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This week your About South team is answering your questions! Gina, Kelly, Adjoa, and Lindsey sit down and go through listener questions from the last year.
And we talk about Migos.
And Kelly meets a Pelican.
And we then ask for your money.
This week, we set out to unearth the mystery of famed southern author Margaret Mitchell’s porn collection. This episode was inspired by a trip Kelly took to the Margaret Mitchell House a few years ago. There, she and a friend spotted what appeared to be a pornographic photo of a woman behind one of the doors. Not to be hypocrites, we were concerned about the ethics of S-Town’ing Margaret Mitchell, that is, attempting to dive into someone’s sexual life post-mortem — and getting hit with a lawsuit. So we called Andy Crank, an English professor and gender and sexuality scholar at the University of Alabama who has researched and written about Margaret Mitchell, for some insight into the rumours and to see if they were worth investigating. Did Peggy collect porn? What might that say about her relationship with sex? Does any of this matter? We had so many questions.
Andy let us in on Mitchell’s proclivity for writing erotic letters to friends, and he notes how the heightened anxiety around heterosexual sex in Mitchell’s writing and the theme of unity among women suggests Mitchell was ahead of her time in sexuality writing.
Gina took to the internet to see what’s already out there, and found that Mitchell was known to make trips to “dirty” bookstores, collected French postcards featuring nude models as well as other “erotic,” which Gina translates to mean things that acknowledged women as sexual beings in the early 20th century. In his extensively-sourced Margaret Mitchell biography, Southern Daughter, Darden Asbury Pyron quotes a friend of the late author as saying Mitchell collected erotic books, such as Fanny Hill, and postcards because she thought the models’ facial expressions were funny.
As cute as the question of Margaret Mitchell’s apparent penchant for erotic materials may be, Gina and Kelly note that it’s not all that fun. Mitchell’s first husband, Barrien “Red” Upshaw, was an alcoholic who abused her physically and sexually and made Mitchell fear for her safety until his own death. In her essay “Tara and Other Lies: Margaret Mitchell and the Real Rhett Butler?”, Carolyn Gage suggests Red is the real life version of Rhett Butler, accounting for Rhett’s violence toward Scarlet. But Gina and Kelly say we can’t just speculate about the details of Mitchell’s sex life and draw one-to-one comparisons from real-life people and fictional characters; we have to ask ourselves how it may (or may not) have been influenced by the sexual trauma she endured in her first marriage, and how it may (or may not) have influenced her writing, including Gone With the Wind.
On a search for even more information about the elusive pornographic collections of Margaret Mitchell, Kelly and Gina took a trip back to the Margaret Mitchell House. With the help of the engaging storyteller/guide, Linda, Gina and Kelly conclude that Margaret Mitchell had a collection of erotica. She may or may not have enjoyed the physical act of sex, but she was definitely interested in it.
Everyone wants their own Margaret Mitchell, but we can’t know if or how much Mitchell’s erotic writing and items speaks to her own sexual fluidity or sexual desires. Kelly says it’s irrelevant. Margaret Mitchell is too often used to make arguments about the perfect woman, the perfect picture of femininity, the perfect feminist, and so on. But we choose to see her as the full, complicated human being she was without tying her to men in her life.
We can tell you that the pornographic image that inspired this episode is in fact still on display at the Margaret Mitchell House (for now). And rather than some illicit piece created at Mitchell's behest, it’s actually a flyer that she liked so much that she framed it and hung it in her living room as a conversation piece.
Our episode this week takes us to the south on the small screen. Kelly sits down with our very own Gina Caison and About South friends Lisa Hinrichsen and Stephanie Rountree to discuss their new book, Small-Screen Souths: Region, Identity, and the Cultural Politics of Television. Attempting to define the “real” south only gets more complicated when the region is broadcasted, framed, and produced for an audience-- depending on how the audience accepts or rejects the images on screen.
The televised south in shows like True Blood or Treme both confirms and challenges ideas of the region, engaging with viewers in progressive and regressive, but ultimately meaningful, ways. In other words, connecting with the south virtually is for some the only connection possible. Connecting with our television sets-- which are less “sets” now and more likely laptop screens-- provides a sense of intimacy that other mediums simply can’t offer. We take these stories, people, and places into our homes and engage them, making the choice to defy the depictions of character and region and simply stop watching, or to stick around for the next episode.
