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On Being a "Belle"

Posted by Chuck Reece on

On Being a "Belle"

“I was planning my wedding in Charleston, where I grew up in the Lowcountry, and I was decorating my first house in Maryland, and I was looking for lifestyle inspiration that was Black and Southern at the same time, because I'm Black and I'm Southern all the time.”

— Michiel Perry, owner, BlackSouthernBelle.com

Michiel Perry helped pull me out of an intellectual rathole of my own making.

It’s no secret to anyone who knows me that I’m obsessed with this question:  How is it that Southerners of all persuasions love the traditions of our region, despite the fact that the South’s history is, to put it politely, an ugly one?

I’ve wrestled with that question in hundreds of ways over the years, consulting books, magazines, even the archives of academia. Lately, I had been wondering about an idea that Southerners consider quite holy: Southern hospitality. So I did what I usually do with the books, the magazines, and the academic papers, and just wound up more confused. When I get myself wound up in a confusing knot like this, I’m smart enough to know that the first thing I should do is sit down on the couch with Stacy and tell her what I’m confused about. She listened to me, then asked me a simple question, “Have you seen this website called Black Southern Belle?”

Say what? In my mind — and I doubt I’m alone in this perception — the term “Southern belle” brings to mind the face of one Scarlett O’Hara, the lead character in an 81-year-old movie that did more than any film to cement the false mythology of the South’s “lost cause” into our national culture. So why, I wondered, would a Black woman choose to adopt the term for her website?

I knew I had to talk to Michiel Perry. Her website — filled with style and entertaining ideas — was launched five years ago, and the first lesson Perry taught me was that she was by no means the first Black woman to think of herself as a Southern belle. She told me how she proved that to herself when she was dreaming up her website and working in public policy in Washington.

“I just started going around looking on Instagram and at hashtags. I looked up the hashtag ‘Southern Belle,’ and about a third of the women using the hashtag ‘Southern belle’ were Black,” she says. Then, I looked up the hashtag ‘Black Southern Belle,’ because I already had a lot of friends who called themselves that, even in my D.C. network, which was pretty much exclusively Black Southern women, and they were already using the hashtag ‘Black Southern Belle.’

“It's not a new thing, so I don't ever try to take any credit,” Perry says. “I just always say, ‘Look, I just decided to make it a website,’ but it already existed way, way, way before me. It may be a loaded term, but it’s empowering, and it existed way before me.”

Perry’s argument is that Southern hospitality is a value shared by all Southern women — and that it’s influenced more by specific regions and by the simple fact that in the South, there is more frequent interaction among people of all colors.

Where Perry grew up in the Lowcountry of South Carolina, she describes a “deep in the woods” brand of Southern hospitality that revolved around whole-hog barbecues with the produce of her grandfather’s hog farm. As she tells the story, I’m reminded of how my family in the North Georgia mountains came together at harvest time to string beans, shell peas, and to put up the bounty of the season so we could all make it through the winter.

“I think everyone has their unique version of Southern hospitality, how Southern hospitality plays out,” she says. Perry lived in small towns and big cities around the South before settling in an 1890s farmhouse in Walterboro, South Carolina, back home in her native Lowcountry. And everywhere she’s lived, she’s seen the distinctions between what Southern hospitality looks like.

“My husband's family's from Pensacola, and what they do is different, too,” she says. “Even within Black Southern Belle hospitality, that looks different, depending on where folks are at, especially with the church traditions. I'm AME. My husband's family's Baptist, so how our celebrations look are different. I think AME churches have a little bit more formal celebrations, and then Baptist churches are a little less formal with theirs, but neither one is bad or good. It's just different.”

Five years of running Black Southern Belle have also confirmed a belief she always held: that because we have more interactions across the color line down here, Southern hospitality winds up having more common elements that cross the artificial barriers of color.

“I get a lot of followers who are not African American, but they grew up in a town with historically Black colleges nearby,” she says. “They adopt some of those things. They’ll go to (a Black college) homecoming because that's what's there. It's a small town. What else can they do, right? They go to those celebrations because that's thing to do. I have plenty of followers who are in big cities now, and they tell me, ‘I grew up in a town that was majority Black, and I did adopt some of these cultural things.’”

Perry sees the crossover particularly in small Southern towns like her own home in Walterboro, with its population of about 5,000 people in Colleton County, about 50 miles west of Charleston.

“Compared to other places, I think, our interaction (in the South) is even stronger, especially in our smaller towns,” she says. “In small towns, everyone goes to the same Walmart. Whatever skin color you are, there's only four stores. We go to the same Tractor Supply. I think you're actually interacting more when you live in a small town in the South than anywhere in the country, just because of the way it's set up.”

My chat with Michiel gave me new ways to think about Southern hospitality. It taught me that the idea doesn’t belong to a particular group; it belongs to all Southerners. It taught me that Southern hospitality is something that all Southerners, no matter the skin color, have shaped, both in ways we’re conscious of and ways we haven’t really thought about.

And it definitely taught me that any Southern woman who wants to call herself a “belle” is absolutely free to do so. Ain’t nothing that Scarlett O’Hara or any Scarlett wannabe could do about it. 

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