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Kent Bernhardt: Southern hospitality

It’s very possible that by the time you make your way to the end of this column, my southern credentials will be called into question.

I’ve lived in the south all my life.

I was born and raised in the Piedmont section of North Carolina, just a little over an hour away from Mayberry. In fact, the town I grew up in could practically be Mayberry. It’s small, just under a thousand residents, and everyone says “Ya’ll” when addressing a group.

The last guy who said “You all” just disappeared one day. No one knows what really happened to him, though there are several stories going around.

In this new age of revelation and boldness, I feel compelled to say something that may be uncomfortable to hear. Perhaps impressionable southern children should leave the room.

While at a wedding reception recently, a younger woman hailing from Kansas joined my table. I estimated her age to be somewhere between 40 and 45, which is something a southern gentleman never does out loud. Guessing a woman’s weight is another.

She had short cropped blonde hair, a pleasing personality, and as she conversed with others at our table, I found myself drawn to her comments.

Perhaps they were partly inspired by alcohol, I’ll never know. They were frank and to the point, unlike the endless small talk that had consumed my evening thus far. So I hung on every word.

Here’s the sentence she spoke that still echoes through the hallways of my brain:

“I’ve only lived here a few years, but I have observed that southern hospitality is real – if you belong here.”

With my attention fully in her grasp, she continued.

“Southern hospitality seems to be reserved for southerners alone. It flows freely among those who think, dress, speak, and act like a southerner, but it’s rationed cautiously to people who are different. They seem to have to earn it.”

I surprised myself by immediately recognizing the truth in that statement. Her words weren’t in any way condescending. They were the honest observations of a newcomer among us, a woman trying to fit in to a new culture.

I learned that she is a woman who already knows that “Bless your heart” is one of the most condescending things you can say to a fellow human being. Translated from its original southern, it means “You poor little thing, you don’t have a brain in your head, do you.”

Like a sinner who heard a stirring sermon, I felt a bit convicted. I told her she isn’t alone. And I told her that I am glad she’s here, “just like you are”. I found her somewhat refreshing and courageous.

I love the south and most of the people in it. I love its beauty, its charm, and its sweet tea.

But what isn’t so sweet is the way we sometimes treat people who have migrated here from other areas and cultures, like you must first learn and accept our ways before you will truly be invited into the fold.

I had friends who left here for that very reason. Their words going out the door were “We never felt like we really belonged here. We felt we had to become like all of our neighbors before we were accepted. We just couldn’t do that.” And westward they returned.

Can that be true? It can, and it often is. And if you’re thinking “She just needs to turn herself around and head back where she came from,” you’re part of the problem.

We’re all a little different, and that’s a marvelous thing. God forbid we should all be the same. Even though I’ve lived here all my life, even I am still a little out of step with southern culture from time to time.

I confess to you now that I don’t particularly care for barbeque or the music of Elvis. Give me a slice of good pizza or a cheeseburger while I turn up some Chicago.

There, I’ve said it. Am I still welcome here?

Kent Bernhardt lives in Salisbury.

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