The South
  • Keeping It 100.

    Well, I've officially been an AmeriCorps VISTA for one week now and it's been 17 days since I left Staunton.

    Though really I’ve only been on the soil for around 10 days. I’ve seen the Delta, though not the River. I’ve driven past so many places that loom so large in Southern history, American Music’s history Civil Rights history, and American history in general. Places like Hattiesburg, Meridian, Vicksburg, Indianola, Tupelo, and more. And have met more people in these two weeks than I have in the last four years living in Staunton.

    I haven’t had any time to process any of this really. That's one of the reasons why I haven't dispatched an update. Because I’m working and not really in the mindset of a tourist, I haven’t really given myself much time to look around and experience. My job has been to find my place in this complicated community in Oxford and see how I can leverage connections and networks to fulfill my mission.

    Oxford, as far as I can tell, has a strange relationship with its history. Faulkner's grave is a landmark that people tell directions by. I've heard three different explanations of "hotty toddy" (still not totally sure what it means). Most of the people I've met who live in town (or in the county, for that matter) are not native-Mississippians or even Southerners. That's been a little disappointing. 

    I've been running into two main groups: apologists and those who are completely naive. Most people are quick to tell you that they aren't from here, but are glad that they are here now in spite of whatever issues. The others can literally be at any place at any time and would function in the exact same way. 

    Cleveland MS was nice. I could almost, almost see myself living there. The sunset— oh my stars— is unbelievable.  

    So there’s a complication to it. How can I fit in when I’m not only transient but also here to thrust an idea on people that they might not be ready for? Yes, even in a place like Oxford. Maybe even especially in a place like Oxford.

    There’s a bit of a wild-eyed look to the people of Mississippi— specifically from the Delta. They are a little less friendly than eastern Southerners. Maybe because they are reluctant toward people like me. Maybe because they are aware of their own reputation. Maybe because they are tired and sick. Maybe because they are sick and tired of being called tired and sick. 

    Well, I guess it’s part of my job to meet the stare in those eyes with my own history, reluctance, hate, struggle, and love. 

    The best advice is from my friend, Kenya. She’s this near-cliche larger-than-life woman from Indianola who told me I wasn’t Southern, but then gave me a pass when she saw me sopping up my black eyed peas with my cornbread. She’s working for VISTA at a mentoring center in her town.  

    I asked her to give me some advice about talking to people in Mississippi— especially poor, rural black folks. She laughed and said,

    “You know, Shannon. You know already. Just talk. We need you to talk to us. And we need to talk. Be there. Because we can sniff out that inauthentic you-know-what.”

    Keep it 100.

    So along with my actual job goals and description— along with setting up this pretty intense sustainable organization project in Oxford— along with crushing all the bureaucratic goals and  that the DSU office has set before me— I’m going to really, seriously keep it 100 percent this year.

    We’ll see how it goes.  

    (picture of a print in my friends' house in Cleveland, MS. Kate is a director at the Sunflower Freedom Project and her husband, Mike, is a sculptor and art professor at Delta State). 

  • This Conversation

    (Photo Cred: Richmond's Style Weekly and this amazing article from two years ago by Ned Oliver) 

    There’s a patron of the library who regularly comes in wearing Confederate flags on his clothes and proudly sports two of the most interesting tattoos I’ve ever seen— a full, grayscale portrait of Robert E. Lee on the expanse of his left forearm and Jefferson Davis on his right. These tattoos are about 20 years old and are incredibly well done. I like looking at them and always compliment him on the work. I like talking to people about their heroes and why— even if I disagree with the people whom they choose to laud. You have to figure that a man who goes through getting two tattoos of these Confederate icons must have some good reason.

    This man came in on the Saturday after the shooting in Charleston and commented on the beginning rumblings of the call to take down the Battle Flag on the campus of the South Carolina Capitol. He was clearly upset about it and wanted my empathy. I denied him. I told him that I lived in Columbia when I was in college and figured that there was enough monuments and memorabilia there to make up for taking one flag down. (the testicles on Wade Hampton’s horse alone should suffice).

