Editor’s Note: For fans of Kathleen M. Jacobs, there’s more to look forward to. The Daily Yonder will be premiering a collection of Jacobs’ creative nonfiction work — six short stories about Appalachian women — in two parts over the next two weeks.
While I couldn’t have possibly known its significance at the time (I was but a child in single digits enamored of the magical mix of twenty-six letters of the alphabet), my street address in a small town on the outskirts of Memphis, Tennessee, would accompany me with every step I have taken throughout my life.
Stage Road and the experiences that took place there became the backdrop for the books I read and, in time, the ones I would write: Nancy Drew Mysteries, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, and To Kill a Mockingbird. As I grew older, the list included the writings of Faulkner and Welty, McCullers, Capote, Wright, Hurston, and so many others. Their (and my) fierce attachment to a life lived in the South became so deeply planted that it could not be uprooted. It’s not just a life lived; it’s the only life any of us chose to live. Its peculiarities. Its flavors (literal and metaphorical). Its intoxicating dialect.
After my parents divorced — during a time that witnessed a racial divide whose simmer grew into a full boil all-too-obvious even to me as I reached double-digits in age — a Black woman named Lila looked after me and my two sisters during the week, until my mother returned home from work.
Every Wednesday after school, we walked with her across the heavily-trafficked, two-lane road, moving eagerly towards the sounds of Ray Charles or Louis Armstrong. The volume increased the closer we got to a small barbecue restaurant that could accommodate perhaps a dozen people inside, but whose exterior construction was no more than a simple, brick-fronted building with a neon orange flashing OPEN sign out front. The whiff of tangy, pork barbecue seemed to move in a straight line to the tips of our noses, awakening our taste buds. And the only flavor that could surpass those found only in Southern barbecue was the anticipation of the sweetness that comes from the first taste of homemade banana cream pie.
Walking along Stage Road to gather empty pop bottles for pennies, crossing the busy intersection to hop on a swivel stool at the corner drugstore’s counter, and sucking the sweet nectar from the honeysuckle blossoms that bordered our property have all stayed with me in such vivid detail that years later they have come alive to an even greater degree with the publication of my debut, YA novel, Honeysuckle Holiday.
When my family left the South for Appalachia one year before I entered my teens, I packed my Southern stories and recollections in every moving box and marking each one with my name and a heart, hoping that they had become so deeply rooted, much like a bald cypress, that every nuance would never fade.
As we made our way north, I learned that the area of West Virginia that we would now call home was technically, at least according to Southern Living Magazine, located in the southern United States. And upon acquiring this knowledge, I exclaimed one of Lila’s favorite expressions with a fervor I’m certain she would have applauded,“Praise da Lawd!” I somehow knew that those words of rejoice would be carried with me until the paper I had also written them on in my journal became yellowed with age.
Rest assured that the South will always be the South. It cannot be replicated, regardless of the efforts or the justifications. The sounds, the stories, the spiritual and cultural refreshment. The unrelenting heat and humidity, which outdoes even the severity of both in the valleys of West Virginia. And while West Virginians might lay claim to powerful home-brewed spirits, a Mint Julep served in a silver julep cup with slow-moving droplets of condensation on its exterior is unmatched by most any other Southern spirit—in fact, by any other spirit.
In Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom!, we find the following words: “Tell about the South. What’s it like there. What do they do there. Why do they live there. Why do they live at all.”
In attempting to answer each of these directives, I find myself chuckling just a bit. Quite honestly, there are no answers to any of them. Because if you’re from the South, you already know the answers and you already know that even with any number of words at your disposal and an endless amount of available time, any answers you attempt to deliver will fall short — very short — of what is felt, what is known, what is inherent in you if you have been lucky enough to call yourself a Southerner. In the end, what is left is the invitation to discover its riches and its struggles and its joys and sorrows for yourself, by walking its paths and talking with its inhabitants and listening to its rich history and learning of its dreams to continue to feed what has grown while still nurturing new seedlings.
On one of my last visits to pick up barbecue sandwiches with Lila and my sisters, I saw for the first time a sign that would change everything: No Coloreds Allowed. I remember looking to Lila, to my sisters, and to the owner at the pick-up window, fiercely wanting to remove the sign and tear it to shreds. Instead, we picked up our order and walked home in silence. That will always be the moment when the stage set changed, never to be placed in the exact same way it had been during my early childhood. As we walked home, Lila hummed “Amazing Grace,” and I took her hand in mine and joined her in a song whose words did not fully resonate with me until I was much older. And that’s when I knew that I’d hold tight to what had been planted while uprooting what needed to be uprooted. Even in my youth, I felt that discernment would be what would lead me, a Southerner, to a future as bright as that flashing, neon, orange-colored sign that read OPEN.
Kathleen M. Jacobs, an author of books for young readers, was recently named ‘Runner-up Best Author of West Virginia’ for 2021 by WV Living Magazine. Jacobs lives in Charleston, West Virginia.