Reading Noel Polk’s “Outside the Southern Myth”

Although Noel Polk‘s narrative of his young life, in Outside the Southern Myth, is set mainly in the 1950s, the book was published in 1997 and reads as a counter-narrative to the multitude of mainstream narratives about what Southern is.  Historians, social scientists, and critics may have written their ‘Pre-Civil Rights Southerners did this, and Pre-Civil Rights Southerners thought that’ in academic treatises and popular articles, but Polk’s retort in his book is: “I was there, and I didn’t do or see what you’re describing.” He isn’t saying that the common conceptions are totally wrong, just that they’re not completely right about all Southerners.

I remember the 1990s being a time of reflection for the South. By then two to three decades had passed since the movement’s major events, and the form of the “new normal” was becoming clearer.  A whole generation had grown up after integration, and Southerners, along with the nation, were interrogating the actual results of the movement. We see this in the plethora of Civil Rights dramatizations – Mississippi Burning, Long Walk Home, etc. – and from post-movement conflicts like the one in Wedowee, Alabama in 1994. In the South, we had the younger Generation X who wanted to understand what happened and an older generation of Boomers who offered a cascade of narratives and myths, most bound up in half-truths and limited in perspective, that ranged the entire socio-political spectrum— from proudly progressive to recalcitrantly racist. To this tide of tell-alls Noel Polk added his voice.

Outside the Southern Myth is an apt title for the book. Polk is a somewhat quirky writer, and in his first chapter, “On Being Southernovelized,” he uses the metaphor of a group photo to make his main point. According to Polk, in a group photo, the totality is shown, but each individual face is small as to lack detail. Also, he explains, in the old days when cameras’ exposure time was longer, a person could actually move quickly from one side of a group to another and appear twice in a photo. This metaphor is his way of explaining that, even with a large set of objective facts, neither nuances nor sleight of hand are always recognizable. He writes, 

Thus, the “burden” of Southern history for me as southerner is that though personally I live outside of it and do not partake of it I am nevertheless quite often defined by it. Though I am not in southern history, I am indubitably of it, have been certified by it: I bear a reality that is imposed on me by the group photo. [ . . . ] As a southerner, I look into the mirror of southern history and fiction and do not see much that has any direct relation to my life as a southerner. I do not in fact see myself or even a self that I think I am but some reconstruction of a self that I am told I am, or ought to be, by virtue of being southern.

As the chapter moves along and closes out, Polk shares that he can “do southern” for people who want it, but the fact remains: what most people believe all Southerners have and do and are— that’s not him.

Moving along, the second chapter is about Polk’s hometown of Picayune, Mississippi, which is in the southern part of the state, across Lake Pontchartrain from New Orleans. When we think of Mississippi, we think of the Delta, and Picayune is not a Delta town, he assures us. Polk’s father was hard-working man, who had moved into the small town from the countryside, who was glad to leave the farming life behind, and who had fought in World War II. He had worked for other people for a while, then had his own business selling Firestone tires. Young Noel was born in 1943, went to school in the 1950s and early ’60s, attended the Baptist church, worked for his father, and played in the high school band. 

Through the three middle chapters, centered on “Family,” “Race” and “Music,” Polk examines these subjects as they related to one boy’s life in small-town south Mississippi. His father he likens to the William Faulkner character Flem Snopes, for his need to ascend out of the realm of poor white trash and up to some level of middle-class respectability. One particular event weighs heavily on the writer, who as a boy felt his father’s fury because he had walked home from their shop. His father’s pride was damaged by the idea that anyone had seen his children walking, not riding in a car.

Issues of race, he tells us, only existed on the periphery of his life, since no significant conflicts or agitation occurred anywhere near him or the town. (He does mention that his father treats debt collection from black customers differently than debt collection from white customers, and he does go into one instance when his father told him that a lynching has occurred in a nearby town, though he has no knowledge of how his father knew this or whether he was involved.) However, Polk doesn’t let himself off the hook by pleading boyish naiveté. Instead, he takes a very humane look at his situation: how racial violence seemed to him something faraway and distant, occurring in other places; how manners played a role in the power relationships of social class and race; and how the paradoxes of repulsion combined with acceptance affected all Southerners’ psyches.

