Identity is a difficult thing. You nourish yourself; you strive for education, experience, and perhaps an adventure. These choices change you and shape you. But who you really are is what finds you. You imagine you have put yourself in this place, but the reality is that where you come from, whom you were born to, and what was placed in front of you is what shapes who you are at your core. That these things can conflict is not design, it is inevitable.
I was born in Atlanta, Georgia to two loving parents from Georgia whose parents were from Georgia and South Carolina and Virginia whose parents were from Georgia, South Carolina, and Virginia, and so on and so on until the parents were from Europe and America still sent the King a lovely Christmas card. We were members of the Methodist Church. My mom was a girl scout, my dad was a boy scout, and my brother and I were boy scouts. Everyone was a Democrat. We were taught to love the world we occupied, love the people around us, and have faith that we were being watched over and cared for. At the time, this all made sense.
You could love grits and collard greens and still vote for a Democrat. You could be in the Boy Scouts and it was not a political statement. Chick-fil-a was the standard after school snack or what you grabbed on the way to a troop meeting. We could enjoy these things and still love the world we occupied, love the people around us, and have faith that we were being watched over and cared for.
Atlanta was the city too busy to hate, but let’s not kid ourselves. Anyone who lives there will tell you that you do not have to hate to be insidious. Racial lines are drawn all the time – they do it officially every ten years – and yet you continue to grow up alongside people of all kinds, rarely noticing a difference. It was a place where you might not hear English even if you walked through a crowded supermarket. We could ignore the petty racial fights – race was just a proxy for personal power struggles, anyway. It was the perfect place because it taught us to love the world we occupied, love the people around us, and have faith that we were being watched over and cared for.
I had friends in the Boy Scouts who were gay, but no one seemed to care at the time. We went through Boy Scouts to become not straight men or gay me, but men. And we became men. The values we were taught then are the ones I hold to my core today: trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean, and reverent. The Boy Scouts reinforced us to love the world we occupied, love the people around us, and have faith that we were being watched over and cared for.
The United Methodist Church was – in the grand scheme of religion – pretty liberal, but it did have some hold out policies. That didn’t matter, because there were great people and great churches. The church taught me that God is love, Jesus showed us to help each other, and being Christian was done through charity, goodwill, and above all else, love. The core message was to love the world you occupied, love the people around you, and have faith that you are being watched over and cared for.
Maybe I was always fooling myself – stuck inside some magical bubble where porch swings and iced tea brought people together from all walks of life; where great minds and artists flourished in a community of inclusion, faith, and love. That dream has all the trappings of reality: I have waved to and chatted with the black church ladies strolling to Sunday service while sitting on my porch; I have read Flannery O’Conner and William Faulkner while sipping on a bourbon in a porch swing; I have raised cane with my friends – gay, straight, white, black, rich, and poor – all while the smell of jasmine and honeysuckle permeated our lungs and our lives. That is the south, to me.
I do not know when that was taken away – when some cruel culture warrior decided to pop that bubble. The warriors spilled the tea, tossed out the books, and set the porch swing on fire. They filled these oak groves with intolerance, hate, and ignorance – marching through like Sherman, laying waste to our art, history, and faith.
Whether that was true or not does not matter much to me. It is a dream now. A distant vision of who I am – my identity – that I long for. I have seen it in others. A small flame of what was and what could be again. You hope to bring those flames together and find a place that was lost. You search them out, call to the world to find those kindred spirits so that you can create that place again: a place of porches and neighbors and books and faith, where all are welcomed because all are different. A place of love for the world you live in and the people around you.