Letters to the South
November 10, 2018
I’ve started this too many times already. The problem is, I never thought I’d write to the South, as much as I’ve written from the South.
I just returned from an artist talk at one of those pristine galleries in Chelsea. Afterwards, I peered into the windows of expensive homes to see all the evidence of comfortability. I walked past the ordinary restaurants that I can’t visit without mentally tallying my bank account balance. I got on the C train where I read Tiana Clark’s new book while a man who said he was homeless kept talking to himself and calling someone a bitch. I exited the train, stumbled from beneath the earth into the night air and I was in Brooklyn—my new home since September.
I love where and who I come from in Georgia. I hate the north’s response to this. New Yorkers have a way of commenting on how cold and snowy it’s going to get. As if New York is the coldest place in the world. (It is not.) When I say that for three years I lived in Michigan, where it’s already snowing, their faces change. They try desperately to reach for something else and don’t find it. I don’t mind the cold, but I do dread getting on a packed train of big coats.
The biggest misconception about Southerners is that we’re nice. When I finally left the South and heard this, I was confused. Because I grew up in around people who don’t hold their tongue, it’s taken me years to understand that Southerners are polite, but not all are nice. In graduate school, when a professor in my department learned I was from Georgia, he said, “We’re not that nice in the north.” This was terribly funny to me, because we were in Ann Arbor, Michigan. This is perhaps why I don’t understand Midwesterners, who apparently also have a reputation for being nice?
Of course, it’s not a lie that Southerners—black Southerners—are nice. We are, until one has committed offense. What people don’t realize is that Southerners lie, in the black sense. To get this one must understand subtext and signifying. Some people will never figure this out at all, that I’m quite the schemer. This is probably the best thing about being the Southerner that I am in New York City—snapping back when least expected. But then again, what’s expected of this black almost never has anything to do with me in the first place.
Though I’ve only been in New York for two months, this still holds true: the worst thing about living in the north is having to hunt down a fresh yield of turkey necks. Northerners only seem to know them around Thanksgiving, when they want gravy. And this is quite sad. But not sadder than the fact that I have yet to swindle my way into getting some from some charmed Brooklyn butcher. I haven’t counted myself out yet, though. I much rather lie to myself, as you know our fellow whites do so well.
This and more dispatches soon.
MALCOLM TARIQ is a poet and playwright from Savannah, GA. He serves as one of two poetry editors at Auburn Avenue and is the author of Heed the Hollow (Graywolf Press, 2019), winner of the 2018 Cave Canem Poetry Prize. He currently lives in New York City, NY.