Finally, music was the thing that lifted Polk and his close friends out of the smallness of their circumscribed existence; through a particularly dynamic band instructor, they learned about jazz and also got to travel to the Rose Bowl to play in the parade. As I was reading this chapter, nearing the two-thirds mark in the book, I was struck by his discussion of something that I myself have said many times about Southern culture. Here’s his version:

Musicians have let athletes appropriate the high moral ground, especially in high school and college; we accede almost without challenge – no matter how it grates, we mostly bear it in silence – to the athletic establishment’s publicity machines’ constant hightoned selfserving [sic] claims that athletics are not just good but essential because they teach discipline and teamwork and that because they thrive on competition they are the best possible training ground for life: they build character because they teach people who to win and how to respond to defeat. There are, of course, claims as completely patronizing to and dismissive of other social activities as their operating assumptions about their moral grounding are presumptive— as though what musicians do, what band members do, does not require discipline or teamwork, and as though musical training, with its emphasis on harmony and cooperation rather than on competition, does not also build character and is not also a workable paradigm for social and political organization.

Amen! Amen! Amen! I thought as I was reading. I didn’t play in the band in school, but did theater and the same could be said of it. But in the South . . . it is sports, sports, sports, sports, sports. And boys who favor the arts over sports – Polk says this, too – are somehow not as masculine as a male should be. No, cooperation is not the way to prove you’re man— defeating someone else in competition, that’s how to prove you’re a man.

By this point, I liked Noel Polk very much. Then he got into religion. And being Baptist. In the longest chapter in the book. I was raised Baptist in the 1970s and ’80s, decades later than Polk, and I never really liked it, didn’t go to church at all for a while, then became a Catholic as an adult. Though Polk admits to not being so keen on the Baptist ideal anymore – the chapter is subtitled “Notes of a Survivor” – his explanation of the faith’s precepts were stinging to read in spots, especially when he contrasted them with (several incorrect misunderstandings of) Catholicism. There’s a lot in the Southern Baptist faith that doesn’t make sense, and according to Polk, isn’t supposed to. That just doesn’t jive with me. I guess it didn’t really jive with him either.

And then that’s about it. The final chapter is very short. (The book itself is barely two hundred pages.) At the end, Polk has moved away from Picayune, and as an adult, returns to see an uncle – his father’s brother – on his deathbed. Here, he surmises that families can only really stay close when one or perhaps a few particularly strong figures hold everyone together. When his father died, that person was gone, and everyone drifted out of the orbit. Then, after that orbit is defunct, all we do is return for most funerals and a few weddings to reminisce about the old times . . . that are gone and can’t be regained.

Though I’m a literature guy, I’ve also read a lot of Southern history and know the kind of histories and myths that Polk is referring to. A lot of smart people wrote (and still write) those books and articles, telling us how to interpret past events and end up in some sort of coherent understanding. But I took Noel Polk’s point as something to closer to what I’ve seen in my life, kind of like I did with Matthew Lassiter’s book The Silent Majority. That’s not to say, again, that Polk’s assessments of mainstream Southern history is: “That’s not how it was.” What I take him to be saying in Outside the Southern Myth is: “That’s not how it was for me,” or “That’s not how it was everywhere.” 

Two common threads that have run through my readings are: that there isn’t one narrative of the South, and that the South has been ever-changing since the 1940s. Where, it seems, historians and writers in the 1960s and ’70s worked really hard to tie up all the loose ends into one tidy South, more recent historians and writers seem to be working to unravel those knotted-up threads and look at each one for what it is. To me, that’s good, since any single overarching narrative will leave out some perspectives. Personally, I hope that Noel Polk’s narrative can also be part of the larger discussion that we’re having these days. 

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