As we continue to rely on television as our main source of narratives, it’s not only vital to examine the history and consequence of televised regions-- it’s entertaining.
Clips from this week's episode:
Many thanks for Lisa, Gina, and Stephanie for joining us. You can find Small-Screen Souths: Region, Identity, and the Cultural Politics of Television here, from the LSU Press.
This week we talk to geologist Josh Poole about Providence Canyon, also known as the “Little Grand Canyon,” in southwest Georgia. The canyon, however, is not an ancient geological formation. Providence Canyon emerged as a gully resulting from the destructive agricultural practices between Creek Removal in the early 1800s and the U.S. Civil War. We talk to Josh about the history of the canyon, the emergence of the anthropocene, and how geologists think about regional distinctions.
Named for a nearby church, Providence Canyon is a 1,000 acre site in Stewart County, Georgia. At its deepest point, it’s over 150 feet down, and it reveals 30 million years of the earth’s history. The layers of the canyon showcase iron-rich topsoil, layers of white clay known as kaolin, and a basin with small running creek. Along the floor of the canyon, hikers can find old abandoned cars.
The canyon calls up questions of the anthropocene — a term used by many to describe the geological age when we can begin to see the impact of humans on the earth’s story. However, as Josh explains, geologists don’t use the term the anthropocene as an official designation. Rather, they recognize that the vast changes wrought by humans will show up in the geologically record for those that come after us, but as for when the anthropocene began, that’s a harder question, geologically speaking.
As Josh points out, geologists don't talk about the earth in terms of our geopolitical regions. In other words, the earth doesn't care where we draw the Mason-Dixon line or the border between Georgia and Alabama. But what is real is that we're living in the age of the Sixth Mass Extinction, and that's going to effect everyone, regardless of what side of an imaginary line they live on.
We'd like to thank Josh and Amanda for joining us at the Canyon on a Sunday afternoon. We'd also like to thank the Park Rangers at Providence Canyon State Park for their hospitality. You can learn more about the Canyon and plan your visit here.
This week we had the pleasure of talking to Karen Cox, a professor of History at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte and author of Goat Castle: A True Story of Murder, Race, and the Gothic South. Cox talks about her book and her process for writing about a woman whose story was nearly hidden. In the Jim Crow south of the early 1930’s Natchez, Mississippi, Emily Burns was wrongly imprisoned for a murder she didn’t commit while the true murderers became celebrated southern eccentrics who opened their home to goats, chickens, and-- for a price-- tourists.
Unlike southern gothic fiction, the murder of Jennie Merrill does not make the story of the infamous Goat Castle exceptional. Rather, it is neighbors Dick Dana and Octavia Dockery that quite literally take the spotlight. After being jailed for Merrill’s murder and quickly released despite fingerprint evidence, newspapers latched on to the odd pair’s story. People flocked to Natchez to get a glimpse of the failed descendants of southern aristocracy who now shared their antebellum home, once called Glenwood, with livestock. Meanwhile, Emily Burns and her mother were in jail for months before Emily was sentenced to life in prison for a murder she didn’t commit. Although Emily was later pardoned and didn’t serve her full sentence, the many years she spent incarcerated define the story of Goat Castle as more than just southern eccentricity, but as southern injustice and real-life horror.
Cox went in search for the story behind the story-- the story behind the dichotomy of the “old south” that Dana and Dockery represented to their visitors. Finding the stories erased not only by an unconcerned and Jim Crow past but by incorrect retellings is imperative for understanding American history, race, and community today. By telling Emily’s story, Cox does important work towards creating space for truth and belated justice that, although decades later, resounds with injustice we see today. Buy Goat Castle here.
Located in Atlanta’s Historic West End, The Wren’s Nest is the historic home of Joel Chandler Harris, well-known for compiling and adapting the African American Brer Rabbit folktales. In the century since Harris’s death, the home has been converted into a museum, and now serves as an anchor of the Atlanta arts community, especially in its neighborhood. This week, we met with Akbar Imhotep, the site’s resident storyteller, and Kalin Thomas, its Program Director, to discuss the complicated history of The Wren's Nest and their vision for its future. We also discuss how storytelling can build relationships in communities, connect people with their heritage, and to help people heal.
