Letters to the South
This past weekend, a columnist I had just met said that her Northern city at the receiving end of The Great Migration was friendly because “so many of us came from the South.” For an instant, I did not know what she meant. The portrait of the South, to me, is not one of friendliness and hospitality: to me, it’s all of the reasons those families fled the South—lynching and discrimination and violence and deprivation.
It’s the South that cut short the life of my mother, the late Patricia Stephens Due, a civil rights activist who was tear-gassed in college and mad about racism until the day she died a little more than fifty years later. It’s the South where my father, 84-year-old “Freedom Lawyer” John Due, terrified the activists he was traveling with in Mississippi because he was calling for his dog named Freedom so loudly into the dark night. It’s the South of murdered martyrs and children and sheriffs gone wild. It’s the South hiding behind Florida’s lie of relaxing sunshine and beaches—the lie my mother fought so hard to dismantle to reveal the truth of voter suppression and Trayvon Martin.
But then…yes, I remembered the other side: the strangers who have invited activists into their homes at their own risk, who have donated time and resources on the campaign trail, who have dreamed and smiled when they had little reason to dream and smile. I remembered so many offers of sweet tea and pound cake. Your history, South, cannot overshadow your residents who stayed behind and maintained their courage and hospitality despite the worst you have had to offer. You cannot erase the laughter and hugs and the sound when an elder calls me “Sugar.” You do not deserve your friendly, loving people because they are the survivors, and they are too strong for you to hold back.
American Book Award winner
(Born in Tallahassee, Florida, and raised in Miami)
TANANARIVE DUE is a novelist and a creative writing teacher who has worked as a journalist. She won the American Book Award in 2002 for her novel The Living Blood.