- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 1, 2003

CHARLESTON, S.C. — When a Southerner visits Charleston, it is less a visit than a pilgrimage. For this is one of those cities, like Richmond or Savannah or New Orleans, where every Southerner is instantly more at home than at home.
Even if we're seeing it all for the first time, it seems so… familiar. As if we'd dreamed it before we saw it.
Whatever we mean by Southern it may be impossible to define it exactly we know it when we see it. Especially when it is spread out like glory in the stately homes along the Battery, while the presence of Fort Sumter far out in the harbor serves as a constant reminder of our folly.
Even more telling, we know the South when we hear it. As Shakespeare's player says, "Speak. So that we may see you." For the Southern language cannot be hidden.
Years ago, I was having my Continental breakfast in the crowded dining room of a pension in Florence with my fellow American tourists before setting out for our daily ration of eternal-grace-and-beauty. Most of them were from places like New Jersey. Their voices all merged into one steady drone. Like traffic on the interstate.
Then, across the room, I heard the unmistakable, lulling flow of elongated vowels and consonants only barely hinted at like ancient ruins long submerged under a rolling sea. It was the classic Tidewater accent, and my immediate, irrepressible thought, even as I sat there in a room full of Americans, was: "Ah, a countryman."
There is a lilt to the Southern tongue an intimacy that cannot be denied. Like desire. Or fear. Maybe that's why Southern writers regularly astound by transforming the most terrible actualities into haunting music.
We are always telling stories here in the South, but we're unable to sum ourselves up. It wouldn't be polite. It would be like pointing. It would be too… summary. As in summary judgment. In the end, the South is wordless, beyond explanations. As that great sociologist Louis Armstrong said about jazz, if you gotta ask, you'll never understand.
Feodor Dostoevsky wouldn't have understood us; our despair is too bright, sunny, comic, uncaring. Grigori Potemkin would understand us at once, but he would recognize only our swindles, not the alabaster ideals that make us fall for them. Our greatness lies in the primacy of the personal over the political, and so does our vulnerability.
On being introduced, a Northerner will ask: "What is it you do?" That way he can place you, sum you up, put you in the right databank. The Southerner will want to know who you are, or, even better, who your people are. To be Southern is to be, not to be this or that.
The apparitions that appear on our doorsteps unbidden ask if we have a Church Home, and do we know where we'll spend eternity? As for me, I can't even be sure where the next day will take me heavenly Charleston or the netherworld of the Atlanta airport.
John Shelton Reed at Chapel Hill, the sociologist of the South, once gave me the best one-sentence explanation of why the Civil War was fought. It was fought, he explained, so Atlanta wouldn't happen.
We in the South may talk endlessly, but feel it is rude to spell everything out. Something should always be left for later, like dessert.
What distinguishes the South is the presence of two races inextricably bound at its core, like light and dark, "sol y sombra," sun and shade like the seats around the bullring. The circle is broken without the other, whether they are physically present or just in mind. We can have a South only by forging a common memory not another separate-but-equal fabrication.
Ours is the only part of the country ever defeated well, momentarily subdued and then occupied. Which ought to give us something of inestimable value to offer others: a most un-American sense of tragedy. For when it comes to teaching wisdom, victory can't hold a candle to defeat.
Today, when the headlines are about a coming war in the very cradle of civilization, Southerners of all Americans should be most able to understand the frustration and desperation of a failed culture and the need to reincorporate it into a larger world, while respecting its honor and integrity.
We in the South, heirs of a civilization cut off and unfulfilled, should know better than most how evil can be disguised as pride, and what goeth before a fall. Southerners most of all should understand the danger of demagogues whose only real relationship with our beliefs is to exploit them.
Inthearchitectureof Charleston from the simple, practical, classic rowhouses and single houses to the elaborate, many-tiered showplaces, we can see the march from beautiful simplicity to ostentatious, overweening arrogance. But can we learn from it?

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