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  • Front Porch
  • Harry Watson, Editor

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Works in the Nasher Museum of Art’s Southern Accent exhibition resonate with essays in this issue, including Leslie Gale Parr’s essay on Sunday parades in New Orleans. Willie Birch, Sweet Bye and Bye, 2002. Acrylic and charcoal on paper; 84 × 60 inches (213.36 × 152.4 cm).

All images courtesy of the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University.

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Beginning in the mid 1970s, millions of Americans began to reclaim their “roots,” partly inspired by Alex Haley’s gripping book and movie about his own southern and African forebears. Beyond that, the élan of the black pride movement was infectious, even among Americans who would never have admitted it, so millions tried to shake of a little late- modern sterility by hunting up half-forgotten stories of families, migrations, old countries and old neighborhoods, and struggles to thrive in unfamiliar places. I remember a professor who questioned an older ideal of assimilation by asking, “What if we didn’t want to be rendered into lard?” The family history rooms of public libraries began filling up with newly engaged researchers, poring over microfilm and local histories in search of personal identities unscathed by America’s famous melting pot.

On a midwinter night when this movement was building, a friend of my roommate wanted to share his own roots in Chicago’s Lithuanian community. We happily accepted and followed him to the Windy City’s famed South Side, where he brought us to a crowded neighborhood bar, steaming with talk and melted snow. “All the folks here are Lithuanians,” our guide beamed. “There are more Lithuanians in Chicago than in Vilnius.”

We took our beers and our places at the bar, and I got to talking with an older man with firsthand ties to the old country. We chatted about this and that and eventually I shared with him how I came to be there. My new friend’s face lit up and he began to tell me all about the neighborhood—a place I had only known previously from Upton Sinclair’s classic stockyards exposé, The Jungle. As I drank in the old man’s stories along with my beer, however, puzzlement began to play across his features. Something was really bothering him, and when he could stand it no longer, he finally had to ask: “What are you?”

It might have been a disturbingly existential question, but I knew what he meant. Most Chicagoans I knew had a fund of ethnic stereotypes they used to place a stranger on their social maps. The Poles were like this, the Irish like that, the Italians lived here, the Greeks lived there, and so on. The habit could have ugly applications, of course, but most of the time people meant no harm, and relied on it to ease interactions with strangers. The trouble was, my questioner couldn’t place me on his map, and I had no simple answer to give him.

Like many white southerners in those days, our family knew some rumors about our European origins, most pointing vaguely to the British Isles, and a few genealogy-crazed elders had dreamed of coats-of-arms, but few of us took them seriously. As a budding historian, I knew that roots were important, but I also knew that mine would be hard to explain on the South Side. Still, they were all I had, so for a long moment I hesitated.

Seeking refuge in a joke, I finally grinned and blurted, “My father came to this country from South Carolina.”

By this time, the bar was noisy, my new friend was a little deaf, and we were [End Page 2] both a little buzzed. Needless to say, he didn’t get it. “What?” he replied. “What did you say?” Despairing of explanation, I finally called myself “British,” but that didn’t help much either. Brits were about as rare as southerners in those parts, so we gave up on roots and changed the subject.

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Bill Ferris’s color photographs of sign painters and quilters, of country store stoops...