The Dead Mule School of Southern Literature

In My South by M. David Hornbuckle


For most of my life I have known that I was a writer, and since I was fifteen and read The Sound and the Fury for the first time, I have been acutely aware that I was a Southern writer in particular. So I have spent a great many full days wandering under an Autumn moon pondering the similarities and difference between my experience of the South and the experience of the South captured in the Southern literature I grew up admiring. In many ways, this literature is the strongest connection I have to what most would consider the historical South—the antebellum South, the Civil War South, the Reconstruction South.

My family, like many families in this late century, is fractured. Some of my ancestors may have been in the South during the Civil War. I know my earliest paternal ancestor came to Virginia as an indentured servant in the eighteenth century. The family moved South and West from there. My father’s people came from Missouri. Other than that, however, the history is murky. Moreover, I grew up in Birmingham, a city that didn’t even exist until Reconstruction, a city that many have said resembles more the Old West than the Old South because people came here to mine and make steel. The agrarian story of the Old South is not the story of Birmingham, nor is it the story of my family. I have never lived on a farm, and neither my parents nor grandparents ever lived on a farm. For at least four generations, most of the people in my family have been teachers, engineers, and accountants. By the time my family came to Birmingham in 1971, even most of the drama of the Civil Rights era was over. This is not an especially Faulknerian background for a Southern Writer to emerge from.

Even the food of the South was an acquired taste for me. I didn’t grow up eating things like collard greens and scratch biscuits. I discovered these delicacies when I was in college in Mississippi. My mother rarely made any traditional Southern food when I was growing up, and she continues to be baffled and amused that I grew up to have a fondness for it. She and grandmother both leveraged easy recipes from women’s magazines with many prefab ingredients. This is yet another legacy from which I have broken in search of “genuine” experience and capital T Truth.

Growing up in Birmingham, I was keenly aware of racial tensions. My neighbors and schoolmates frequently made racist comments and jokes that in my family were verboten, so I knew there was something strange and intense behind it, but it took me some time to gain any understanding of it. I didn’t go to school in Birmingham city schools; I was out in the county at Bluff Park, which had not been thoroughly integrated at that time, the late 1970s (it may never have been integrated, until it became absorbed into the larger Hoover school system in the 1990s). There was only one black family at the school, as far as I knew. When I was ten, we moved to Dothan, where the school I attended was at least fifty percent black. Because I played basketball, I became friends with a lot of black kids, but they were very different from the friends I made in my own very white neighborhood. The one moment of racial cowardice I ever saw in my parents occurred when I wanted to invite a couple of my black friends over to the house, and my mother said no, afraid of what the neighbors might think. Only a few years before that, she had been the only white teacher at an elementary school in Fairfield. It was a moment of intellectual and moral tension I would remember the rest of my life.

I have also always been conscious of a sense of loss in the South and the stereotypically conservative resistance to change. This feeling is very present in Birmingham where the economic aftermath of our past Civil Rights issues still lingers. To find one of the most tangible examples, one only need look at how Atlanta has grown in the past fifty years. This happened, to a large extent, because of the international airport built there, an airport originally planned for Birmingham—at the time a more thriving industrial city. But the people with money behind the airport were reluctant to invest in Birmingham because of its resistance to change, particularly with regard to Civil Rights, whereas Atlanta (at least officially) embraced such changes. In a sense, I am glad that Birmingham didn’t grow as quickly as Atlanta did. I think Atlanta made a lot of mistakes in its city planning, and Birmingham now is a more pleasant place to live, I think, than Atlanta ever will be. But the sense of resentment, the sense of loss, and the sense of having been part of a vast injustice are still very much alive here. That, I suppose, is what much of my writing is about and why I label myself as a Southern writer.