Southern Girlhood and Misconceptions: A College Student’s Perspective

Bankston Creech is a talented poet, writer, and performer who hails from Alabama. A sophomore at Bryn Mawr College in suburban Philadelphia, Creech’s relationship with being Southern was in flux throughout her childhood.  Now, she has reoriented her perspective on what it means to reckon with the nuances of Southern culture and identity.

We sat down to talk about home, youth, and the internalization of pervasive misinterpretations—especially in academic circles. Our conversation quickly shifted to explore the erasure that happens in the homogenous way we address Southern people, how relocating for college shines a light on rampant misconceptions, and the ways in which well-meaning cultural and political discourse about the South actually harms marginalized groups who desperately need support.

Lithium: So you’re from Huntsville, Alabama. Can you tell me a little bit about what it was like, culturally, growing up there?
Bankston: I mean, it’s a very NASA, engineering-centric town. It’s a weird experience, because Huntsville is very much an urban center in Alabama. It's the third largest city in the state, and it attracts a lot of government workers and college-educated people. It's just a very wealthy [place]. Then, if you go outside of the city limits, it's very rural Alabama, so there's a bit of weird whiplash from that.

Lithium: Can you detail your evolving relationship with being Southern?
Bankston: This is actually something I've been thinking about a lot because I just went to South Carolina to see my dad's family. I don't know, especially after coming back from Bryn Mawr, I've been thinking a lot about my accent and being back home. I went to a small private school, and like I said, Huntsville attracts a lot of workers who come here from outside of the South. So a lot of my friends aren’t from the South, and a lot of them don't have accents or have chosen not to have one because of the stigma around it. But it definitely was and is a weird experience being with my immediate family and then going and seeing my dad's extended family, especially because they have really thick South Carolina accents. I just become acutely aware of how out of place I am in that sense.  

And now it gives me a little bit of guilt, because I think I have a more mature view of my family and appreciation for them than I did when I was younger. I had a very cringy and elitist view of the North, or of intellectual centers as existing only in the North. I had this idea of intellectual superiority. To me, anywhere out of the South was more urban, educated, and influenced by the arts—and if I wanted to be accepted or allowed into that sort of sphere, I had to get rid of associations with what in my mind was a less sophisticated, more rural Southern culture. Now I really regret it, and I wish that I had a Southern accent because I think that they're really pretty!

Lithium: What did your college search look like? Was your intention to move to the North, or did you want to stay closer to home?
Bankston: My intention was absolutely to move north. I actually looked at the West Coast, but my dad said no to those immediately because it was too far. But I definitely wanted to go north. 

Lithium: Once you got to Bryn Mawr, how was the adjustment process for you?
Bankston: I didn't have huge adjustment issues, I think in part because I made friends beforehand. I guess the big thing about culture shock was American Poverty class. It was very surprising for me when we started talking about the Civil War, the North versus the South, and what you hadn't learned compared to the different approaches that my education took toward that particular subject matter.  

Also, people would come up to me and ask if the South was more racist or bigoted. It was kind of a lot. If anything, I thought that going up North would be much better and that I would love the political environment and culture switch. To some degree it’s a fact, but I think I gained an appreciation for home. 

Lithium: Have you had any notable interactions with peers after you told them where you're from, or picked up on harmful misconceptions about the South or Southern people?
Bankston: A few people have just asked me if the South is more racist. Someone at school and I got into a little bit of an argument about it, and he made some good points about systemic racism being more apparent in the South. I think that's true and an important thing to note, but at the same time, I do get very defensive. Especially when someone from New York or a liberal area says something, and I'm like, “You don't know the textures of it.”  

I also feel like there's a lot of a erasure that happens with black people, of people of color, of queer people that live in the South when you say that the South is just filled with a bunch of racists and bigots. That bothers me a lot. You can never say something about a place as a blanket statement, because when you choose a particular narrative and use it to vilify or think of an area in one way, you inevitably end up hurting the people in that area who need the most help and the most support.  

(A Queer Appalachia Instagram post that provides greater context for this prevalent and damaging phenomenon is linked here.)

Lithium: What's your take on the culture at Bryn Mawr? Does it feel relieving or a bit frustrating, and how do you interpret the discourse that's constantly happening?
Bankston: I can get a little frustrated. I think there's some surface-level “woke” culture at Bryn Mawr. Growing up in a majority Republican area with very Republican family members, acquaintances, and sometimes friends, I have the thought that my liberalism is more legitimate than the liberalism of the people who are coming from already liberal backgrounds and areas. That sounds really awful, but part of me is like, “You haven't had to fight for this!” 

Also, sometimes I miss that sort of pushback on campus. I think it's definitely a give-and-take thing, because the safety of students—intellectually and physically—is definitely more important than the ability to argue with an incel, but at the same time, I really enjoyed arguing with incels at school. It's a tricky situation, especially in the current political climate. There are people literally undermining and questioning the existence of other people, and I'm acutely aware of the fact that I come from a place of privilege as someone who was in the closet during high school, is able to present as straight, and is not that marginalized at all. I recognize this when I say I miss that debate, that push and pull.  

But at the same time, I do think there’s a lot of nuance that gets lost in the political and cultural conversation at Bryn Mawr—sometimes at the expense of people who need support, who need a voice, and end up getting drowned out.

By Avery Matteo
Collage by Alyssa Kissoondath

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