A review of Mark Nichols' 'From Azaleas to Zydeco' 

Better reading than briefs.

Out of frustration or boredom with their practices, many lawyers at some point in their careers threaten to write a book. A few I have known have actually done it. When I scoffed at the narrow topic one lawyer chose for his tome, something like, "The Bankruptcy Laws of England Between the Two Wars," he pointed out that virtually everything a lawyer writes winds up in the dumpster or shredder once the statute of limitations has run, but his esoteric tome would endure on library shelves.

Mark Nichols' book, "From Azaleas to Zydeco: My 4,600-Mile Journey Through the South," published by Butler Center Books in 2013, should be on shelves long after the author has quit practicing law. Nichols' 400-page work deserves a broader audience than any of his legal briefs and pleadings. It's entertaining, informative and provocative.

In large part, "Azaleas" is a travel journal Nichols compiled by retracing the 1937 path taken by another author, Jonathan Daniels of North Carolina. Daniels visited large cities and small towns across the South 75 years ago and wrote about what he saw in "A Southerner Discovers the South." Nichols stumbled across a tattered copy of Daniels' book several years ago in a coffee shop that housed a used bookstore. The book caught Nichols' eye because Daniels' swing passed through Florence, Ala., where Nichols' mother spent her high school and college years.

Between 2010 and 2012, Nichols visited 10 of the 11 states of the old Confederacy (not Texas), making all the stops Daniels had toured, and adding a few of his own. He concludes that "the South has changed mightily." No longer "America's backward, third-world region," as it was when Daniels toured it, Nichols claims "the Southern states still make up a most distinctive region." As both a literal and figurative son of Dixie (my mother's name was Dixie and I was born in Southwest Arkansas), I have, in the past, dared to doubt that notion. But Nichols makes a compelling case.

Reading "Azaleas" calls to mind Bill Bryson's "The Lost Continent." Like Bryson, Nichols writes some laugh-out-loud passages. But Nichols aims his wit at his Southern subjects without the sharp barbs that sometimes border on savagery in Bryson's 1989 chronicle of his travels across the United States.

Nichols visits places like Huntsville, Ala., where he finds what he says may be America's longest "fast food, big box" road, and Greenville, S.C., where he meets a store owner named Lester peddling produce. Nichols brands Lester a "fairly typical cracker — friendly, generous, a wonderful story-teller" and outlines his delectable offerings. Lester insists some of these edibles are really "health foods," like "Jerusalem artichokes," pork rinds, fried peanuts and "bee brittle." But in the kind of Southern Gothic surprise that Eudora Welty or Flannery O'Connor might invent in a short story and of which we might be skeptical, Lester has mounted on his store wall a Robert Kennedy quote: "Some men see things as they are and say, why. I dream things that never were and say, why not."

Others Nichols encounters on his journey were not as friendly. His encounters with folks paranoid about strangers undermine the conventional view about Southern hospitality. From Friar's Point, Miss., to Ducktown, Tenn., Nichols notes a scowling, unwelcoming tone. That attitude was especially on display in Norris, Tenn., a planned community built by the TVA.

"In Norris, I met the darker side of cracker culture," Nichols writes. He tells about driving around the suburban town about 20 minutes north of Knoxville. He parks to take some pictures and is quickly confronted by a man in his mid-40s who demands to know who he is and whether Nichols has registered with the chief of police before driving around town.

Much of Daniels' 1937 trek and Nichols' subsequent journey led through out-of-the-way places in Arkansas. Daniels visits Tyronza, Marked Tree and Lepanto. The Southern Tenant Farmers' Union (STFU), formed in 1934, draws Daniels to eastern Poinsett County. Today, there is a STFU Museum in Tyronza, affiliated with Arkansas State University, located in a restored dry-cleaners and gas station that once shared a common wall with the local bank. In the 1930s, this was known as "Little Red Square." Nichols writes that the proximity of the bank spared the socialist owners of the station and dry-cleaners from having their place torched.

Nichols also visits better known spots like Hot Springs and Helena, where he interviews business operators whose livelihoods are tied to prominent local features. In Hot Springs, it is the water bottler using the constantly flowing natural springs. In Helena, eco-tourism on the Mississippi River is the draw. Nichols meets John Fewkes, a transplanted Chicago poet and painter cum river guide, who leads tours on the Mississippi. Fewkes tells Nichols, "It's like being back in a pre-industrial time" because "other than a few spots, you see the river as the Indians and the French explorers saw it."

