tidbits, fragments, and ephemera 1

tidbits, fragments, and ephemera is a usually weekly but not always, sometimes substantial but not making any promises glimpse at some information and news related to Generation X in the Deep South.

Religion Landscape Study, South Carolina

This Pew Research Center study shows that 78% of adult GenXers in South Carolina are Christians, with the bulk majority (19%) as “unaffiliated.” Every other religion added together makes up the remaining 3%. (No year was clearly available for the study.)

Party Affiliation among Generation X by state

This info from 2014 shows that, among GenXers in Southern states, there was a mix of major-Republican and majority-Democrat states. Apparently, at this time Mississippi was no longer considered a state by the Pew Research Center.

University of Georgia launches a newsletter for Generation X alumni.

excerpted: “From a design standpoint, The Fast Times is reminiscent of the popular zines of the ‘80s, where people made magazines that were small in size and easily distributable. Their creators often gave them away for free to increase the spread of their opinions on music, film and other cultural followings.”

Alabama journalist Tim Lockette publishes two novels.

excerpted: “Lockette’s time as a newspaperman lends authenticity to Tell it True. But the 49-year-old said both books are colored by his personal experiences as a member of Generation X – the demographic group born roughly between 1965 and 1980 who were often criticized in popular culture as “slackers” but later gained a reputation for entrepreneurship while steering clear of political activism.”

Demographic breakdown of the Mississippi legislature

These graphs were compiled and are offered by the Center for Youth Political Participation at New Jersey’s Rutgers University. Among the graphs and charts is the category of generation.

“Generation X can flip the script in their communities,” by Kristi Gustavson, CEO of the Community Foundation of North Louisiana

excerpted: “One thing for certain about Gen X, perhaps as with any other generation, is that we refused to adhere to the constraints put upon us by the generation before us.  We sought to very uniquely define ourselves.  Of course, bucking the system is nothing new and certainly not invented by Gen Xers.  Every generation does this to some degree.  What makes each generation unique is not that we choose not to conform it is how we choose not to conform.”

Blues Old Stand, live

The band, which took its name from a tiny community in Macon County, was a staple of the Montgomery, Alabama music scene in the 1980s and 1990s. The band streamed a live show on Facebook in April 2021.

level:deepsouth is an online anthology about growing up Generation X in the Deep South during the 1970s, ’80s, and ’90s. The anthology is open to submissions of creative nonfiction (essays, memoirs, and reviews) and images (photos and flyers), as well as to contributions for the lists.

Dinner on the Grounds

by Luisa Kay Reyes

“Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound . . .” were the strains of music the few of us still present at the yearly homecoming at Old Union Baptist Church tried to sing, with only about two or three of us able to sing any of the verses past the first one.  However,  as we looked around at the silent church building and the largely empty tables lining the church cemetery, it was clear this tradition was fading into the realm of memory.  And our attempt at singing the classic hymn was the best way for us to submit a tribute to the old country church. 

 Traditions come and go. Sometimes for the better and sometimes for the worse, depending on who is speaking. And in this particular case, I was glad that we had experienced the rural Southern tradition of all-day singings and dinner on the grounds. 

For while we were in college at Judson and the University of Alabama in the latter part of the 1990s, after having lived in many different states and even in a few different countries such as Mexico and Brazil, we were considered the international ones in our college church group. After all, we sang opera arias at our parties for our fellow collegians and between the two of us, my brother and I, we spoke five languages including Spanish, Portuguese, German, and Latin, with ease. We didn’t hunt and fish, and I struggled with comprehending what a first down was in college football, so to our Southern friends, we were the least Alabamian a person could get. 

At the same time, to our Northern friends in Ohio, we were practically Gone With the Wind’s Rhett Butler and Scarlett O’Hara. It was mind-boggling to all who made our acquaintance and yet, completely confusing, albeit natural to the two of us. After all, we were born in Tuscaloosa, Alabama and had grown up accompanying our mother during every Thanksgiving and Christmas vacation to interview a lovely and spirited former Miss Georgia, who lived past where the paved road ended.  And the charming Miss Lena was a childhood favorite of all of our elderly shirt-tail kinfolk, to sit for hours while our Mother gathered the oral histories of our Confederate ancestors who were with the 44th Alabama Infantry and buried at Camp Chase. With that kind of pedigree, one would think the matter of our Southern citizenship would be settled; however, since we had also lived in México City during our early childhood in the 1980s, we were thrilled when we toured the Westervelt Warner Museum of Early American Art in Tuscaloosa and spotted some microscopic, yet, traditionally dressed Mexicans in one of the paintings—  much to the bewilderment of the docent who didn’t understand the source of our glee.  While perhaps equally bewildered, our curious college friends soon learned to take this duality of ours in stride, especially on Sunday mornings. Then we introduced them to dinner on the grounds.

