Truong: A Dash of Nash

What a week in Nashville taught me about Southern stereotypes.

by Valerie Truong | 3/27/18 12:30am

I’m going to be honest: I didn’t apply to any colleges in the South not due to a dearth of high-caliber institutions, but because of the labels I had heard about the region. The South is often portrayed as ultra-conservative, uber-religious and relatively poor. Even if I were in an urban area and the college campus were a diverse and inclusive place, I feared the implied racism and sexism that might surface if I were to step off campus or venture out of the city. As a West Coast native, I don’t know a lot about Southern culture. For too long, I’ve relied on stereotypes I had heard from others or seen in movies and other media to form an overall negative and foreign image of the region.

When I announced to my friends that I would be visiting Nashville and its surrounding areas over spring break, they were naturally surprised. They wondered what I wanted to do there given that I don’t enjoy country music, am a vegetarian and didn’t want to see any particular attraction. In fact, I picked Nashville on a whim. I didn’t want to go home since all of my friends were still in school, and I wanted to go somewhere a bit warmer than Hanover.

Prior to this trip, I had never truly been to the South. I have visited geographically southern cities — Miami, New Orleans, Orlando and San Antonio — but each of these places cannot be categorized as culturally Southern. I acknowledge that one city doesn’t represent the entire region, but my brief taste of the South opened my eyes to a completely different part of America and reminded me to stay open-minded about the people and places I had met and seen.

I definitely did not belong in Nashville, but I never felt unwelcome or uncomfortable. It was initially jarring to walk into a crowded restaurant with my father and be the only non-white people in the room. Yet we were not the only outsiders: a young man sitting at an adjacent table asked the waitress what “grits” were! In Nashville, I discovered a delightful array of cultural expressions including the omnipresence of cowboy boots, Southern accents and live country music played on guitars and banjos. Bars called honky-tonks emanated live music once noon hit, and groups of tipsy people whooped as they pedaled past pedestrians on their Pedal Taverns. I was alarmed to find that bacon was added to side dishes like potato salad and collard greens, and that the “Vegetable of the Day” was garlic mashed potatoes. Greek revival architecture seemed to be a favorite of the area, evidenced by the Parthenon replica and front porches of both government buildings and homes. Nashville does not have its own Chinatown or Little Italy; rather, ethnic restaurants and shops are lumped together in one part of town. After having bún chay at a Vietnamese restaurant, we picked up some pan dulce at the Mexican bakery next door.

American history is also deeply entrenched in Nashville. Most prominently, the scars of the Civil War are remembered in places like Andrew Jackson’s Hermitage and the Belle Meade Plantation. During our tour of the Hermitage, we saw the mansion, grounds and gardens, duel reenactment and an exhibit including a film. I found the mansion and grounds to be grand and beautiful, while the duel reenactment, film, and exhibits were educational. However, at times I questioned the morality of our visit — why had we paid money to celebrate and preserve such a controversial man’s legacy? President Jackson was a self-made man and promoted democracy, yet he promulgated the Indian Removal Act and at one point owned more than 150 slaves. I eventually found agreement and some solace when one of the speakers in the featured film proclaimed that if we refuse to look at and study a topic or person simply because they have committed atrocities, we are missing the opportunity to learn important parts of our history. At one tranquil point, I found myself meandering down a dirt and woodchip path that was made to give visitors a glimpse of a path a slave may have walked down to reach the field quarters. Though I could not begin to imagine what it was like to be enslaved, I was able to learn more about how they lived and survived. Along the way, I read signs depicting objects unearthed by archaeologists that had been left behind by the slave community at the Hermitage. Additionally, there are restaurants in Nashville such as Woolworth on Fifth that pay homage to the civil rights movement via lunch counters to remember the nonviolent sit-ins of 1960.

As the saying goes, don’t knock it ‘till you’ve tried it. Otherwise, you risk shutting out opportunities to meet new people and chances to learn and to have exciting experiences. Prior to this visit, the South was not a place I thought I would ever feel comfortable being in. Yet I’ve realized I felt more at ease than I expected because the places I visited also carried the familiar underlying American values of hope and hard work at their core. These values came in the form of a tour guide sharing his story as our group toured downtown, or a budding singer-songwriter playing his original tunes on an acoustic guitar. The opportunity to visit Nashville has given me a new outlook on the South because it was more than I expected it to be — more accepting, more alive and more fun. Typical stereotypes of the South are harmful because they engender sweeping generalizations that are not all true and cannot be applied to every Southern community or individual. I hope to visit other Southern cities in the future — let me know your recommendations!