Nichols does not confine his interviewing to only the common folks. He sits down with the attorney general of South Carolina, who was at the time running for governor of the Palmetto State, and gets an audience with Gov. Beebe, who riffs eloquently on the importance of personality in Arkansas politics, and specifically why Arkansas had elected a run of very talented governors before him — Bumpers, Pryor, Clinton, Tucker, Huckabee — who were all extraordinarily articulate and personable. No one would question that Beebe should have included himself in this talented group.

Nichols also ventures to Stuttgart, to take in the Duck Gumbo Cook-Off and World's Championship Duck Calling Contest, the annual festival held on the weekend after Thanksgiving, with over 60,000 revelers showing up. It is a Mardi Gras for the Arkansas Prairie, and the highlight is the duck-calling contest. "Queen Mallard," the beauty contest winner, is introduced as a warm-up to the real contest, and does her own duck calling while wearing camo pants, camo jacket and tiara.

Nichols' mention of non-Southerners at the duck calling contest evokes the question of whether parts of the South are more like the rest of the country now than they are like other parts of the South. Maybe the South is still a distinct culture in the U.S., but it is also true that people living in Little Rock and Minneapolis have more in common with each other than either group might have with their rural counterparts in their respective states. Similarly, the common ties among rural cultures across the country are stronger, I suspect, than their ties to urban/suburban areas within their own region. This is surely an evolution over the 75 years since Daniels toured the South.

Like any authentic tale focused on the American South, "Azaleas" takes up two central issues never far from the center of life there — college football and race. Nichols checks out a game at Neyland Stadium in Knoxville. He complains about the seemingly endless playing of "Rocky Top" during the game and compares the Vol fans' incessant singing to his alma mater's fans' "woo pig sooie" cheer.

On the much more serious of these enduring two subjects, Nichols notes that it is only 40 miles from Montgomery, the capital of the Confederacy, to Tuskegee, the home of "perhaps the most influential private, historically black university in the country." Nichols, who is white, compares the warm reception he receives while walking down the streets of Tuskegee to the suspicions he had evoked in lily-white parts of Tennessee. He has no real insight into the reasons but calls it a stark difference.

He does have an object lesson about racial progress in the South to offer from a seemingly mundane event in Birmingham, when he was heading to visit the city's Civil Rights Museum. A car rams into his car at an intersection. An off-duty police officer happened to be nearby. She has a heated confrontation with the other driver, who doesn't want the police summoned. A squad car shows up and the officers who worked the fender bender cited the other driver.

Nichols notes that the other driver, all of the bystanders, the off-duty cop, and the officers who arrive in the squad car are all African American. He then asks whether making that observation is "an act of racial prejudice?" He concludes it is not:

"I figure that everyone else was aware of it, too. It's not being conscious of the difference but exploiting it that creates the wrong. I don't think the other driver expected to be treated better by a black policeman because of his race, and I didn't fear being treated worse because of mine."

That's progress, as Nichols sees it, considering it happened in the same Southern city that unleashed Eugene "Bull" Connor and jailed Martin Luther King Jr.

He ties this incident back to an interview he had with an African-American man from Mississippi about "race awareness in ordinary events," something that seems very real in the South. Nichols writes that they discussed how parents and grandparents can't refrain from asking school officials about the race of the other children involved in episodes where their own children get in trouble. Nichols cannot say whether this reflects a basic prejudice or "just an understanding that race complicates those conflicts."

The August news of a white police officer fatally shooting an unarmed black man in Ferguson, Mo., and white officers choking to death an unarmed black man in New York, underscores Nichols' point about the complicating role of race in far more dangerous conflicts beyond the schoolyard. Such tragedies confirm that this is not confined to the South but is an American problem. They also fuel a pattern that Nichols observed. People are "much quicker to perceive racial prejudice than to celebrate those everyday occurrences when racial prejudices could occur but don't."

Could it be that places like Birmingham are in some ways ahead of places like Ferguson and Staten Island, N.Y., in coping with this problem? Can the South, despite or maybe because of its history, show the rest of the nation better ways to cope with racially complicated conflicts?

On a recent visit to Charleston, S.C., I heard an African-American musician greet her audience this way: "Welcome to Charleston, South Carolina, where the Civil War began, and where, eventually, it will end."

One day we will quit fighting the Civil War. We will accept that preserving the Union was best, that the defeat of the Confederacy was better than the alternative, and not just for emancipated slaves. Then maybe another sojourner 75 years from now will follow in Daniels and Nichols' footsteps and report that Southerners no longer view race as the complicating feature it so often is today. Maybe the next traveler will merely conclude that the South is less race-conscious than rest of late 21st century America. That would be a distinctive feature of the South that all sons and daughters of Dixie could celebrate.


Speaking of Mark Nichols, Butler Center Books


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