Imhotep first visited the Wren’s Nest with the Phillis Wheatley YWCA while he was working as a puppeteer for Atlanta’s Center For Puppetry Arts. Imhotep has been affiliated with the site for more than three decades. In addition to his interest in storytelling, he was attracted to the museum’s efforts to use storytelling to connect with the surrounding community. Thomas came to the center three years ago, first to film there for her job at Atlanta Interfaith Broadcast (AIB). She became a mentor in the center’s youth writing program, Scribes, and she now serves as the site’s program director.
Joel Chandler Harris recorded the Brer Rabbit tales he heard when he was a young boy between the ages of 14 and 17 working on a plantation. Although he is a white man, he lived among the enslaved people while he worked on the plantation. When he took a job at the Atlanta Constitution, he turned the stories into cartoons for the newspaper, and they became so popular that he compiled the stories into a book. His first book was incredibly successful, and he went on to produce several volumes of the folktales. Harris’s collected stories, perhaps the most famous of which is “The Tar-Baby,” are collectively referred to as "Uncle Remus Tales." Many of these tales originated in Africa and were told and retold by enslaved Africans across the South. Alcée Fortier collected variants of the same folktales in Louisiana, where Brer Rabbit is referred to as Compair Lapin.
Harris’s legacy is contested. On the one hand, if Harris had not collected the folktales, they might have been lost throughout the generations, and in some ways, his publication made the folktales acceptable. On the other hand, artists who shared stories with Harris received no money for their publications, Disney used the stories as the basis for Song of the South, which has been panned for its offensive portrayal of black southerners, and the museum itself remained segregated until the mid-1980s. Thomas believes African Americans should reclaim the tales and revisit them again because they are interesting stories with useful lessons, especially for children. They’re also part of black heritage, having traveled and lived in many different places.
Considering the museum’s complicated racial history, they also see the site as a place for healing through sharing stories. While they believe Tar-Baby, for instance, wasn’t originally meant to be a racist tale, adaptations and interpretations have imbued the story with new meanings, and they hope to foster a sense of healing by telling the truth—making sure people know the history of the author and the history of the tales and not covering up the unsavory parts. Ultimately, Imhotep believes, his time as a storyteller is sacred time—that stories connect us to one another and help us think about our lives.
We would like to thank Akbar Imhotep and Kalin Thomas for sharing their stories with us this week. We would also like to thank Melissa Swindle, Executive Director at The Wren’s Nest for allowing us to use the office for the interview. You can help support the educational programs and the cultural mission of The Wren’s Nest by purchasing tickets to the second annual Brer Rabbit, Blues and BBQ Festival on Sunday, November 5th 2017. If you are a writer, we also encourage you to become a mentor by contacting Kalin Thomas. The center is always looking for volunteers from Atlanta’s community of writers.
This week, we traveled to Baton Rouge and sat down with Dr. Carolyn Ware, a folklorist and an associate professor in the Department of English at Louisiana State University, to talk about the tradition of Cajun Mardi Gras. Carolyn has spent years talking to Cajun Mardi Gras communities about their traditions, and, no, it’s not just a knockoff of the New Orleans Mardi Gras. Carolyn educates us on what Cajun Mardi Gras is, who participates and why it’s still important.
During Cajun Mardi Gras, townspeople dress up, disguising their identities, and travel through the countryside knocking on neighbors’ doors for handouts, such as food or money. If the hosts ask for a dance, they oblige. The reward is usually something that will go into the community’s gumbo at the end of the night, like rice, sausage grease, or chicken. Carolyn says if the costumes, door-knocks, and treats sound familiar, it’s because Cajun Mardi Gras comes from the same mid-winter traditions that birthed trick-or-treating.
Carolyn paints a picture of Cajun Mardi Gras: A sheriff's car leads the procession with flashing headlights. Wagons of men and women, often separated by gender, follow behind. Mardi Gras dress in bright, pajama-like outfits, scary masks, and French-inspired conical hats called capuchons. Musicians or a three-piece band accompany the group playing traditional Cajun Mardi Gras songs.
Carolyn became interested in Cajun Mardi Gras because all of the scholarship she read positioned it as a hypermasculine event. Majority-women Cajun Mardi Gras do exist in Louisiana, but Carolyn argues that women have always been central to the tradition. They design and make the costumes and capuchons, and they cook the gumbo at the end of the night. Women-run Cajun Mardi Gras became more popular in the 1950s and ‘60s after World War II as gender roles began to change around the country. Men are still the captains in these celebrations so that women can have a free night. “Women wanted to cut loose and be silly,” Carolyn says. “They’re moms the rest of the time. On this one day, they wanted to be the ones that cut up.” She’s fascinated with how women think about their role in Cajun Mardi Gras, and with how they perform it. Carolyn mentions that the women’s suits and masks are the ones catching the imaginations of outsiders.
