In this column, members of the Georgia Humanities Council and their colleagues take turns discussing Georgia’s history and culture, and other topics that matter. Through different voices, we hear different stories.
This week, guest contributor Martin Lehfeldt, former Georgia Humanities Council board member and former president of the Southeastern Council of Foundations, muses on what southerners have taught him.
By Martin Lehfeldt
Four and a half decades ago, I came south for what I assumed would be a brief cultural experience. I never left. Some folks still condescendingly respond to my speech patterns with comments like, “You’re not from around here, are you?,” but I remain proud to claim the status of Naturalized Southerner.
Because I didn’t get to Georgia until I was nearly 30 years old, it’s unlikely that I can ever qualify as a true Southern writer. I simply don’t have the right background. As regional authors enjoy noting, all Southern literature can be summed up in one sentence: “The night the hogs ate Willie, Mama like to died when she heard what Big Daddy had done to Little Sister.” Furthermore, I think it’s Rick Bragg who contends that a book can’t be Southern if a dead mule doesn’t show up in the narrative. I’ve never spent any time with even a live mule.
Soon after moving to Atlanta, I married into a very Southern family. How Southern were they? Well, when it was time for his daughter (she whom I would eventually marry) to be born, my future father-in-law moved his wife from Illinois to Hannibal, Missouri, so their little girl could never be labeled a Yankee.
He also had played football for the University of Georgia, and one of the family’s sacred relics was a clipping of a Ralph McGill column (he was then simply a sportswriter but would become known as the “conscience of the South”) devoted to my father-in-law’s gridiron exploits. In later life, he always had season tickets on the 50-yard line for home games, so it was inevitable that I would eventually be invited to attend one of them.
To fully understand my experience, keep in mind that I graduated from a small, all-male, liberal arts undergraduate institution in the Northeast (picture a Yankee version of Davidson College). If he was lucky, our coach might be able to get 18 players suited up for a Saturday football game against some other Division III team—which then would usually trounce us. If the weather was pleasant, there might be 70 or 80 people wearing jeans and sweaters lolling in the home stands, some of them reading books. The visiting team usually brought a uniformed band, but we relied upon a Drum and Kazoo Corps (exactly what it sounds like: one bass drum and perhaps 25 kazoos) to entertain the fans at halftime.
Now picture me arriving in Athens for my first SEC match on a warm autumn day and joining hordes of Georgia fans pushing and squeezing their way into Sanford Stadium. Most of the women wore dresses and heels. I remember very little about the game itself, except that the Bulldogs lost to Kentucky, but I vividly recall that before the kickoff, Charles, the Prince of Wales, was introduced. (I still haven’t a clue why he was there.) Even more exciting, James Brown, the King of Soul, performed at halftime, and the almost totally white crowd came unglued. If I hadn’t realized it before, I now was convinced that I had indeed arrived in a different world.
Many things about the South have changed since that afternoon, some of them for the better. I too have changed. I am now married to another Southern woman. She has continued my education by stressing the importance of determining who someone’s Mama and Daddy are before seeking to form a relationship. I also know better than to begin a conversation by talking “bidness” until more essential topics like sports and family have received the respect due them.
The sum of my learning is that paying attention to the seemingly “ordinary” elements of life can help to set a good tempo and rhythm for all of our lives. There is great value in taking the time to determine both our common understandings and the quirky differences that set us apart and make us interesting before we plunge into the often combative world of ideals, ideas, and just plain biases; to give ourselves the time and space to listen, watch, and learn before being too quick to understand our fellow citizens. I don’t think I would have learned this lesson as well anywhere else but the South.
Martin Lehfeldt, a former Georgia Humanities Council board member and the former president of the Southeastern Council of Foundations, has spent his entire career in the nonprofit sector, for which he still writes, consults, and volunteers.
Kelly Caudle of the New Georgia Encyclopedia provides editorial assistance for the “Jamil’s Georgia” columns.