Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Southern Journals in the NY Times

The New York Times is featuring today a story about Southern publications that, each in its own way, seek to engage the issues presented by Southern culture, especially at the present time. 

The story is entitled In Southern Magazines, Easy Pleasures and Hard Questions, go here.

The piece is by Richard Fausset, who is the Times' corespondent in Atlanta. 

He focuses on this question: "How much to sing the song of the South, especially amid genuine evidence of racial progress, and how much to be a skeptical voice in a place where issues of race and class often shadow conversations about even the most innocent pleasures?"
These issues are -- or certainly ought to be -- of concern to Southern photographers, especially now, in this season of Trump and Charlottesville, as we try to make sense or at least meaning out of the unfolding events of our time. 

And also because the publications that Fausset cites use a whole lot of photographs.

Fausset focuses primarily on 3 publications -- Atlanta's The Bitter Southerner, Durham's Scalawag, and Charleston's Garden and Gun

Southern Living does get a mention. Other regional and often university-based publications like UNC-Chapel Hill's Southern Cultures and the University of Mississippi's (though now the University of Central Arkansas's) Oxford American rate only the briefest of mentions.  

The good news is that the editors of these publications -- the ones whom Fausset quotes -- are, on the whole, optimistic.

Fausset quotes Alysia Nicole Harris, 29, an African-American who grew up in Virginia and is an editor in chief of Scalawag to the effect that “The South is not this homogeneous place — it has a deep history, a really full history, and one that’s not just for the upper class. 

"The demographics are changing," Harris says. "And ultimately, we believe that the South is going to be the voice that emerges to lead this conversation about trauma and healing, because here is where the trauma was the thickest.”

But The Bitter Southerner, and its editor Chuck Reece, receive the lion's share of Fausset's attention. And richly deserved attention it is, as I suspect anyone who spends time on The Bitter Southerner's website will agree. 

Fausset tells the story of The Bitter Southerner, describing Reece as "a white voice, simultaneously proud and conscience-stricken, screaming to be heard over the stock-car roar but always cognizant that there are other voices, in other flavors, that may deserve a hearing even more."

In their interview, Reece remembers his founding vision for the publication:

"If you are a person who buys the states’ rights argument … or you fly the rebel flag in your front yard … or you still think women look really nice in hoop skirts, we politely suggest you find other amusements on the web. The Bitter Southerner is not for you.

The Bitter Southerner is for the rest of us. It is about the South that the rest of us know: the one we live in today and the one we hope to create in the future.”

Fair enough -- although as I read these remarks, I am reminded of bygone days, and bygone hopes that have not panned out as we expected. 

I am a child of the Jim Crow South, the South of the 1950's and '60's, the segregated South, when young Southerners lived in two different worlds. 

Whatever we shared, we shared it across the barriers that divided our worlds. 

One vehicle for sharing was WLAC, the radio station out of Nashville that, at night, you could hear across the South, even in my room in North Carolina, bringing us the music of Big Mama Thornton, Hank Ballard, Ruth Brown, and Billy Ward and the Dominos, so that for me and my friends rhythm and blues became the music of our youth.

So we were ready for Motown, and the music out of Muscle Shoals, and out of Memphis (and by Memphis, I don't mean Elvis, that Mississippi cracker who got rich making crossover recordings of music by black artists like Big Mama Thornton). 

Writing today, I am aware that, as Reece says of okra and gumbo, and by extension so much of Southern culture, "you can't [as a white person] write a story about how wonderful a thing [these gifts are] without acknowledging that [they are] undeserved gifts." 

This was a gift some of us tried to pay back by supporting, as best we could, the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960's. 

And, if you had told me in 1966, as my fraternity at UNC welcomed people of color into our merry band, or if you had told me, in 1972, when the public schools in my home county dismantled the segregated school system that I attended -- and did it peacefully, when the city of Boston was tearing itself apart trying to do the same thing -- that in 2017 we would have white supremacists helping to elect the president of the United States, and have a mob of Confederate flag-waving demonstrators desecrating the grounds of the University of Virginia, I would have told you that you were crazy, that a new day was dawning, that black folks and white folks were standing up together to redeem Southern history and make a new day.

In some ways, that happened. But in other ways, it didn't. In painful ways, it didn't. As the events in Charlottesville demonstrate so clearly. 

But heartbreak and disappointment are as much a part of the Southern experience as anything else. And so we persevere, even though Southern fear, and suspicion, and bigotry also persist. 

And we keep hoping tor a better day, although far too many of our white relatives persist in following the darkest impulses of our racist past.

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