Cajun Mardi Gras has faced its share of criticism as it becomes more visible and as attitudes around social issues and gender change. Carolyn says Cajun Mardi Gras is about pushing boundaries. Men still dress in stereotypical and exaggerated feminine styles. Some runs still have a blackface character or Native caricature. Gina asks if there’s a spectrum of opinions around the more problematic parts of the tradition, and Carolyn affirms that there is. As rural towns become more diverse and more integrated, some changes are occurring. For the most, however, Carolyn says Mardi Gras runs don’t want outsiders telling them what to do with their traditions.
In this week's episode, join in as Gina and returning About South guest Lindsey Eckert travel to the Minnesota State Fair to eat cheese curds, watch a rabbit show, and talk about regionalism. More specifically, the pair discusses how we construct regions to exist as idyllic places, separate from the problems apparent in the rest of the nation and dependent upon certain cultural calling cards-- like food-- for their survival.
The Minnesota State Fair was first hosted in 1859 in what is today downtown Minneapolis. The fair's original purpose was to promote agriculture in the state through various farming and livestock competitions. Known as the "Great Minnesota get-together," today the fair has a permanent location in between Minneapolis and St. Paul. Along with the traditional agriculture-promoting entertainment, other fair entertainment consists of art shows, technological exhibits, presentations by educational institutions, Ferris wheels, live music, and, of course, tons of Minnesotan favorites like cheese curds and pronto pups.
The Midwest often reads as “neutral” in history, politics, and cultural production, particularly when placed alongside more charged regions like the South. The South “owns,” both historically and increasingly currently, many of the nation’s social and political problems in a way that other regions never will. This is problematic not because the South doesn’t indeed host these problems, but because it seemingly allows these idealized regions like the Midwest to escape from the shared responsibility of national issues.
It’s unsurprising, then, that like Minnesotans remembering the fair, Southerners tend to focus on the easy nostalgia of food. Food provides a sense of home, safely disassociated from the real dangers that home might bring. Biscuits, gravy, grits, and cornbread provide a connection to a region that’s both inherent to and separate from the values of the region. We talk about food when we talk about regionalism because it’s relatable and definite-- the pronto pup is always wrapped in a flour dough instead of a cornmeal, and grits are always better with cheese.
From Instagram #mnstatefair
Before Maurice Hobson became a Professor of African American Studies at Georgia State University, he was a Division I football player at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. He has since worked with student athletes at institutions across the South. We talked with Maurice about how he became interested in football, his experiences as a player and the race and class politics of southeastern football. As a former player and a fan, Maurice offers a unique perspective on the current problems facing college programs, especially programs in the South, and how we might work to make the sport safer and more ethically responsible.
As a child, Maurice played soccer before his older brother joined the high school band and introduced him to football. He would go to football games to see his brother play, and afterward, he would visit the field house at Selma High School where they would take photos with the players. Soon after, his brother went on a trip to an Auburn game and saw Bo Jackson play. His brother came back and announced to the family that they were Auburn fans. After he became interested in the sport, he describes how he learned geography from watching CBS Sports, learning about American regions and what the South meant in relation to other U.S. regions.
Once Maurice started playing college football, he began to notice some of the problems in the system. On an off weekend, he travelled to DC to participate in the Million Man March, and he was chided, ostensibly for not hanging out with his teammates instead.
Maurice says that one of his biggest issues with college football is that coaches make decisions about what the players can do and who they can be, and coaches expect them to blindly follow that plan without thinking about what the player actually wants for himself. However, while he feels that football is exploitative, he disagrees with people who call it a modern form of slavery. He asserts that this is a faulty comparison because players can walk away from the game at any time. On the other hand, he also thinks its incorrect to refer to athletic scholarships as a “free ride,” because students work hard for their education—harder than many students who pay their way through college with a traditional job.
Maurice also points out that many SEC football programs are rife with references to the Civil War, the Old South, and the Confederacy. From the Louisiana State University Tigers, who were named after the Civil War Tiger Brigade, to the University of Mississippi’s Rebels. He also notes that many of these big southern institutions have a history of segregation. That history, Maurice argues, contributes to the troublesome racial politics of the sport, especially in the South.
