I was born in the South, seventy one years ago one week from today, in the back seat of a ’49 Ford convertible on the way to Emory University Hospital in Atlanta, Georgia, as the story goes. When I leave the South it is akin to what most of you feel when you leave the country. When I am out of the South I feel like the world is a tuxedo and I am a brown shoe. Coming back to the South feels like returning home.
There was a time, before the War Between the States (I refuse to call it by the more popular name because, as the writer Shelby Foote
so eloquently said, “There was nothing civil about that war.”) when the South led the nation in most everything. It was easy to accumulate wealth when not having to pay for the work done by enslaved people. I rue the day the northern people brought Africans here to be enslaved, against the wishes of the Southern people, I might add. It should go without saying, but I will say it anyway, no human should ever be enslaved because, well, you know, how would you like to be a slave?
Once again the South is leading the nation, but not in a good way. This is a map of the somewhat United States copied today from the New York Times. The darker the color the more the Covid:
The South May See the Largest Share of Coronavirus Misery
By: Christine Vestal April 13, 2020
The French Quarter of New Orleans was deserted last month, amid restrictions in place to help deal with the pandemic.
Gerald Herbert/The Associated Press
It looks increasingly likely the South will endure more death and economic loss from COVID-19 than any other region in the country — and not just because Southern governors were slow to shut down businesses and order people to stay at home.
Southern poverty rates are high, social welfare programs spotty and health care infrastructure threadbare. Last year, 120 rural U.S. hospitals closed their doors; 75 of them were in the South.
And emerging data from some cities and states shows that black people — more than half of whom live in the South — are contracting and dying from the virus at a disproportionately high rate.
Because of poverty and limited access to health care, African Americans more often have underlying health conditions — such as diabetes, heart disease, hypertension, obesity and asthma — that increase the risk of death from COVID-19. In addition, African Americans more often work in essential frontline jobs that make social distancing impossible.
“The South is expected to be hit hard, because African Americans are expected to be hit hard,” said Dr. Harry Heiman, a professor at Georgia State University’s School of Public Health. “There’s no getting around that.”
Still, he and other advocates for low-income people say it’s not too late for elected leaders in the South to enact policies that could substantially improve the region’s chances for recovery.
Expanding Medicaid is at the top of every advocate’s wish list. Of the 14 states that still refuse federal money to extend the low-income health plan to thousands of adults, nine are in the South.
Medicaid expansion, which would provide health insurance to hundreds of thousands of low-income people with the federal government paying 90% of the cost, is the best way for Southern states to boost their budgets, according to a study by researchers at Harvard University published last month in response to the coronavirus crisis.
“There is no moment in recent memory more critical than now to bolster Medicaid,” they wrote. “Covering more people in Medicaid is a rapid way to bring needed resources into the health care system and infuse federal dollars into state economies on the verge of a major downturn.”
Virus hot spots in South poised for disproportionate suffering
With equipment shortages coast to coast, local officials are left begging residents to stay indoors.
An street in New Orleans is empty due to the coronavirus pandemic. | Chris Graythen/Getty Images
By DAN GOLDBERG and ALICE MIRANDA OLLSTEIN
St. John the Baptist Parish, just southeast of Baton Rouge, La., has a population of just over 43,000 — and the highest per capita coronavirus mortality rate in the nation.
Frantic local officials instituted an overnight curfew just this week and are begging residents to stay home. But in largely rural Southern states like Louisiana — where social distancing has been spotty, widespread testing is unavailable and hospitals are poorer and farther apart — the response may be coming too late to avoid a public health crisis as bad as the one now engulfing New York.
Hot spots like St. John the Baptist are erupting across the South. The virus is also poised to consume the area around Norfolk, Va., a rural county in Tennessee just north of Nashville and parts of southwest Georgia near Albany, according to models assembled by Columbia University epidemiologists. And without the resources of major cities, these areas are poised to see disproportionate suffering, economic hardship and death when cases peak.
“There is no city anywhere in the world that can withstand the outbreak that would occur if there isn’t rigorous social distancing,” said Tom Frieden, a former Centers for Disease Control and Prevention director.
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
Some of Lyndsey Gilpin’s collection of books on the South.CreditCreditAndrew Spear for The New York Times
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.
Lyndsey Gilpin, founder of Southerly, an online magazine, near her home in Louisville, Ky.CreditAndrew Spear for The New York Times
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.