Last Saturday, the Yale Undergraduate Southern Society (YUSS) hosted their second-annual Fried Alligator fundraiser in the Jonathan Edwards buttery. “We wanted to give people at Yale the chance to taste of one of the South’s weirder foods all while raising some money to help conserve America’s wetlands,” said Sarah Torgeson, JE’ 14, originally from Waveland, Miss. “A lot of people were impressed or shocked by the alligator.”
YUSS, a relatively new student organization, was founded by Kyle Killeen, ES’ 12, and Ray Xiong, SM ‘12, four years ago. According to the group’s Undergraduate Organizations Committee (UOC) description, it aims “to serve homegrown Southerners, those who appreciate the South and anyone eager to learn more about the American South,” reasoning that “the American South has been underrepresented within the student body at Yale.”
Through hosting campus-wide events and activities, YUSS strives to facilitate a better understanding of the South and bring a little down-home charm to campus. Their efforts to correct the misconceptions about southern students raise the question of what it is like to be a Southerner at Yale.
“When I say I was born and raised on the Mississippi Gulf Coast, people automatically assume that I have a certain set of beliefs, political and otherwise,” says Torgeson. The Ivy League perception of the South as “backwards” and southern notions of liberal northeastern culture cause severe culture shock when Southern students travel between homes.
“The South is looked at in the North much how Ireland is looked at by the British: they’re culture rich, but cash poor,” explains Bill Ferris. Ferris, a professor at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, has dedicated his career to studying the South. Originally from Vicksburg, Miss., Ferris would host musicians like B.B. King and writers like Eudora Welty when he was a Calhoun College Fellow and American Studies professor at Yale in the 70s.
Ferris elucidates the effects of the cultural change on southern students when they return home from the Northeast. “When students leave Yale, they go home with an understanding that there are other worlds. They are forever changed by it,” he says. Before one of his friends went off to Yale, a local tailor provided the following mantra as a guide to assimilate: “Dress British, Think Yiddish.” A lot is shared between New England and the South, but according to Ferris, for a Southerner at Yale, a lot has to be relearned when confronted with a different world.
However, some try to fight the impulse to fully embrace the culture of their new surroundings. Elizabeth Henry, CC ’14, is something of a campus celebrity, and has a blog entitled: “Southern Belle at Yale,” where she writes about her day-to-day adventures on campus as a Mississippian. “It’s mainly for the little old ladies at church, friends from home, and their moms,” she says. “My dad will print it out and send it to my grandma because she doesn’t know how to use a computer.”
Not all feel so comfortable. “People at Yale love to spout off insults about the South,” says Tyler Blackmon, JE ’16. For Henry, “Don’t turn into a liberal!” was a common last request friends and family. This experience for Southern conservatives is not uncommon: “I’ve also been asked more than once whether I’m gonna become a liberal,” says Sophia Chen, SM ’16. Others need to fight the presumption that they’re conservatives. “The Southern liberal is a growing breed, as people have begun to realize that caring for the poor is also a family value worth fighting for,” says Blackmon, an active college Democrat.
Stereotyped cultural differences run deeper than politics. “There is a myth that Southern values include bigotry, self-righteousness, and anti-intellectualism,” explains Blackmon. “And though these traits may drive a small minority of citizens in Dixie, anyone who blankets Southerners with these accusations fundamentally misunderstands the Southern spirit.”
Regardless of these cultural differences, one thing remains consistent: Southerners have to reconcile their Southern roots and Northern education when deciding whether or not to return. The conflict that arises leads to a greater appreciation for back home.
“I like to quote Robert Penn Warren, when he says ‘A fish never thinks about water until he’s out of it,’” Ferris explains. It seems common that after Southerners come to Yale they appreciate their home more.
“When I first arrived at Yale, I thought I would not ever return to Arkansas if I could help it, but I have come to appreciate my hometown more and more,” explains Casey McCarthy ES ‘15.
“Ironically, I’ve learned to love my home,” says Blackmon. “For the first time in my life, I am now seriously considering returning to the South after graduation.” Torgesen adds, “People don’t usually leave the South, so when I left, I really was leaving everyone and everything I knew.”
If the goal of the YUSS is for others to understand the South, the transition to Yale for Southerners serves a similar purpose: to teach southerners what matters to them about themselves. It takes leaving the water to relfect on it.