I was 31 when I left the South. A few weeks later, I found myself at a party in Massachusetts. Word had spread that I was new in town, and a woman came over to me. We talked, I told her where I was from, and she looked surprised.
“Wow,” she said. “You must be relieved to finally be around smart people.”
Before that moment I certainly knew how people viewed the South. We were stupid, uneducated, racists; backwards in every way. Still, standing there at that party, with two masters degrees under my belt, I was left speechless.
Over a decade later I’ve come to call New England home. There’s nowhere I’d rather live than my small New Hampshire town. Even so, at least several times a year someone says something about the South that brings me back to that party.
This election season in particular has been difficult for Southern ex-pats. I’ve regularly seen posts from fellow progressives from the northeast or west have made comments about breaking away from the rest of the country, particularly the more traditionally red Southern and midwestern states. As the election wore on, I was surprised by how my annoyance at these posts grew.
Here’s the thing about the South. Black folks, queer folks, and just plain decent folks stood in early voting lines to cast their votes for this country. They did this even though they have been systematically voter-disenfranchised, with few progressive folks from the national scene caring enough to do much. They organized themselves, despite what everyone else thought of their chances, and got down to the polls or filled in those mail-in ballots, and got this done.
Even before Tuesday, though, they were doing the hard work that most progressives won’t do. How? By simply living in a state that you had long ago given up for red. Black folks, immigrants, LGBTQ folks stood their ground. They got to know their neighbors. They changed minds.
When I lived in Newton County, Georgia in the mid-1990s, I couldn’t imagine the county going blue in a presidential race. I remember when queer friends of mine were gay-bashed in front of the Kroger as they left with their grocery bags, and how another car tried to run me off the road because of my rainbow sticker.
On Tuesday night, Newton County went for Biden by ten points. I’m not going to pretend some of that wasn’t from the county’s growth, including former Atlanta residents. But some of that was from the folks who refused to give up on it. They went to the Kroger, pushed their buggy around the store, talked to their neighbors and refused to be pushed out of their town.
Meanwhile, some progressives in safe blue bubbles in safe blue states posted about how expendable they were. They posited that we would all be better off without those Georgians, and their neighbors. They decided that those folks were a sacrifice they were willing to make so that their lives would be a little easier.
Since the election, I’ve been on Twitter, watching some of these same blue state progressives who had dismissed whole regions of the country, now root passionately for Georgia to go blue. Suddenly the same Georgians who had been beyond hope and expendable days before were now the ones who were going to save out country.
The irony was not lost on me.
It may be days before Georgia is officially called. Regardless, the fact Biden has now taken the lead is extraordinary. Despite rampant voter disenfranchisement, progressive Georgians turned out the vote when we needed it most.
I live in a purple state now. We went safely for Biden this election, and our blue Congressional delegation is staying blue. One Tuesday, though, we also elected re-elected a Republican governor and lost the Democratic majority in our state legislature. Our local state senator, a good man who had managed to turn a red district blue, lost his re-election bid.
My state feels increasingly divided. As I tell my friends, I see a lot more Confederate flags flown off trucks here than I did down South. As a queer and non-binary person, there are times I don’t feel safe here.
I imagine there might soon be a day when progressives rely on Georgia, and write off New Hampshire. The good news is that I know that the same decent people who did the work down South won’t abandon folks like me up here, just because it might be politically expedient.
In gratitude, here’s what I’m going to do. I’m going to donate to the Senate campaigns of Rev. Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff. I’m going to make sure Georgia sends two strong Democrats to the Senate and, God-willing, putting Vice President Harris in role of tie-breaker.
The America progressives should believe in is the one where no one gets left behind, regardless of state borders. If you think that, just maybe, there are some smart folks down South after all, I invite you to join me in making that a reality.