In a rural North Carolina town sits a small single-story brick house accompanied by a covered porch populated by potted plants, a table with chairs, a rocking chair, and depending on the time of day, people. This is my grandparents’ porch where we all gather, amid a loud groaning noise, to listen to my grandfather explain how as a child, “The garden was always tended before the fields.” He would later continue, “It was the garden and not the cash crops of the field that fed the family.” My grandfather’s stories speak to the American ideals of independence and self-reliance. However, when cast through the lens of the southern porch on which they are told and the related sociability, his stories distill southern traditions of communal learning and self-reliance from the broader American tradition.
Every southern space has its own “sociability” or cohort who interact with and within the space. My grandparents’ porch is no different. However, the rules of a space reflect the nature of its community. Neighbors, church members, and family members punctuate the porch’s otherwise open sociability. The sense of community may be revoked, however, if one does not express the proper etiquette. For instance, it is widely known that the padded wooden rocker is forbidden to all except my grandmother. In addition, out of respect for my grandparents and their Christian values, the use of curse words in this space is taboo. Just as the surrounding tobacco leaves soak up the southern sun, the porch absorbs these humble values of the rural southern community in which it resides and functions.
In a display of true southern hospitality, the newcomer was greeted with a bowl of ice cream and the often-heard reaction of my grandfather, “Let me get you a chair.”
Like many previous sultry June afternoons, on one particular day I found myself among a mass of people on the front porch taking refuge from the distinctly sticky southern heat and humidity. These family and community members listened to my grandfather’s stories while waiting for the ice cream maker and its ominous groaning to finish. Upon completion, we served the ice cream, which was flavored with southern ingredients: Georgia peaches, freshly cracked pecans, and hand-picked strawberries. After saying grace, we all sat, ate, and conversed, only to have a car arrive with another community member. In a display of true southern hospitality, the newcomer was greeted with a bowl of ice cream and the often-heard reaction of my grandfather, “Let me get you a chair.” It is during times like these that the porch takes on the function of a communal gathering spot.
From dusk till dark, I sat entranced on my grandparents’ porch listening to stories about their past experiences on the surrounding farm. The stories included how my grandfather farmed the one hundred acres with just a one-row plow and mule, how great storms of the past toppled tobacco barns, and how snake encounters ended humorously for all except the snake. While they may seem trivial, these stories provide an invaluable source of communal learning and self-reliance by passing forward knowledge not often available books; the human factor adds detail to such accounts of history. It is this personal essence that the porch absorbs to become a southern space because, like the South itself, the stories are full of rich history, unique perspectives, and irreplaceable people that can only be truly understood through experience.
One might argue that the traditions of communal learning and self-reliance, and that even the porch itself are not distinctly southern since they may be found in many areas of the country. When viewed through the context and the social dynamic in which such stories are told, my grandfather’s stories of self-reliance project a distinctly southern flavor of greater American traditions. It is in this same flavor, popularized through Hank Williams Junior’s song “A County Boy Can Survive,” that my grandfather tells how his father taught him, a southerner, to provide and fight for himself. It is in these rural spaces that communal learning and self-reliance live and take on a uniquely southern character as they are continuously shaped and molded by the people and landscapes in which they are practiced.
Nicholas W. Place
Bernard L. Herman, “The Charleston Single House and Atlantic Taste,” (lecture, Introduction to the American South: A Cultural Journey, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, NC, February 17, 2015).