A couple of interesting visitors came by the house last Monday for a long talk. Actually, one of the men was originally from Anniston, which has elements of a “local boy makes good” story.
David O’Shields is a native son who went to Auburn and is now a documentary filmmaker, a professional in residence at the University of Northern Iowa. His new project is a big one.
He and his assistant Jake, star student and cameraman, are touring the South interviewing and filming a kaleidoscopic variety of notables and everyday folk to try and answer just what is “A Southerner like me.”
David’s visit to the old hometown to see his 91-year-old mother and film our conversation was the 14th in the series to define the South, and he will be back.
He is a professional conversation-starter, but after the third hour, as he was kind enough to notice, I was beginning to fade, thinking about a line in William Faulkner’s short, five-paragraph Nobel acceptance speech.
In his soft Mississippi accent Faulkner said, “It is easy enough to say that man is immortal simply because he will endure: that when the last ding-dong of doom has clanged and faded from the last worthless rock hanging tideless in the last red and dying evening, that even then there will still be one more sound: that of his puny inexhaustible voice, still talking” ... (about the South? I thought).
Faulkner continued, “I refuse to accept this. I believe that man will not merely endure: he will prevail. “
In Faulkner’s last, ringing paragraph, he declared his belief that man will prevail because he has a soul capable of courage, honor, pity, pride and compassion.
To the novelist’s list of value-loaded characteristics of the region, the people in other segments of David’s documentary would add: the blues, Cajun cooking, fried catfish and pride: pride, over and over again.
In one segment, a cheerful, pretty black woman explained, “because I’m Southern, I’ve got to have pride.” Whether pride is a product of history or a clash of cultures, both black and white people who populate the film series define themselves as different because they are Southern — but proud.
Would those same people black and white born in Connecticut or Iowa have thought to say they were different but proud?
The great British historian Arnold Toynbee would understand what the people in David’s films were trying to tell him about the feeling of being on opposite sides of history.
“I was a young man during the Diamond Jubilee and I remember the feeling: it was here we are at the top of the world, and we are destined to be here forever. If I had been a boy in the New England states, I might have similar feelings, but If I had been a boy in the South, I would know that history had happened to me where I live.”
The Yale historian C. Vann Woodward saw Southern history as un-American, a series of hard events that left the rest of the country untouched: defeat in war and occupation, long years of privation, fierce defense of a moral evil and, worst of all, the scorn of more fortunate Americans.
The experience breeds a kind of personality that is most passionately on display at one of the uniquely Southern venues left off Faulkner’s list — the football field. Underneath the more raucous cheers is an unspoken statement: “You can look down your nose at me and mine, but we’ll meet you on the gridiron for a test of will, grit, muscle and strategy and see who comes out on top.”
A larger patriotism with a difference was David’s film of a pre-game University of Southern Mississippi celebration: first came the Dixie Darlings with over-the-elbow white gloves of a debutante who revealed enough to strike desire in the loins of undergraduate boys and in the memories in old men. Then the massed band smartly marched off (not to “Dixie”) but to a stirring rendition of “Battle Hymn of the Republic.”
What a challenge David has to pull together the whole pageant of sights and sounds and feelings, including those of us who in Faulkner’s speech represent the human heart in conflict with itself, who love the South but in national affairs wish we would be less contrary and show more leadership.
Meanwhile, we’ll await David’s return home … maybe with a more finished film. It should be a sight to see.