Roy Blount Jr. opened it up for questions. He'd been telling hilarious stories about his experiences as a southerner who has spent most of his working life in the north. He's on the book tour for Long Time Leaving, and Jake had arranged with WBHM to hold this event as a benefit for the station. The venue was the McWane Science Center, which might not seem like a logical venue for Blount, but Jake is good at bringing people together, and it gave him a chance to promote the non-fiction book club that he's starting up with McWane.
Blount's an old hand at this and had the audience cracking up from his first sentence. His manner suggests that he's just pulling these memories and stories up at random, but it's actually well-practiced. Indeed, some of his stories had appeared almost verbatim in a newspaper interview that appeared a couple of days ago. It may be an act, but it's a very good one.
I raised my hand and he nodded in my direction. I said I'd undergone the opposite journey from his, being raised in the north, and then finding myself living in the south. So I'd had mirrored experiences to his, with southerners curious about how I was managing down here, and my northern friends asking questions about what it was really like. Lynn had given me the clue years ago, and I'd distilled the distinction down to the matter of discretion. Blount raised an eyebrow.
"In the north, to be 'discreet' means to act in such a way that nobody knows what's really going on. But in the south, to be 'discreet' means to act in such a way that everybody can act as if they don't know what's really going on." Much laughter from the audience. Blount just grinned and went on to the next question. I've been using that line for years when I've been talking with people about the differences and I've never met a southerner who disagreed.
Earlier in the week, I was with several of the deans, meeting with a candidate for one of our open dean positions. All but one of us, I think, were raised in the north, and we were unified in our praise for Birmingham and Alabama. There's a generosity of spirit and, despite the stereotypes, a genuine openness to new ideas and new people. And although the ridiculous unregulated development is threatening, it is still a very beautiful part of the country.
The past is always with us here, of course, and the wounds from slavery and segregation are still at least a couple of generations away from being healed. But maybe that's what makes so many of us here work so much harder to make things better. You don't need to deny or ignore the evil that's been done in the past to recognize all of the wonderful history of this region and the great promise it shows for the future.
I'll never be a southerner -- you don't get to be that unless you're born here. But I don't imagine that I'll ever want to live anywhere else.