A case in point is Mitt Romney in Mississippi during last week’s primaries, who sensed that “things, strange things, are happening to me.” He admitted that he likes grits and greeted a crowd, “Morning, y’all.”
His attempt at caricature was not very successful. For instance, we most often omit the “g” in “Monin,’ y’all.” But you have to give a former governor of Massachusetts credit for tryin’. Bless yo’ heart, Mitt.
His was not a political failing but a cultural one.
If this discussion was political, I would certainly have to point out that the Republican Party — unlike the aloof national Democrats — at least compliments us by acting like it’s glad to be here and ask us (white folks) for our votes.
To pick on Gov. Romney once more, trying to act like you are “one of us” is perilous cultural theater. He is not a good-ole boy and, with a net worth in the hundreds of millions, he’d look foolish at a union convention singing “Solidarity Forever.”
The point is: the best strategy for crossing cultural barriers is to be yourself, and even then you are likely to fall prey to mischievous Southerners who delight in testing your gullibility.
As examples I present three journalists, two who were summer interns at The Star and the third, a pro, Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist Connie Schultz, who came down from Ohio to do the annual Ayers Lecture at Jacksonville State University.
The first intern was a young man who exhibited an unusual degree of self-confidence that may have had something to do with his position as one of the editors of The Harvard Crimson.
After a while, I took him into my confidence and told him he was smart enough to handle the big story in the South: the infestation of grit beetles that were wiping out whole forests of grit trees.
Not only were they causing a shortage of one of the region’s staple foods, they were affecting the North Carolina furniture industry in its competition with the Chinese, who have no grit beetles.
He was surprised to learn that when allowed to mature before picking, some grits grow quite large. There is a 17.5-pound grit in the natural history museum in Jackson, Miss.
Start with Auburn University in developing the story, I advised. Kind and protective colleagues stopped him before he began his research in earnest.
More recently, we had a very bright, nice young woman intern who was not an editor, but the executive editor of The Harvard Crimson.
After she had been at the paper a few weeks, she approached the editor, Bob Davis, with a story idea: “There seems to be a lot of praying going on here.” Bob said he didn’t think that would surprise any readers, but if she wanted to do a story, fine, go ahead.
She thoroughly researched the subject and peppered her story with local examples of public prayers at sports contests, civic club meetings, etc. Her story got no reaction from our readers.
Then came the day when the interns were obliged to have lunch with the publisher, “the great and powerful, Oz.” When our entre’ was served, I turned to the intern and asked, “Would you like to say Grace?” A look of panic registered on her face, and Bob gallantly stepped in to rescue her.
I hope the two young people didn’t resent their mild hazing and that the experience sharpened a reporter’s necessary tool: a healthy skepticism.
Connie Schultz is the exception that proves the rule. She is not ashamed to admit how much she loves her Heinz 57 dog, Franklin, to whom she reads her column out loud when she’s finished.
She didn’t temper her liberal views before a largely conservative crowd, just as she sturdily refused to change her name just because she married U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown.
To the first man who asked belligerently, “Why don’t you change your name!?”, she answered, “I’ve always been called Connie.” Then came the real reason. Her dad, Chuck, worked 36 years at a factory job he hated, but he and his “spicey” wife, Janey, sacrificed so that all their children could go to college.
Change her name? Absolutely not. “I am Chuck and Janey Schultz’s kid.”
She conquered a crowd in conservative, Republican Alabama because she was authentic, the real thing, and they loved her for being herself.
H. Brandt Ayers is the publisher of The Star and chairman of Consolidated Publishing Co.