As America confronts its history of wealth built on slavery – a history with deep scars and still-festering wounds – to try to understand this dynamic, we visit the Southern States of the US with veteran travel writer Paul Theroux.
Main photo: Melvin Johnson on the porch of his family’s nineteenth-century house, which he’s lived in for more than fifty years without plumbing or electricity, Allendale, South Carolina, 2013. Photo by Steve McCurry.
With thoughtful poignancy, in his book ‘Deep South’ (2015), Theroux uncovers the many faces of the Southern States. Over a series of road trips, the author wanders through desolate towns, meeting often warm-hearted and occasionally suspicious residents, trying to make sense of a part of the US most of the world has not seen. Over several road trips, often revisiting the same locations and people he met before, he seeks to understand the nuances of the history, racism, culture, tragedies and “paralysing despair” of the Deep South. The reader becomes fascinated by the stories of deprivation and hopelessness revealed in this area of the US whose abject poverty the author compares to what he has witnessed in parts of India and Africa.
Through the many voices which comprise the South, you begin to glimpse the complexities of the region’s history, the effects of its poverty and of its continuing racism. The journey takes us through rural parts of Mississippi, Arkansas and Louisiana which time has forgotten, abandoned communities where even the banks have departed and only deep faith in God remains.
Theroux describes the church as the beating heart of the South, the centre of each Southern community. The deliberate destruction of a church is meant to mortally wound a community, as when Klansmen set fire to an Alabama church in 1963, murdering 4 young girls and injuring 22 others. Theroux takes special note of the community resilience: “The church was always rebuilt and was stronger afterwards, as a necessity, because people attended church to find hope, dignity, love, consolation, fellowship and advice… ”. The time he spends with Reverend Eugene Lyles, both a local barber and a minister, is both heartwarming and hopeful. The Reverend Lyles is a man who, while realising the challenges and troubles of his community, continues to work tirelessly to help its members find dignity and hope.
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Fleeing racism, returning to the South
The reader has to consider the options open to blacks in America when reading the story of Ms Robin Scott, a woman in her 50s who sells washing powder in the laundromat. With her children, she fled the violence of Northern Chicago gangs to make their lives in the South where she had family connections and happy childhood vacation memories, knowing “the South was where I could save my kids.” While their lives were still difficult and jobs sparse, they benefitted from the strong, supportive community. All of her children survived, found good jobs and went on to attend the University of Southern Mississippi.
Theroux visits several gun shows, frequent events with an almost carnivalesque atmosphere. Here vistors can see old guns, new guns, and both Nazi and Confederate memorabilia: “The gun show wasn’t about guns and gun tot’n. It was about self esteem of men – white men mainly, the dominant group of the South, animated by a sense of grievance who felt defeated and still persecuted, conspired against by hostile outside forces, making a symbolic last stand.” Chillingly, the Southern States have some of the most liberal gun-ownership policies in the US.
With a career spanning over 30 years and multiple continents, Steve McCurry is the man behind some of contemporary photography’s most iconic images, such as his famous National Geographic cover photo of an Afghan refugee girl with piercing green eyes. With over a dozen books, and countless exhibitions around the world to his name, Steve McCurry has been recognised with some of the most prestigious awards in the industry, including the Robert Capa Gold Medal and an unprecedented four first prize awards from the World Press Photo contest.
In the book Theroux reveals a “southern subculture” where Indians have become owners of the majority of small hotels and convenience stores throughout Alabama, Mississippi and Georgia. In his stories there is always a Mr Patel, either a recent or second-generation Indian immigrant who, having purchased these businesses, subsequently encouraged extended family members to also immigrate. These businesses however rarely employ non-Indians and virtually all are “highly sensitised to ethnic differences, ignorant of local history, jittery in the presence of blacks, and suspicious of anyone or anything that might represent a threat to their religion or their notions of racial purity,” thereby contributing to rather than healing the racial and cultural divisions of the South.
Economic hardship and neglect
Separated from its traditional industries related to farming and production of cotton and tobacco products, the South has yet to find its economic place in the modern world: “I had not realised until I spent time there how cruel it was that so many American companies had fled the South for other countries and taken the jobs with them: that American philanthropists and charities, benevolently concerned with poverty and deficiencies elsewhere, had travelled halfway around the world to bring teachers to Africa and food to India… they had allowed the poor in the South to die from lack of healthcare, and many to remain uneducated and illiterate, and poorly housed,” Theroux writes. He goes on to observe that “Catastrophically passive, as though fatally wounded by the Civil War, the South has been held back from prosperity and has little power to exert influence on the country at large, so it remains immured in its region, especially in its rural areas, walled off from the world.”
Theroux concludes by encouraging readers to explore this area for themselves: “The Deep South is not in the books, it is in its people, and the people are hospitable, they are talkers, and if they take to you, they’ll tell you their stories. The Deep South made me feel like a fortunate traveller in an overlooked land.”
5 got in touch with Paul Theroux for a brief Q&A:
In your book, ‘Deep South’ you speak to the many nuances that shape the culture of the South, poverty, despair, racism and a general feeling of being “overlooked”. How do you feel this has contributed to the current polarisation in the USA?
The USA has been polarised – as you put it – since its inception. Consider that the Civil War is still in a sense being fought – the current debate over the Confederate battle flag is a good instance. I mention in ‘Deep South’ the ways in which whites in the South feel defeated – in war, in the economy, and in the Civil Rights movement. The infrastructure in the South (schools, hospitals) is generally poor and has not served blacks well. There is another strange aspect: immigrants from other countries (India, Asia) who choose to live in the South often rise very quickly and become dominant in the economy. Consider that virtually all motels in the South are owned by recently arrived Indians, and none owned by blacks, who have been in the South for hundreds of years.
Since writing, have you reached any new conclusions as to why American philanthropists continue to overlook the US as a place desperately in need of their development dollars?
Yes, I think philanthropists enjoy the drama, the colour, the exoticism, the great contrast, of funding projects in Africa. There is no drama in helping people in the South. “The government will take care of them,” is the view. Or “They should get jobs” etc. Arkansas is an impoverished state (as I described it) yet Bill Clinton was governor for almost 12 years, and he runs the Clinton Global Initiative.
Do you still recommend that anyone wishing to understand the South travel there with an open mind or do you think now a visitor would encounter more suspicion and distrust than you did during your trips?
Read my book. Read Southern literature. Then go, by all means. The roads are wonderful, the landscape is lovely, there is much to discover.
Paul Theroux is considered one of the master travel writers alive today, and is perhaps best known for ‘The Great Railway Bazaar’ (1975). Describing his journey aboard the Trans-Siberian railway, it is considered a contemporary classic in the genre. He has also written numerous works of fiction and his award-winning novel, ‘The Mosquito Coast’ (1981), was adapted into a film starring Harrison Ford and Helen Mirren.