Presidential debates, both Democratic and Republican, were held in Charleston, South Carolina recently in anticipation of that state’s primaries this Saturday, February 20. Travel writer Paul Theroux visited South Carolina, too, but avoided large affluent areas like Charleston, instead choosing to frequent the backroads where residents, mostly black, are struggling to make a living. Presidential hopefuls would do well to follow in his footsteps.
In town after town, Theroux found that factories have closed, corporations taking advantage of trade regulations that over time have made it cheaper to produce goods in countries like China and Mexico. With major employers moving out, the jobs lost have not been replaced. Unemployment, needless to say, is high. Government aid? A trickle rather than a flood. Theroux found that the U.S. is willing to devote millions of dollars into efforts abroad while neglecting its own citizens. He also cites Bill Gates, whose foundation targets causes in the developing world, and the Clinton Foundation, which has neglected to even help out Bill Clinton’s hometown, Hot Springs, Arkansas.
Allendale, South Carolina, less than two hours away “from the mansions and gourmet restaurants of Charleston,” is a case in point. There Theroux met Wilbur Cave, who graduated from college then returned to his hometown to run ALLENDALE COUNTY ALIVE, a nonprofit that is attempting to revitalize the local economy. Wilbur’s organization operates on a budget of less than $250,000, although funding has dropped because of cuts, economies, and lack of donors. Theroux told Wilbur that on a trip to Africa he discovered that the U.S. government had granted $360 million to improve Namibia’s education, energy, and tourism sectors. “Around $67 million had been earmarked for tourism alone, though it was mainly European tourists, not Americans who visited Namibia,” he writes. Wilbur responded: “Money is not the whole picture, but it’s the straw that stirs the drink. I don’t want hundreds of millions. Give me one thousandth of it and I could dramatically change public education in Allendale County.”
Wilbur is one of the many people Theroux met during his visits to the south (the book is subtitled Four Seasons on Back Roads), with return trips to his home in Massachusetts. Although Theroux has traveled all over the world (his many books documenting his journeys, including The Great Railway Bazaar, focusing on Asia, have been bestsellers), he had never taken the time to visit America’s south. He made the decision to travel by car, not only to avoid the degrading experience of airline travel, but to give him the freedom to stop whenever and wherever he wanted. “Even the lowest jalopy is better than a first-class seat on a plane, because to get to that seat you are forced to submit to the indignities of official scrutiny and a body search,” he writes.
Theroux had another advantage when traveling through the south. While his name and books are well known in many parts of the country, most of the people he met in the south’s small towns had never heard of him. They saw him as a visitor who was curious and eager to learn about their lives. Theroux’s books are about his travels, but they are really about those he meets along the way. He has a gift for getting people to open up to him and he writes about those he meets in the south with insight and compassion.
Theroux discovered things about the south that won’t come as a surprise to readers. Racism is still a factor; the Ku Klux Klan more than a horror story from the past. Along the way, he stopped in at several gun shows, on the surface an odd choice, but one that revealed a lot about the attitudes of the people. “That’s when I began to understand the mood of the gun show,” he writes. “It was not about guns….The mood was apparent in the way these men walked and spoke: they felt beleaguered, weakened, their backs to the wall.” That feeling, he surmised, was as old as the south, going back to the Civil War. “A persistent memory of defeat.”
Despite the hardships among those he encountered, Theroux also found that they were proud. Religion was front and center (he visited many churches), so were family and friends. Those that had little were ready to give all that they had to help out a neighbor. The people Theroux met – black and white – shared their time, their food, their families, and their homes with him. Chances are they would also open their doors to the presidential candidates – if any of them cared to visit.
Deep South: Four Seasons on Backroads
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