I hated the way I talked when I was a kid.
As a lifelong resident of the Deep South, I have a southern family, with an accent to match. Most people on TV sounded so sophisticated with enunciated speech, while every southerner I saw portrayed in film was either slow or ignorant.
I wanted to be seen as smart. So, I worked hard to erase my accent. To my ear, my drawl was far less pronounced than my friends and family, but this illusion failed me anytime I traveled to other parts of the country.
Everyone asked me what part of Georgia I was from.
My mom and dad are both from a rural county about an hour east of where I grew up. My parents grew up on farms, and their lives were centered around the rhythm of early mornings, and crop seasons.
I spent a couple of weeks each summer on those farms, spending time with my grandparents. Our Christmas and Thanksgiving rituals involved a drive out to the farms, too. I was fascinated by the natural beauty of our family land growing up, a Cathedral of branches, fields, and wide open sky.
I also loved the food, and the way everyone gathered together at meals.
I was proud that my family always brought along displaced people to our gatherings–the poor, the orphan, the widow. And everyone knew everyone else in the whole county.
There were no strangers.
But, I was so put off by what those farms ultimately represented: Southern culture.
We lagged the nation in fashion, food, and social progress.
These were the days before the Internet, so the South was often more than a decade behind New York and California.
We found novel what Californians were dropping off at thrift shops.
Despite the tight nit community and open doors of Southern homes, the land of my fathers and my father’s fathers was also the first place I heard the “n-word” spoken aloud. It stunned me, that anyone could utter that archaic, hateful sound.
I think a lot of people feel like this.
They look at their families and they see much to love and a lot they’re ashamed off. It’s a potent mix; subtle, complex, and often overwhelming. Our families represent our pasts, who we were, and how we came to be who we are now–good and bad.
As an adult I had a personal renaissance toward my rural roots.
My high-flying career kept me on airplanes, traveling from urban center to urban center. I experienced new foods, new cultures, and lived out my dreams. My life was a blur of new faces and new places–and it often wore me out.
I discovered there was something freeing about sitting in a tractor, and moving trees off a forrest road. Or driving aimlessly through the woods in an ATV. Or even taking said ATVs through the mud at chaotic, reckless speeds in a ritual known as “muddin’.”
The South, I learned, had secrets of its own.
Special treasures unknown in our nations Great Cities in the North and West.
You see, my family taught me the value of an open home, and freely sharing love with others. The agricultural rhythm of Madison County showed me that humankind’s relationship with the land is complex and essential.
Most of all, my family showed me the way that faith can remake the story of a family from dysfunction and alcoholism to shared values and worship.
There are things in our family background that are beautiful and life giving, and those are the things we carry forward as heritage. But there are also things in our family past that are chains that bind us and others, and those are the links we have to break, lest they carry on for another generation.
It’s up to us to contemplate which is which: heritage or bondage.
We honor our families–and ourselves–by choosing well.