Most of us are familiar with the phrase, “American by birth, Southern by the grace of God.” The meaning is rather simple: we are born American citizens, but through seemingly sheer luck, we are fortunate enough to call the South our home. For me there exists a sort of profound beauty in this — more so, I imagine, than for most. I was born to young, unmarried parents in Chicago, and was given up for adoption. Throughout my entire life, I’ve called Florida home (literally and figuratively; I have never lived anywhere else).
My parents, who adopted me at birth and raised me as their own, have lived most their lives in various parts of the South, but they hail from New England. Both are only the second generation to be born in America: my father’s family lived in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and my mother’s in Bound Brook, New Jersey. By blood I am Croatian, Russian, and Welsh; by family I am Czech, German, English, and Italian.
It may seem like a laundry list, and it’s meant to: this is only a fraction of the chaos that is my heritage. I know little of my genetic history and the cultures whose blood I carry, and having been raised around my Italian relatives, what I do know of my blood feels distinctly foreign. I had never been able to look at photos of my ancestors and see myself in their reflection, until I visited my birth mother’s family. It was not until I met my birth parents that I could recognize my own habits and nature in a relative, or hear my voice in another. It is truly a blessing for one’s culture and traditions, heritage, and blood to coincide; if you can accurately describe your history as simply as, “I am German and Italian, and my family is from Virginia,” consider yourself lucky.
Despite the deep distinction between what I know and what I am, I feel at peace in the South; the people, the history, and the ideals that shaped it… they all resonate with me. Everyone has a place he calls home, a culture that is familiar to him, and individuals among whom he feels welcome. We have all felt an intellectual connection with a foreign place, people, or history — the pull of curiosity, perhaps — but the sentiment will always remain: through study alone the culture does not belong to us, nor we to it.
There is something to be said for one’s family history and blood; each of us carries on the legacy of our ancestors, but many reject family history in exchange for cultureless, nationless modernity. What, then, makes heritage ours? What does it mean to be Southern? There is more to it than living in the South, having Southern ancestors, or admiring Southern history, so what constitutes true belonging? It is the marriage between familiarity and blood, and a healthy balance between the two.
Consider an immigrant from Poland residing in Georgia, living in the Southern fashion and upholding Southern values. Many would consider him “more Southern” than a man whose family fought for the Confederacy, but whose life merely consists of drugs, one-night stands, and no concern for his ancestry. Similarly, what of those of Southern heritage whose families moved elsewhere before they were born? The comparison between these individuals invokes less discomfort than the comparison between a Frenchman living in Japan, and an ethnic Japanese living in Japan, for example. Clearly, a man from China cannot move to the South, only hold Chinese values and traditions, speak only Chinese, and be considered remotely Southern, no matter how well he knows the town in which he lives and the history of the Confederacy; there is no balance between familiarity and blood in this case.
I argue that the South is defined more by a cultural cohesion than an ancestral one, characterized by a majority European ethnic background for most of its history. Ideally one’s family, values, and personal history are all Southern, but many are not so fortunate.
What can be said of them? Purists would prevent all but those of Southern blood, residence, and attitude from claiming the title of “Southerner.” I do not wish to debate the right or practicality of doing so; however, I would note that in the fight to protect Confederate monuments, we would be remiss to refuse any well-intentioned help offered to us, be it from a proper Southern lady or a Ukrainian intellectual.
As for myself, I am certainly not as out of place as the Frenchman in Japan, but I admit I have some learning to do. Whether or not you consider me a “true Southerner,” I would be honored to stand with you in defense of the culture, heritage, and people that I know and love.