It is undisputed that the American South has long struggled with issues of color. Its history is deep with painful and bottomless scars. Today this region is home to a diverse spectrum of people of color as various ethnicities call this their home. This includes thousands of South Asians—more than 100,000 in metro Atlanta alone. Many South Asians had immigrated to the United States prior to the mid-1960s, and more came to the United States after the 1965 Immigration Act was signed by Lyndon B. Johnson. Largely representing India and Pakistan, doctors, researchers and other professionals—people who had the means to a good education first, and then the means to travel out of the country immigrated to cities like Boston, New York, Chicago and Los Angeles and into robust university towns where scholarly achievement was valued more than elsewhere.
South Asian immigrants, a very small minority then, remained sheltered, and often struggled with access to amenities, primarily because of their obvious unfamiliarity of a foreign culture. Some of their earliest struggles included limited access to ethnic groceries, social isolation, and often, depression. Jibes often came from locals and political leaders, who used racial divides and lingering segregation tactics to “other” any non-white identities.
As these once young immigrants aged, they sought warmer regions and many settled in the American South. As they acclimatized to this region, and as their children grew up to become contributing community members, they also wondered: what did it really mean to be a South Asian in the American South?
The South Asian community is often characterized by its friendly and social ways, and its business acumen. Of the many ways it contributes to the richness of the American South, they have found a genteel balance between their identities, and ways to share space with those around them. They are visible in all walks of life, contributing to the workforce just as much as anyone else—from working in a grocery store or gas station, to being teachers in the public school system, and also holding white-collar jobs and owning businesses.
This community has found integrative, positive ways to become part of the cultural makeup of the new American South. Unlike their challenges from nearly six decades ago, dozens of ethnic stores can be spotted in every town with a large supermarket. There are places of worship and routine public cultural events that highlight the diversity of their inherited culture, all shared in what is their adopted homeland, to make a thriving community.
The desire for representation and nostalgia is strong on many fronts, and the community strives to make it available to consumers recognizing the complexity of the region. What was once exotic, a novelty, or foreign has now become something accessible, familiar and often, homegrown, based right here in the American South. A culture steeped in hospitality, tradition, and strong connections to home, both near and far, the South Asian diaspora has translated its love of community connections into tangible forms that engages its friends and neighbors.
One way is through food. Many use their cultural duality to showcase their blended personalities and lives on a plate. Many chefs of Indian or South Asian origin who call the American South their home have been nominated this year alone for the James Beard Award, a growing trend. The award represents the gold standard of excellence in the culinary profession, and has showcased that the South Asian culinary scene goes far beyond the strip mall “curry” joints and packaged versions of “curry powder.” They shine more light onto the fact that two culinary worlds can seamlessly blend to create a refreshingly inspired cuisine.
The American South is also home to many authors of South Asian origin, who use their platform to shine light on their culturally complex roots and contemporary life. They use their words to invite readers into their corner of the world, and extend their perspective into mediums of mass consumption with a single mission, to erase discrimination and influence positive growth.
As a food writer and author who now calls the American South her home, I see a strong presence of the South Asian community in both these disciplines. But overall regional reach and name recognition in the masses and in our own home communities is limited.
When I contributed content to Sunday spread in a local news article some time ago, my contribution filtered to the bottom of the list, obviously weighted by celebrity status. However, the writer later admitted to me he did not know that I was a local food writer, even though I had been writing for several years and had lived in metro Atlanta for more than a decade! I remember being uncomfortably stared down in a fine dining restaurant in small town Georgia as I dined with my family after a reading at the local bookshop next door, for no other reason except that my family and I were a shade too brown. Our presence made “them” uncomfortable, but no one asked “us” how we felt being othered, being the center of loud and obnoxious whispers clearly aimed at us, the adults, but also horrifyingly at our self-conscious pre-teen daughter. In the recent past, many local law enforcement agencies did not regard the seriousness of the spate of burglaries targeted at South Asians as cause for concern, action or even inquiry. We were a victim of such a burglary, and I am saddened not only by the dispassion towards us, but also towards each of the hundreds of victims like us spread across the entire region, victimized over a span of more than 10 years.
Whether by design or coincidence, a recent Food & Wine Festival showcased only a handful of chefs who took on the hefty burden of representing and paying homage to their culinary roots, and the vast and dynamic South Asian cuisine they loved and had inherited. Each year, America’s largest independent book festival, the Decatur Book Festival, sees only a handful of authors of South Asian descent on the front stage, or represented in the author booths, even though the organizers have been trying to change these optics. This lack of representation is more common in micro-regional book festivals in the American South, the very destinations more accessible to a local community that seldom recognizes the diversity of their own neighbors.
In a regional, food-centered academic group, I have seen little representation of South Asian food traditions, even though the community has been part of this region for more than half a century. I see fewer cooking schools embrace communities of South Asian descent, as they would others. Some would rather pay a premium to bring in a personal chef who teaches European cuisines from afar, than invite a local chef, author, or teacher of South Asian descent. Many establishments don’t venture outside their sheltered spaces or concepts of color and people of color. There are fewer opportunities to showcase the work of South Asians outside galleries or museums. Print, audio, and visual media seldom cover cultural events, unless it is to showcase a world-renowned artist, the event helps a political office and their public relations, or if the issue/event evokes shock or horror. I seldom see representations of South Asian entities in local print magazines, unless it is an ethnic magazine. In some cases, it even appears that these agencies subtly alter eligibility criteria to control inclusion, coverage, and/or representation. South Asians seldom see themselves represented in power positions in the media that represent communities they are working to build, helping prosper, even though they hold positions that impact the growth of the community—at whatever scale is being measured—city, county or state. These acts subtly reinforce the othering notion among those who solely rely on the limited scope of these powerful agencies.
On some days, it appears that the American South has still not come to terms with the cultural identities of those who don’t look like them, particularly in the fringe of urban communities where the old and the new collide. Some rely on the ruins of colonialism to reinforce the ideas of a colored individual, suggesting servitude or submission, simultaneously challenging their rights, ownership, and rightful place in this region. Some support the unspoken Southern culture that reinforces inaccurate stereotypes offering only marginal representation, if any, to people of color, particularly brown people. Even in this day, curios from a colonized, underprivileged, romanticized, nineteenth-century vision of the South Asian community remain scattered in the rural American South in vintage shops and parlors. First and second-generation immigrant visitors can only cringe in disgust. Much like the curios themselves, their existence is politely accepted, like a decorative novelty, but most often brushed away in a polite Southern nonchalance. It is not that intentions are misplaced, but that their tainted history is not recognized, acknowledged, or considered important enough to be regarded. This, even though it is clear that the American South is no longer just black and white. It is never okay to display a statuette of a dark-skinned, semi-clothed turbaned individual in a place of hospitality that is meant to welcome all.
I wonder about the essence and the true meaning and continuity of the term “Southern hospitality” in this day. A region that often struggles with its own identity, many are unable to see the larger picture of how far they have come from the dark days where discrimination, discord, and othering was common—where equal rights were ignored. Is it still about magnolia-lined streets and tea rooms that serve sweet tea in the late afternoons, but allow dark shadows to emerge at night? Or is Southern hospitality more than that?
I feel there can be, there is, room for everyone in this new American South. The American South presently encompasses the spectrum of colors and is a vibrant, thriving region that has the capacity to embrace all. I feel that the new American South can work towards representing a robust community that needs no specific reason, date, event, venue, festivity or celebrity to celebrate each other, except in rejoicing in their shared humanity, and that they all call the American South “home.”
Image credit: “Black Eyed Peas With Poori” © Nandita Godbole 2019