Studying Southern Culture in the Bible Belt
It’s never easy to just pick up and leave for a rather obscure corner of America, shedding everything familiar and safe to set up a new camp, on fresh ground. But it was one of the finer decisions I’ve made in my life thus far. And so here I find myself, in Alabama, deep Southern culture, that bible belt that I had seen recaptured and repeated relentlessly in films, literature and art work as I was growing up. Two words sprung to mind when I had first thought of coming to the South, “Republican” and “fried”. Both of which I have come face to face with. But my decision went a little deeper than that.
I am actually here on a tuition exchange from the University of Glasgow. For one year only, I have been given the chance to throw myself into “college” life at the University of Alabama. Most of my choice was formulated on the rather romantic logic that I am studying for a degree in mostly American Literature and most of my favorite writers come from the South, many in fact–including Harper Lee–grew up not too far from my dorm room door.
And so here I find myself, in Alabama, deep Southern culture, that bible belt that I had seen recaptured and repeated relentlessly in films, literature and art work as I was growing up.
I formulated this logic as a way of convincing myself that it would be a great idea to pack up a severely humble suitcase, get on a plane and spend the next year on a personal and academic journey. When put like that, the thought had been a little too much to face, but when peppered with small reasoning and confirmation of the experience being of intellectual worth, I could just about bring myself to set out alone. Of course, one is never alone. We have the many different parts that make up ourselves, and we have others.
Most of my fellow college students spend their Saturday afternoons at football and basketball games, grilling steak in their back yards or possibly heading to one of the many sports bars that litter the campus. This came as quite a shock for a tea-drinking, liberal minded vegetarian who–unlike most of the girls here–can usually be found tucked away in a library wearing something crocheted. Most of my fellow females in the US wear big t-shirts, shorts and trainers even when they’re not going to the gym. This slightly unnerved me at first. Trainers (or sneakers as they say here) are strictly for exercise purposes. But I soon shed this rather impractical rule.
And trying out a new education system has been one of the best ways to get to grips with somewhere as unique as Alabama.
In fact, I began to shed a few of my particular rules. It has to happen when you are thrown into an entirely new world, not just on holiday, but living, eating and sleeping there for a year. You have to be prepared to try new things, to “do everything” as my friend had advised before I stepped onto the escalator at the airport. And trying out a new education system has been one of the best ways to get to grips with somewhere as unique as Alabama. I am living in it, living thick because I have to at least imagine this as part of my “home”. I have been able to get out to New Orleans, to Nashville, to North Carolina, to places I hadn’t considered myself visiting before. But I drank in their energy as quickly and plentifully as I could.
As a big city girl, growing up in Leeds and moving to Glasgow, the campus, small-town atmosphere of Tuscaloosa, Alabama could get a little claustrophobic. But whenever I feel this, I remind my self that I am miles and miles from home, that the world is vast and that to come to a new place to learn from books and experience is a privilege. And when I look at the star-spangled banner in the afternoon breeze, I remember that there is such a thing as a self-made woman.