to God about it honestly. Churches are everywhere and you can ask someone who seems to have light coming from them which one they recommend (I’m not joking—avoid the folks who talk about light, but don’t seem to be shining any of it themselves). Chances are they’ll know somebody you can sit with at a church nearby.
One more thing: we are very well-connected across the entire region. I’m sure there are anthropological reasons that would explain this; old family relationships and marriages, college friendships, and storms like Hurricane Katrina that cause entire cities to move house for a while. But here’s what I can tell you: if my husband and I were driving anywhere in the South and our car broke down, we would be no more than 90 minutes from our nearest acquaintance (my husband says 60 minutes), who would undoubtedly come to our aid if Triple A couldn’t get there first. Southern people are deeply loyal and always willing to help, when needed. Tap into that network, which—full disclosure—will require a decent ration of solid manners and at least a little soul investment. But it’s worth its weight in gold.
Lastly, you may have come to the South thinking we are not as quick-witted or book smart as those in other areas of the country. We’ve been hearing this for years. But I’d say, talk to us. Listen to our music and our stories. Eat our food. Worship with us. By all means, read the books we’ve written. See if you find we’ve acquired intellect you can’t buy at the Bursar’s office, even though many of us have done that, too. For instance, my husband is a surgeon and I have a graduate degree; but, the lessons we’ve learned from our parents and grandparents, our churches, our friends, and our own personal history are just as important as any we’ve picked up from our syllabi. One set of smarts seasons the other, and they work together to make us a culture that is enormously interesting.
I’ll finish by saying that we are so glad you are here! We look forward to learning from you and sharing this part of God’s green earth over meals and music and the Creative Movement that you’ve told us about. You are welcome in our homes, at our tables, and into our stories. And so now…
Won’t you please pass the collard greens?
A New Kind of Old Southerner
Candace Echols is a Midtown resident, wife, and mother of five. She has written for StoryBoard’s Page One Writing Workshops, and writes in quiet moments from her yellow chair. Candace recently published her first book, the children’s book Josephine and the Quarantine.