As the name implies, food and plenty of it is involved in dinner on the grounds.  So it took very little prodding from my brother to convince our always-ready-for-a-good-and-inexpensive-meal university pals, to join us for a Sunday morning drive down to the Talladega National Forest. With the addresses of our final destination unknown and the directions to get there too vague to give someone who had never ventured down past the outer edges of the city, our patient and hungry friends would agree to meet us at our house. A group of six of us could climb into the same car and drive down together. This would inevitably lead to them undergoing a series of questions from our Mother about where they grew up and where their parents grew up, as she would try to ascertain why, as her linguistically trained ears detected, they didn’t have a Southern accent.  

Time and time again, our mother would be surprised to find out that our friends had the history, heritage, and bloodlines of true Southerners.  But, since people nowadays grow up with commercial media and other influences on their speech patterns, she begrudgingly learned to accept that some of our friends weren’t fibbing— they really were Southern . . . just with a markedly fainter drawl than our dear Miss Georgia. 

Once we turned right into the national forest, the roads would leave their paved cousins behind and yield to their natural state of pure red dirt. Although, sometimes the pure red dirt was mixed with pure red mud. And since we would be driving through the forest, it is tempting to say that we enjoyed the lush greenery of the pastoral countryside; however, the reality is that most of the time we didn’t really know what color the leaves on the trees were.  As the dust from the red dirt roads covered most of the visible foliage, it rendered their color bland and imperceptible. Nonetheless, we would just keep driving down a piece, then turn left where it felt right. There were no street signs or markers for the turn, and nobody over the years had ever sat down to figure out the mileage from the turn off the highway, to the turn past the bushes that the old folks called Keaton’s Corner, to the left turn up the hill.  But it felt right to turn left there, and it usually was. 

Once we made our way up the hill, we would come to a white clapboard country church that by this time felt like a welcome beacon of civilization. Usually, by the time we arrived at this Old Union Baptist Church, it was already surrounded by about two-hundred people and the strains of the shape-note singing could be heard through the car windows. The strains of music that sounded . . . better from far away.  Far, far, away as the men leaning on their pickup trucks parked along the farthest edges of the clearing that was now a makeshift parking lot, would attest to. 

Undaunted, we would park our cars, while our college friends would look around in amazement. While this was a staple of our childhood, this was their first time experiencing such a Southern tradition. Soon, their gazes would be reeled in as we’d be pressed to participate in the singing, since most of the singers were thrilled to see some “young folk” possibly joining their ranks.  However, our contribution was, at best, minimal. Learning to play Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata” on the piano in high school didn’t prepare us for the triangles and squares that make up shape-note singing. (Don’t ask me how it works, I still don’t know.) Nonetheless, we’d sing just long enough to allow us to be welcome, to what us eager college students considered to be the main draw of the day, the dinner part of the dinner on the grounds. 

Out of habit, the morning singing, which usually began at nine or ten, came to a close to allow for the midday meal, my brother and I would rush out to help the older ladies set up their tablecloths and dishes along the long rows of cement tables just outside of the sanctuary, usually with an ant hill or two.  And carefully, we would look to see which sweet potato casseroles looked like they’d be the best ones to eat first and then which green beans with bacon we could eat afterwards, to counteract the sweetness of our dessert first indulgence. For our college friends – and yes, us, as well – were happy that we didn’t have to worry about getting seconds or even thirds.  As it would be traumatic to leave a dish uncleaned and have the elderly ladies thinking they were losing their cooking skills. 

Once the blessing thanking The Good Lord for everyone’s presence and the delicious dinner was said, we would get in line and heap spoonful upon spoonful of fried okra and tomatoes, green beans with bacon, turnip greens with bacon, and lima beans – sometimes with bacon, too – upon our plates and proceed to happily find the best spot for us to indulge in our plates full of southern vittles. With tradition having long before established which families ate at which tables, it was easy for us to find our place along the gray cement tables that were always reserved for us and start eating and eating away.  

We were usually too occupied with our appetites to join in the conversation very much, but we’d overhear the inevitable discussion about family genealogy and how far back people were able to trace the Ward family now. Could anybody link them to the Ward who was a member of the House of Burgesses and helped save the Jamestown colony from starving?  Was there a link between our Wards and the prominent ones in England who married into royalty? Looking around at our rural surroundings, it didn’t seem very likely. But everybody brightened up at the prospect of such a connection, even so.  

Before too long, we would be treated to the cemetery tour. Yes, every dinner on the grounds involves a cemetery.  Which although littered with dormant headstones, often loosens the tongues of some of the elderly folk who take it upon themselves to surprise us with the tales of the times gone by. Tales including peddlers who were seen no more after entering the area and headstrong women who eloped against their parents’ wishes.  For somehow, it isn’t the same to eat outside without the weathered and sometimes illegible headstones of those who’ve gone before, reminding us that as tasty as it is, the food we were now eating, wouldn’t sustain us forever.

Finally, after the hour-long break from the singing that is traditionally allotted for the dinner came to a close, we helped clear out the empty dishes from the table and sometimes, even make a feeble attempt at helping out with the afternoon singing. Truth to be told, our paltry aid hardly compensated for the hearty meal we’d just eaten. Nonetheless, the elderly folk appreciated our gesture, driving the distance from the college And we would make plans to come to the next dinner on the grounds.  For yes, without fail, our esurient college friends would want to join us again.

