Sara Pulliam Bailey’s trip to Mount Airy spurred some of my own reflections about growing up in small town North Carolina, watching the Andy Griffith Show, and why nostalgia is dangerous.
Mayberry wasn’t all it was cracked up it to be. To those of us who grew up in North Carolina, in communities which mirrored Mayberry’s ethos and identified with the show, we know the program’s depiction of life in the rural south reflects a version of life in North Carolina which has never existed.
I am fan. I’ve seen every episode. I think the Andy Griffith show is one of the defining television programs in post-war television. However, I don’t believe The Andy Griffith Show paints an accurate picture of what life was like in mid-century America, my home state of North Carolina, or holds up ideals to which America needs to return.
I don’t want to return to a segregated America or North Carolina. Mayberry is a segregationist paradise; white South Africans, Klansmen, and George Wallace would feel right at home. There are no minorities in Mayberry. To hold Mayberry up as a model is to implicit hold segregation as the ideal American way of life. If we argue Mayberry represents a simpler way of life, when things are better; we are arguing that things were better when black and whites lived legally divided lives. I would have loved to have seen an episode where Andy enforced the desegregation of the local school.
To be a paradise, did you ever notice the number of thieves and con artists who make their way through Mayberry? What was it about this sleepy village which made them prey to criminal activity? Studies show that older, lonely, desperate, indebted people are more likely to fall victim to scams than others. Mayberry was a community of older people. This we know. However, viewers were often presented with the image of a healthy community where everyone knew and looked out for each other. This wasn’t the case. Gossip was rampant, isolation was common, and many families were often on the brink of economic collapse. The few wealthy individuals in the town were willing to manipulate the city’s debt to increase their own share of political power in the community. These were the reasons Mayberry’s way of life was always at risk. No one really looked out for each other. Businessmen were willing to gamble with the lives of their employees. Only Andy’s use of shame and guilt created any sense of morality larger than the community’s own self-interests. This was not a healthy place to live.
I currently serve a small community much like Mayberry. I live in rural North Carolina. The local school has no cafeteria. Our children come home for lunch each day. No one locks their doors at night. I’m the pastor of the cute white church. People sit on their porches at night, play their guitars, and sing folk songs. We have an extremely limited presence of law enforcement. Our town drunks are both beloved and belligerent. Paradise is word frequently used to describe where I live. “How it used to be,” is why people come here. Even in our modern day Mayberry, we’ve had heroin dealing, suicides, and an alleged sexual assault all this past year. Mayberry has real problems, problems that would be easy to ignore and a lifestyle even easier to idealize. Except, on the journey from ignorance to idealization, real people get hurt and some even die. Andy doesn’t show up in the end to make it all better.
While we’re wistfully longing for the past, the world is going to hell. It’s not going to get any better by hoping the status quo returns to flawed versions of the nonexistent past. The Kingdom of God, the one Jesus said was coming, doesn’t look like Mayberry. If you want a TV show analogy, I’d say it’s going to look like the Beverly Hillbillies.