No True Southerner

 

George Meldrum, the author’s ancestor who emigrated from Scotland in the first place

by Myke Johns

I love you Atlanta, but it may be my destiny to destroy you.

When I was nine, my family moved from Warren, Michigan to Conyers, Georgia, away from my awesome gaggle of little brown cousins to this ungodly hot land where not only was I the weird indeterminately Asian kid no one knew what to do with, but I was also a YANKEE. Those are generally well-received around here, as I am given to understand.

Fourth grade: Hightower Trail Elementary School, substitute teacher; I don’t think I’d been south of the Mason/Dixon a month when I was called upon to answer a yes or no question in class.

I responded, “Yeah.”

Any readers who happened to have been raised in the South already know my ass is grass.

“What?” she sharply replied.

“Uhh… yes.” I was trying. She was very quietly furious at me and I had NO FUCKING IDEA WHY. My answer was correct, my eyes were facing front, I wasn’t doodling on the desk, I was wearing all of my clothes but yet I was still in that nightmare where you’re at school and everything is going wrong.

“Yes WHAT?” she shot at me. You remember being a stupid nine-year-old nerd? Yeah you do, come on. You’re a little kid who hates being in trouble. You’re never in trouble. Your face gets hot. FINALLY she relents and says “Yes… MA’AM.”

“Oh! Yes, ma’am.”

JESUS CHRIST. If you’ve never lived in the industrial Midwest, here’s a funny thing: nobody says “ma’am.” Like, ever. “Yes” and “no” were sufficient responses in all of the FOUR elementary schools I had attended up to that point. We don’t do titles. I’m sure there are volumes of studies devoted to that cultural curiosity, but the practical upshot was that I got my ass fried by a woman in orthopedic shoes after moving eight hundred miles away from my friends and family because I didn’t realize I had to kiss her goddamned ring.

If I’m being perfectly honest, I think I may still harbor some hard feelings about it.

There are a lot of ways I’m not from around here, a lot of ways I don’t fit in. I’m half-Filipino and my other half, my dad, is a white guy from Detroit. I grew up primarily around the pinoy side of my family, eating my Lola’s pancit and listening to my nanay and my titas conversing in Tagalog and laughing uproariously and not understanding a goddamned word of it. We saw my dad’s side but they were a little further flung—grandma and Uncle David out in Tuscon, Aunt Debbie in Boston. I’ve never known much about his side of the family. I’d always heard we were of French extraction and that we used to have the surname “St. Jean.” Which is fucking cool.

Listen, I was a shrimp with a buzz cut and giant glasses, I was never going to fit in ANYWAY. I’m an immigrant’s kid who only speaks English, I’m an intellectual who dropped out of college… twice? THREE TIMES in seven years. I’m a public radio producer with college radio tastes and a satellite radio mouth. BUT in the almost 30 years that I’ve been living in the South, I have very slowly found my way to feeling at home. I’ve got the family I’ve cobbled together, I’ve got the haunts and hollows where my fellow outcasts and artist friends gather, all of which stand perilously close to prime real estate developments. Home is tenuous and precious.

And then my Aunt Debbie started digging around in my dad’s genealogy and as it happens, I’m part Scottish, y’all.

A man named George Meldrum left Scotland and arrived in Detroit in 1765 and married a French woman. His great-great-granddaughter Matilda married a man named Fabian John, my great-great-grandfather. Most of my people were farmers and such, nothing too out of the ordinary, but my great-great-grandmother Matilda’s uncle Theodore was badass.

Theodore Meldrum was one of ten children. He lived in Ira Township off of Lake St. Clair, not far from where I grew up. And he was a Union soldier in the Civil War.

He was part of the 1st Michigan Engineers and Mechanics which basically spent the war building bridges, boats, forts, mills, and fucking up Confederate railroad lines… and Confederates themselves.

Sherman’s men destroying the railroads in Atlanta. From the Library of Congress

He fought in the Battle of Stone River where he was among not quite four hundred men who barricaded themselves in a corral that was basically wagons and shrubbery and managed to repel the four thousand men of Wheeler’s Cavalry over the course of seven charges.

Theo was with Sherman on the march to the sea and participated in the Grand Review in D.C. at the close of the Civil War.

I’m really glad I did not know this that day in fourth grade. Had I known at age nine that destroying Atlanta was in my blood, I imagine that it only would have served to further aggravate my relationship with this place I was being forced to call home.

Being a first-generation American son of an immigrant afforded me an illusory privilege. Being ignorant of the history of the American side of my family, I had let myself believe I was somehow uninvolved in America’s original sin of slavery. My great-great-great uncle Theodore says I am not. I couldn’t see that I had never been rootless. But that’s the thing about roots.

As we find our own way it is incumbent upon us to do better, to make better. And in my case, to continue a proud tradition of eradicating white supremacy—perhaps not in battle, but in meeting it in the more insidious places it has burrowed. As the second of my line to make his way South, I am obliged to continually ask: am I still bringing fire?

Yes ma’am.

Myke Johns is a writer, musician, and radio producer for Atlanta’s NPR affiliate. He co-anchors WRITE CLUB Atlanta, a live lit series which kicks the ass of most any poetry reading you care to name. His band Meaning of Everything released their debut Party Unity EP in Spring of 2017. His writing has appeared in The Bitter Southerner, Creative Loafing, SLAB, and other discerning outlets.