Writing about the modern South is hard. Lazy authors slip into one of two extreme caricatures. Either they get caught up in the romanticism of white-columned porches and the Kentucky Derby, or they take cheap shots at the tacky poverty of trailer parks and BBQ pork rinds.
In his memoir, All Over but the Shoutin’, journalist Rick Bragg traces his path through the best and worst aspects of the South. The son of an Alabama cotton picker, Bragg climbed up a pile of journalism awards to the New York Times, then returned home as the newspaper’s Southeastern corespondent. Along the way, Bragg witnessed extreme poverty but also the stubborn pride and deep faith that come with it. He discusses racism--even sharing vague memories of a George Wallace rally--but Bragg never lets slurs become the full measure of the people they’re screamed at or the people screaming them.
Bragg, a born journalist, writes in straightforward facts. But gathered together, they trill with life like crickets on a summer night: “The men came to church in what we called ‘dress shirts’--that was any shirt that didn’t have the red, telltale spots of transmission fluid on its arms or tiny pinpoint black holes made from the flying sparks of the foundry. They wore blue jeans, neatly ironed. In every shirt’s pocket, there was a pack of Camel cigarettes--no filter tips, only sissies smoked filter tips--and on the ring finger of every left hand, a band of gold. A man who had no family, who had no roots and responsibilities, was no man at all.”
Avoiding stereotypes and easy mockery, Bragg gives his subjects a voice and dignity they don’t often get in mainstream culture. All Over but the Shoutin’ is one of the most clear-eyed stories of the South in recent memory.
(Cross-posted on my blog.)