Growing Up Liberal in the Deep South Was Hell Until I Met My Best Friend

We were different; we were smart; most importantly, we had each other.
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Publish date:
March 18, 2016
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politics, elections, the south

I hate election years. I always have and, unless American politics magically morph into a place of consistently respectful and logical discourse, I always will. Election years are naturally divisive. Increasing political polarization promises the 2016 elections will more closely resemble a WWE cage match than a race for the most powerful position in the world. On the left, Hillary Clinton, the most qualified presidential candidate in history, is constantly ridiculed for her voice, her likability, and her smile. On the right, Donald Trump is an out of control megalomaniac manifestation of all the worst traits of our electoral system. When being well-qualified results in constant ridicule and megalomania results in a rabid slew of supporters, how are the American people supposed to feel? We feel alienated.

I grew up in Mississippi.

This is a loaded statement that generally elicits a look of shock and confusion. New acquaintances attempt to quickly determine whether I am a "bad" southerner or a "good" southerner. The absence of a noticeable southern accent inexplicably leads people to the latter. I am also a staunch liberal; a veritable southern unicorn.

When I was nine years old, I began to understand that Mississippi was home to two deeply polarized belief systems. My belief system was not in the majority. For a class project, we were asked to present something fun we read about science in our spare time. I read an article in a children's science magazine about evolution. I was fascinated with the idea that all living things were connected by a single microorganism. I giddily shared this information with the class. My teacher's face communicated deadpan disapproval; perhaps even a tinge of worry. After the presentations she pulled me aside and said, "You know, not everyone believes what you just said."

I was confused.

"Some people believe that theory is against God. You should present on a different subject next time, okay?"

The following year brought the 2000 presidential election and with it an aggressive proliferation of conservative pride. I lived in a sea of "Bush-Cheney" bumper stickers and my classmates turned into miniature Fox News pundits. I knew my parents were voting for Al Gore and Joe Lieberman. I parroted their opinions because I was ten and that is what children do. When my teachers and classmates asked who I supported in the presidential race, I answered honestly and soon learned to brace myself for the accusations of stupidity sure to follow.

To be fair, my teachers never insulted my family's liberal stance, but they certainly did not stand in the way of my peers who did.

I remember sitting at the lunch table and being told by a classmate that my family and I were "horrible" for voting Democrat after the "disgusting" things Bill Clinton did in office. I remember being at recess when my friend told me that voting for Al Gore was a sin.

"Why?" I asked.

"Because he believes in abortion."

"What is abortion?"

"Abortion is murdering babies for no reason. If your family votes for Al Gore, they're okay with killing babies. That's a sin."

I remember sneaking into the driveway to peel my mother's "Gore-Lieberman 2000" bumper sticker off of her car. I was tired of constantly having to defend myself.

And then Claire came along.

I noticed that Claire was in my class on the first day of homeroom in 7th grade and I chose to sit across from her. Our morning discussions ranged from fashion to television shows pertaining to fashion to computer games in which you could fashion the characters' ensembles and homes. The topic of choice annoyed our sole tablemate, a boy with a first name that consisted of a combination of not one, but two of the names of Jesus' apostles. Our friendship grew throughout the year, and soon I considered Claire to be one of my best friends. My entry in Claire's 7th-grade yearbook read, "Claire, I am so glad that I've FINALLY found someone who loves shopping ALMOST as much as I do. Love, Anna." It took up the entire page.

As 8th grade began so did another painful election season in Mississippi. At 14, I had become accustomed to the southern liberal's mode of survival: don't talk about politics, deflect all beginnings of a discussion about politics, and wait until safely in the company of other known liberals to air repressed grievances. Thankfully, the 2004 election lacked the tempestuous fervor of the previous election. While I despised Bush, I was not particularly inspired by Kerry either. I remember watching the 2004 election results with a feeling of doom as state after state went red. I was embarrassed for our country and the mess we brought upon ourselves. Surrounded by rabid conservatives, I was concerned we were hurtling toward self-destruction.

That year also marked the release of Green Day's aptly titled song and album, American Idiot. At the time, Claire and I were in a "gifted" visual arts class that dedicated the majority of the period to watching music videos on VH1 and aimlessly throwing extra sharp pencils into the ceiling tiles. Claire and I endured one pointless hour of "arts" education together every morning. When "American Idiot" was played, we were both transfixed. Our jocular peers continued throwing pencils at the ceiling.

"Don't wanna be an American idiot/Don't want a nation under the new mania/And can you hear the sound of hysteria/The subliminal mind fuck America."

I was not quite sure where Claire fell on the political spectrum. Based on a few passing comments, I was inclined to think that she was left-leaning, but, in the south, you can never be sure without an explicit proclamation. One day, when we were walking back to the main building from our class, Claire turned to me and said,

"Don't you LOVE American Idiot? It pretty much sums up my frustrations with EVERYTHING."

"YES!" I nearly shouted.

"I just cannot understand how people can support Bush. I don't get it."

We talked like this until we reached the main building and bonded over our teenage pride in feeling like we had discovered something that spoke uniquely to us. We were different; we were smart; most importantly, we had each other.

After that one short talk, Claire and I didn't tackle the subject of politics again. At the time, it was enough for us to know that we each had a kindred liberal spirit. Perhaps we didn't want to push the conversation further because we were worried our opinions would suddenly diverge and we would be alone again. It was safer to remain in limbo. Instead of politics, Claire and I frequently discussed the pros and cons of high heels.

One night during the summer after 9th grade, I was at Claire's house. We were doing the activities teenage girls do at such hangouts: poring over fashion magazines, watching rom-coms, and listening to Christina Aguilera. Somehow, our conversation shifted from the wearability of floral Doc Martens to politics. It was just Claire and I. None of our other friends were present. It was a rare moment where we were no longer bound by self-censorship.

We were safe. Conversation flowed effortlessly and passionately. Our minds were brimming with a surplus of ideas, desperate for an outlet. We spoke openly on subjects ranging from religion to abortion, welfare to women's rights. Claire and I sat directly across from each other on her bed, cross-legged, our words trying to keep pace with our thoughts.

Smiling, Claire said, "I am so glad I finally found someone who thinks about things the same way I do."

I finally felt understood.

Nearly 10 years later, Claire and I are still on the same page politically.

We are big Hillary supporters and to be completely honest, we've been ready for Hillary since 2013. One of my favorite things about Hillary Clinton's campaign has been women banding together in support of her in the media. In a victory speech after winning Florida, North Carolina, Illinois, and Ohio, Joe Scarborough, Howard Kurtz, and Brit Hume publicly criticized Hillary Clinton for not smiling enough after such a big win. Twitter erupted in rebuttals and the media fiercely reported on the incident. New York Magazine, Salon, NPR, Slate, Mashable, Glamour, and The New Republic all reported on the subtle sexism behind these comments. All of these articles were written by women. Neera Tanden, president of the Center for American Progress, and Po Murray, vice-chair and co-founder of Newtown Action Alliance, both tweeted in support of Clinton.

This accidental community of ladies wanting to do right by other ladies is like a nationwide friendship. It makes me happy and it gives me hope.

Claire is getting married in June. I am a bridesmaid in her wedding. At her bachelorette party, we were asked to write Claire a letter about our favorite friendship memory. I couldn't settle on just one, so I wrote a long list of experiences from our decade-long friendship. I wrote the last memory in all caps. It was the most important to me: "IN 9TH GRADE WHEN WE DISCOVERED THAT WE WERE BOTH LIBERALS AND WERE SO HAPPY TO HAVE EACH OTHER. LOVE, ANNA."