I wondered in Tallahassee if I had yet properly reached the South. I was in the Florida panhandle, and the cosmopolitan Caribbean of Miami had long receded. The Floridian capital is one of tidy antebellum architecture and broad hanging Southern live oaks — photos of which fail to properly capture the way these vast trees droop over the avenues, as if the heat in the air were too much for them — and that other great American architectural triumph, and of the American South particularly — the strip mall.
Another part of town, literally on the other side of the railroad tracks, is less pretty: the strip malls here contain pawn shops and gun shops, and pawn-and-gun shops, and wig stores and auto repair shops and nail salons and car customising services. The product of the latter stands in one of the massive parking lots — the one filled with a continuous soundtrack of soul music emanating from one of the roadside car washes at its edge — a gleaming, salmon-pink sedan with matching oversized pink wheels elevating the car to well over twice its normal height above the ground. Next to this one is another automobile, less magnificent but equally pink. In a CD store selling bootleg copies of mixtapes by Boosie and Mouse and Webbie and Gucci Mane and other less well known Southern rappers, as well as classic albums from outside the South — Illmatic, Ready to Die, Reasonable Doubt, The Marshall Mathers LP — sits a silver haired man probably in his fifties, dressed tidily in clothes slightly too small for him. He strikes up conversation with me because, he says, he’s the only other white guy in the store. “I’m the manager,” he says, as if to explain his presence. He then clarifies that he hosts parties at clubs with one of the store’s proprietors. “When I first came around, they thought I was the bookie,” he continues. “Because I used to be a bookmaker.”
I’m in this part of town looking for a theatre; the official Tallahassee visitors’ website had advised that this evening would mark the first of three performances of A Raisin in the Sun, the story of a black family in 1950s Chicago who buy a house in an all-white neighbourhood. It was the first show written by an African American woman to play on Broadway. The theatre, when I found it, was in one of those Southside strip malls, in the concrete expanse of an empty store front. About thirty people attended. The performance was enjoyable, though its energy flagged from time to time — always a risk for plays as long as this one. I’m not sure if theatres are commonly found in strip malls in America, but either way, I don’t wish to suggest the production was an amateurish one; it was nothing of the sort. The stand out performance was probably that of Zakiya Jas, who played the long-suffering wife of the show’s hero-of-sorts, Walter Lee Younger, a man in his mid-thirties chafing at the limitations of his job as chauffeur for a rich white man. (Summer Hill Seven handled the lead role capably.)
Tallahassee was where I saw Confederate flags for the first time this visit — on the licence plate of a truck driven by a large and neatly-presented white woman — but I’d also seen Confederate flags in Charlottesville, Virginia. I imagine folks might argue that the home of the University of Virginia has more in common culturally with the suburbs of Washington, DC, than the rest of Dixie. I saw a sign outside a chicken restaurant advertising the “best liver and gizzards in town,” but can a town really be properly representative of the South if it hosts two universities and a state government — and which are the three biggest employers in town? Tallahassee does feel like a college town in many ways. And Tallahassee is unusually Democratic politically for a Southern town (though it probably isn’t meaningful in this regard that even the local paper is called The Democrat).
Outside Tallahassee and further along the panhandle, however, things get undeniably Southern. The vegetation turns thick and lush, the ground swampy. Little in the way of anything lines the narrow highway, save for lone, low, modestly-constructed houses, the odd trailer, and dirt roads disappearing rapidly into the woods. In the distance, the occasional water tower announces the name of a passing town. Churches — small, cheaply but neatly constructed, invariably white and marked by tall, prominent crosses — are a regular occurrence. A handmade poster posted on a telegraph pole reads “IMPERIALIST SOCIALIST BENGHAZI COVER UP.” I guess the author considered it unnecessary to explain the context or object of her complaint.
I’ve seen plenty of country Australia, and this is nothing like country Australia. It’s much greener for a start. The heat is unfamiliar too: not more intense by any means, but perhaps damper? These are preliminary observations. And I’ve left out the parts that could be found anywhere in America: the chain “ale house” I at dinner at last night, for instance, that had hockey and basketball on the TVs that crowded into every possible point at which a person’s gaze might turn and a tantalising selection of craft beers behind the bar. Or the shopping mall that could have been anywhere if not for the quantity of Seminole and Gator merchandise on sale. Or how, now, between Panama City and Pensacola, along the Gulf Coast, Walmarts and hotels and half-constructed pre-fab townhomes are a more common occurrence than rundown shacks.
I have seen little of the South. I will see more.
1. To be precise, while eating a chicken sandwich in a Chick-Fil-A there. I’m sad to report that chicken sold by bigots is delicious.
2. And in California, too.