Mistinguette Smith: On Being Country

Smith wonders about the romance of the rural @ The Common. I was raised Up South in the 1960s, and I heard grown folk talk about “country” as one of the worst things you could be: Why you gotta act so country? Girl, that is some sho ‘nuff Geechee backwoods mess. Look at her country ass, thinking she cute in that mammy-made dress!

So it is with great ambivalence that I watch black people now embracing rural and agricultural experience. Young horticulturists, middle-aged backyard gardeners, even the student interns in my office tell me how much they love southern farm land. They confide to me their wishes to return to it, to sink their hands into it. They whisper dreams of a rural existence populated with wise ancestors and recovered history. They long for the more “authentic” values they think it will bring. I want to suck my teeth and say I am having none of it. My people worked hard to leave country behind, shedding swept dirt yards and accents thick as Alaga syrup. Me, I honor their struggle.

This cynical voice is my own learned contempt for the places my grandparents escaped. They fled southern country, and made sure their passage was marked “Door of No Return” for my parents. Their memory of country was of dirt poor, dirt floor, worm-infected children and the low down dirty truth of Jim Crow. To them, country meant making do and never having enough. Country meant it didn’t matter that you lived on a washed out dirt track road, because nobody was ever going to come.  Country, where the Good Book was the only book most folk would ever own, King James’ Version memorized verse by verse on Sundays and recited on every possible occasion if it had been read. Country meant finally arriving in the city in your best suit and Sunday manners only to be laughed at as fifteen years out of date and shamefully shiny, with Vaselined legs and hair plastered in place with Dixie Peach. Where I grew up, to call somebody country signified the speaker’s grateful escape from brutal and hungry and hard, everything limited, unworldly, and necessarily made by hand.

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