    He was polite in his disagreement which, of course, led to “if this, then what?” I told him that there are laws on the books (Federal and State) that protect monuments to Confederate soldiers and consider them to be under the same protection as actual U.S. monuments. I told him that he was being a little “Henny Penny” about this and to really start worrying when those laws are challenged. But in my mind, I kept thinking of a phrase that Jon Stewart used on the Daily show after the shooting: racist wallpaper. The South is filled with racist wallpaper. Wallpaper being something that you may notice, but generally ignore or let affect you subconsciously.

    I’ve talked to men and women who are (for whatever reason) totally oblivious to the fact that the Battle Flag is a racist symbol. When I interviewed a Virginia Flagger, he totally steamrolled my idea that the KKK used the flag as a symbol of hate and intimidation by saying that the NAACP made up that myth in the 1990s. Never mind that you don’t have to look very far into the pre-1990s archives to find examples of the KKK’s use of the flag. AND that it only takes a hop, skip, and a stumble to follow links from the Virginia Flaggers’ website to the KKK’s and other white supremacy groups’ websites.

    Thanks to LitHub for directing me toward this story, which has an interesting and clearly Southern take on what we could do with the flag. The story has an incredible sense of humor about it— while remaining politically serious. I’m disappointed that there hasn’t been more of a push to include Southern voices in this conversation. I just watched the Daily and Nightly shows and neither had any Southerners talk about what’s going on… as if they can’t trust a Southerner to have anything considered or enlightened to say about the whole issue. Or that we would all come from the same place or ill-informed opinion.

    I’m also a little disappointed that THIS is the conversation we’re having: taking down the flag. We’ve been talking about systemic racism in this country for the last two years (because of the murders of black people in every single region of the country) but when it happens in the South— all the sudden people are shaking their heads about how “it’s always been like that” here. I hate to tell you, but it’s always been like that EVERYWHERE.

    And that does not make it better. Pointing that out is not to take the heat off of the South, it’s to shine light on the fact that we should be looking at the long history of AMERICAN systemic racism (in our laws, hearts, minds, and actions). It doesn’t begin or end with African Americans, either. And I can’t even get started on other kinds of prejudice.

    I struggle with this conversation. I struggle with knowing how dialogue changes or progresses an idea. I want to think that everyone is able to listen to and understand what their interlocutor is saying and then reply accordingly, but I don’t really see that happening very often. I wonder how this is going to affect literature and art in the future. Will our art become as divided as our politics? How can we learn to talk to each other again (have we ever known?).

    This is a product of having a liberal arts education: I assume everyone wants to debate and learn from each other. That’s how we grow as people and a nation (and in our own humanity). But apparently that isn’t really the goal for most people. I keep thinking of the phrase “shouting into the void.” I feel like the Internet and the media at large has us doing that most of the time. Opinion has been democratized… but if the conversation isn’t really a con-vers-ation, then aren’t we all just shouting into the void?

    In terms of my own writing— what is my role as a woman, a Southerner, a thinker, a writer, a human, etc? I’m considering the kinds of stories that I write and what (if anything) makes them interesting to read. What kind of purposes do my stories (fiction or non) serve and why tell them? Must literature have broader themes? (don’t we “read” our own political, emotional, etc readings with or without the leadership or permission of the author?). As a Southern writer, what kind of message about the South do I want to tell? What archetypes and stereotypes am I working for or against? Must I be conscious of this while composing?

    I hope that the discussion of racist wallpaper in the South and in the United States in general keeps its steam. I hope that people start making the connections between our (white privilege) subconscious and race relations. I hope that some Southern voices are called on to rise up and start to help us progress. And, above all, I hope the South decides on some new damn symbols to represent our rich culture and history.

    So I leave you with this... from the voice of a Southerner.