The following article appeared in the venerable New York Times after the last post was composed, and posted, as if by synchronicity…
After getting to know a little about me a fellow in Louisville, Kentucky, Rick Rothenberg, from Indiana, said I reminded him of another Southerner he had known earlier. Rick said, “The man was so Southern he would not even go out of the house if the wind was blowing from the north!”
Reading the New South
A group of forward-thinking, upstart journals and websites are exploding the stereotypes so many attach to this place and its people.
By Margaret Renkl
Contributing opinion writer
Sept. 17, 2018
NASHVILLE — I was a graduate student in Philadelphia when James Watt, the former Secretary of the Interior of the United States, came to campus in 1984. Mr. Watt’s brief tenure in federal office was characterized by an almost cartoonish villainy. Rolling Stone magazine called his attitude toward the environment a “rip-and-ruin view of our natural resources, land, water, parks and wilderness.” That night Watt argued for letting each state set its own air- and water-safety standards, a position that makes no sense if you’re aware that rivers and winds don’t respect state borders.
During the Q. and A., I took my turn at the microphone to make this point. “Sir,” I said, “I’m from Alabama.” Instantly that giant audience of Pennsylvanians broke into laughter. Who was this cracker daring to voice an opinion about federal environmental policy?
Well, that was 1984, you’re probably thinking. Today we don’t judge people by their accents any more than we judge them by their skin color. People know better now.
Except they don’t. The political polarization of our own day means that a region like the South, a red voting bloc in national elections, is a source of continual liberal ridicule, no matter the subject. In June I wrote about the transcendently beautiful Mobile-Tensaw Delta, one of the most ecologically diverse places in the country. When I posted the link on Facebook with a note about its magic, someone commented, “Except that it’s in Alabama.” As though nothing in the whole state could possibly have any value at all.
As stereotypes go, this one surely doesn’t rank among the top 10 most objectionable human prejudices, but it stings even so. Fortunately there is plenty of on-the-ground proof to counter it. Among the most important is a raft of publications, many so new they’re still on shaky financial footing, that aim to convey the genuine complexities of the modern American South. They are planted in the South and created by Southerners, people who love this place but who nevertheless see it all too truly.
Unlike lifestyle glossies like Southern Living and Garden & Gun (which is assiduously apolitical, despite what its name might suggest), these publications blast past sweet-tea-and-moonshine preconceptions to convey the nuances of a region where people are rarely as ornery and dumb as they’re held to be in the national imagination.
The oldest of them is the Oxford American, founded in Oxford, Miss., but now based in Conway, Ark., which was first launched in 1992. (A print quarterly, it has foundered a number of times over the years, ceasing publication until new funding arrived, which somehow always has.) In many ways, it set the tone for all the publications that followed, celebrating the artistic innovations of the region but refusing to gloss over its manifold shortcomings.
The latest issue includes a nonfiction report by Kelsey Norris on a Nashville oral-history project focusing on the descendants of slaves; Beth Macy’s profile of the Appalachian playwright and novelist Robert Gipe; “Bikers,” a poem by the Virginia native Kate Daniels about her brothers (“What foreign lives they lived / With their deer hunts, and their / Love of speed, and their boring jobs / In factories”) and a short story by David Wesley Williams about a hitchhiker stuck in West Memphis, Ark. The story is called “Stay Away From Places With Directions in Their Names.”
The tagline for Facing South, an online publication of the progressive Institute for Southern Studies in Durham, N.C., is “A Voice for a Changing South.” The site focuses on politics, history and human rights, with recent articles on voting rights during Reconstruction, South Carolina’s present refusal to evacuate convicts in advance of Hurricane Florence and delays in compensation for people sickened by the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico.
Scalawag, another nonprofit publication out of Durham, also reports regional politics with a progressive eye, though it covers regional art and literature, too, and includes a section titled, simply, “Witness.” The magazine, which is published online and in print, fosters “critical conversations about the many Souths where we live, love and struggle” and aims to empower “activists, artists and writers to reckon with Southern realities as they are, rather than as they seem to be.” Recent stories confront toxic masculinity, explain how to fight racism through the auspices of craft beer, collect a range of Latinx poetry from around the American South, and report on Syrian cuisine in small-town Georgia.
The Southern Foodways Alliance, based in Oxford, Miss., publishes a print quarterly called Gravy. Despite its name, the journal does more than report on cuisine, continuing the work of the alliance itself by showcasing, through food, “a South that is constantly evolving, accommodating new immigrants, adopting new traditions and lovingly maintaining old ones.” The latest issue includes an article on “The Queer Pleasures of Tammy Wynette’s Cooking” by Mayukh Sen and a profile by Osayi Endolyn of Joe Stinchcomb, an African-American bartender who invented five new cocktails, to celebrate Black History Month. The drinks had names like “Blood on the Leaves” and “(I’m Not Your) Negroni,” and they definitely raised some hackles down there in Mississippi.
For anyone still hoping to define Southern literature, storySouth is an online literary journal based in Greensboro, N.C. It publishes “the best fiction, creative nonfiction and poetry that writers from the New South have to offer,” according to its website. Subjects that seem to play into regional stereotypes can be found there at times. The current issue features a poem called “Roadkill” by Megan Blankenship and one by William Woolfitt called “Grassy Branch Pentecostal Church, Face of Christ on Tin,” for example. But read the poems: This is not your unlamented Agrarian’s Southern literature.
Perhaps the liveliest of the whole bunch is an absolutely wonderful online publication called The Bitter Southerner, an irreverent Atlanta-based site that truly covers the cultural waterfront, celebrating the lunacy of genuine homegrown geniuses, lifting up the unsung heroes of the region, and peeking behind the veil of great cultural institutions, and all while holding power to account in a part of the world where power has too often lost its uneducated mind.
But it’s the newest of these publications that most often captures my own attention these days. Southerly began in late 2016 as a weekly newsletter of investigative journalism, plus curated links to “News Flying Under the Radar” by other journalists around the region. Until this summer, when it received a grant from Solutions Journalism Network, it was funded entirely by Patreon subscribers, who monthly contribute an average of five dollars each through an online portal. Those supporters are still crucial to its survival. Lyndsey Gilpin — the magazine’s founder, editor and publisher — is a Northwestern University-trained journalist based in her hometown, Louisville, Ky., and her weekly reports from impoverished and often oppressed corners of the South have given a microphone to people whose voices are rarely heard in conversations about climate change, environmental exploitation or economic disparity.
In July, Southerly grew into a full-fledged “independent media organization” that “covers the intersection of ecology, justice and culture in the American South,” according to its new website, and already it is taking no prisoners. The site — in partnership with The Montgomery Advertiser and Scalawag — launched with a four-part series on the breakout of tropical diseases in the rural South owing to failing sewage infrastructure. On Sept. 22, Southerly will convene a public discussion in Hayneville, Ala., about poverty-related illnesses and how communities can address the governmental crisis that spawned them.
Southerly’s mission statement sets out some uncompromising goals: “This region stands to bear the brunt and lose the most from the effects of climate change. It is experiencing massive economic shifts from a changing energy industry. The South is the fastest urbanizing area of the United States, but it is also the most economically distressed. Southerners deserve a publication that covers the nuances of their environment, history and communities without being condescending or stereotypical, without parachuting in from large metropolitan areas. The rest of the world deserves to know about the creative ways communities here are adapting to these changes, and the challenges that come with that.”
You could almost call it a mission statement for celebrating — and transforming — the South itself.