Definitions, Numbers, An Exodus, and the Stories

We’re talking about somewhere in the range of eight or nine million people, born between 1965 and 1980 and raised in the southeastern-most region of the United States, sometimes called the Deep South. Definitions of this place – the Deep South – are amorphous, and they vary. In contrast to the Upper South or Appalachia, this region-within-a-region doesn’t have clear borders. Some definitions are political, others geographic. I have mine, too.

To me, the Deep South is the lower portion of “The South,” usually identified by severe heat and thick humidity, rampant poverty and obvious inequality, staunch protestantism and fierce individualism, and the historical production of the cash crops that led to the use of human slavery. I don’t think anyone disputes the inclusion of the contiguous states Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, and South Carolina, but there also are solid arguments for parts of Arkansas, Tennessee, and North Carolina, as well as northern Florida and eastern Texas. The Deep South encompasses the Black Belt, but is larger than that, and is part of the Bible Belt, but has more factors to consider. If you were to say that the Deep South, the Black Belt, and the Bible Belt were all the same thing, you’d be wrong. If you tried the easy way and conflated it with the old Confederacy, you’d have a solid half-understanding. And the folks who reduce it to “God and guns” or “Civil War and Civil Rights,” they’re generally correct and somewhat off at the same time.

Similar mistakes are made about Generation X. Media outlets like to use that still image of the Breakfast Club in the library or bring up Kurt Cobain. Sure, okay. Wedged between the Boomers and Millenials, between the turbulent ’60s and the digitized ’90s, we came along during the Cold War and the peak of divorce rates. Before “everybody gets a trophy,” we were a generation marked by a lack of supervision, and the answer for unmet needs was: “figure it out.” Bullying was real, and no one was immune: some kids got humiliated in PE, others in math class, an unlucky few in the free-for-all outside of school. We enjoyed new innovations like cable and the Atari, and for many of us, those became our companions when no one was home. Most efforts to define our generation have been . . . generally correct and somewhat off at the same time.

Generation X was a small generation, and in the Deep South, that held true. These numbers from the 1980 census show a little about us.

Those 10- to 14-year-olds in 1980 were the oldest of us, born mostly in the 1960s, with the two younger groups coming along in the ’70s. Here, I added an extra column, on the far right, with the group just older than us, born in the early to mid-’60s, many of whom were our older brothers, sisters, and cousins. The size of that group is noticeably larger. You can also see, if you follow a state’s numbers backwards from right to left, how each five-year grouping gets smaller, with tens of thousands fewer children in each five-year age range.

Ten years later, in the 1990 census, the shifts are easy to see.

In Alabama, where I live, the state population had grown by 150,000 between 1980 and 1990, but the Generation X population had dropped by 7,000. There were 23,000 fewer 20- to -24-year-old Alabamians than there were 10- to 14-year-olds ten years earlier. (It looks like they grew up and left.) Likewise, in Arkansas, Louisiana, and Tennessee, the population grew, while the number of Xers shrunk. By contrast, Georgia’s state population grew by more than 1,000,000 from 1980 to 1990, and its Generation X population grew by 150,000. (This would have included creative people like actor-writer Tyler Perry, who was born in 1969 in New Orleans and moved to Atlanta around this time.) South Carolina’s Generation X population also grew significantly, by 57,000 people. (That was undoubtedly spurred forward by the popularity of Hootie and the Blowfish, which formed in 1986.) Yet, as a portion of the Deep Southern populace, Generation X diminished in size, from 23.21% in 1980 to 22.52% in 1990.

So, where did those young folks go? To Florida, Georgia, and the Carolinas? And if so, why, and what was there? I had friends who left Alabama for Atlanta after finishing college in the ’90s. The lure of the big city. When I would ask why Atlanta— “It’s better than here.”  Personally, I liked New Orleans and Charleston, even Savannah—smaller, older, less stressful cities.

Of course, I stayed put in Montgomery, watched the local exodus from my couch, and have lived a different kind of life than those who went looking for “better than here.” Born in Montgomery in 1974, I never knew the violent city described in Civil Rights documentaries, that ugliness we sensed but didn’t witness. In the 1980s and ’90s, our mythic downtown – where Rosa Parks arrested and where the march from Selma culminated – was desolate and half-shuttered. Then the revival came in the new millennium, driven in part by very public acknowledgments of what went unacknowledged during my younger years, i.e. Civil Rights tourism. I think that, despite the fluid lives of the thousands who moved, most of us did what I did: finished school, built a life, and watched things change.

About ten years ago, when I was first submitting the proposal for my Children of the Changing South anthology to academic presses around the South, one press’s anonymous reviewer sent back the negative comment that no one cares about the ’70s and ’80s, because nothing happened. I disagreed, of course, and moreover, I wondered how a grown, highly educated scholar in the South could think about those two decades and declare that nothing happened. Maybe he or she just didn’t care. But I do, and I know that there are gracious plenty of stories to be told.


level:deepsouth is an online anthology created in 2020 with the goal of documenting Generation X in the Deep South during the 1970s, ’80s, and ’90s by collecting works of creative nonfiction (personal essays, memoirs, and reviews) about our lives back then and since then. The project is open for submissions.