We would like to thank Maurice Hobson for his insightful conversation. Maurice is an Assistant Professor of African American Studies at Georgia State University. His work focuses on twentieth-century African American History. His forthcoming book, The Legend of the Black Mecca: Myth, Maxim, and the Making of an Olympic City, examines how Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 changed the American South.
From Instagram, #collegegameday
In an issue of Swamp Thing, Superman contracts a virus that will cause him to become violent. Instead of wreaking havoc in Metropolis, he heads south to Louisiana: a place where there are no superheroes. While Superman and his ilk may not make their homes in the south, the region has been richly explored in the comics medium: from early narrative comics such as Li’l Abner, Pogo, and Kudzu, to more recent serials and graphic novels such as The Walking Dead, Preacher, Bayou, and Swallow Me Whole. This week we visited Brannon Costello, English professor at LSU, to talk about southern comics. We discuss how comics explore the south’s relationship to the nation, grapple with the region’s history, and imagine its future.
According to Brannon, cartooning about the south is as old as print culture, beginning perhaps with editorial cartoons about abolition and the Civil War. However, in the 1930s, Li’l Abner, set in the fictional Appalachian community of Dogpatch, USA, becomes one of the first narrative comics to explore southern themes. It is followed closely by the introduction of Snuffy Smith as the Appalachian cousin of Barney Google. These comics were a mass medium, with as many as sixty million readers during the height of their popularity. After WWII, Pogo, a comic strip featuring anthropomorphic animals set in the Okefenokee Swamp becomes widely popular, presenting readers with an idealized, pastoral swamp setting where national problems can be adjudicated in a light-hearted way. In the 1980s, as the south is becoming more urban and suburban, Doug Marlette creates Kudzu to explore these changes.
While the tropes of the superhero genre (as well as the location of major comic book producers) keep superheroes from venturing southward for most of the twentieth century, in the 1980s and 1990s, cartoonists and comics writers develop an interest in the south as a space that doesn’t fit into the genre. They explore the region as a "dark other." Southern “superheroes” greatly contrasts to the more urban superheroes: instead of the idealized physical specimens we see in Metropolis and Gotham, Swamp Thing is a shambling accretion of plants and mud who happens to think he’s human.
In a 1980s issue of Captain America, the titular hero quits his government job because he disagrees with the morality of potential missions. He’s replaced with a reactionary conservative from Georgia who becomes the new Captain America. The subsequent story line marks an attempt to think critically about what it would mean if Newt Gingrich was the new symbol of America, reflecting contemporary fears about the “southernification” of the U.S. When Captain America returns to his post.
We then discuss about some of Brannon’s favorite and least favorite southern comics. Brannon thinks The Walking Dead fails as a comic because it doesn’t exploit the possibilities of the medium in a particularly interesting way. He notes that although he’s still reading Southern Bastards and finds it visually interesting, it hasn’t yet fulfilled its promise to take a critical posture toward certain ideals about masculinity and the south. Instead, the series seems to be presenting the same tropes associated with the old south without a thoughtful critique.
Some of Brannon’s favorite southern comics include Swamp Thing, especially from the period when Alan Moore and Steve Bissette; graphic novels March (written by John Lewis and Andrew Aydin), Swallow Me Whole, and Any Empire by Nate Powell; Preacher by Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon; Stuck Rubber Baby, a semi-autobiographical coming-of-age tale about coming out during the Civil Rights Movement; Bayou by Jeremy Love; Wet Moon by Sophie Campbell; and the adaptation of Octavia Butler’s Kindred by Damian Duffy and illustrated by John Jennings.
We would like to thank Brannon Costello for this interview. Brannon is an Associate Professor in the English Department at Louisiana State University. Together with Qiana J. Whitted, he edited a Comics and the U.S. South, published by the University Press of Mississippi in 2012. His book, Neon Visions: The Comics of Howard Chaykin will be available from Louisiana State University Press in October.
Places to help those affected by Hurricane Harvey:
This week, we chatted with Jennie Lightweis-Goff about New Orleans, southern exceptionalism, urban plantations, and the lasting effects of Hurricane Katrina. We met with Jennie at her home in New Orleans to discuss why it’s important to imagine cities in the U.S. South, how urban areas of the U.S. South are as valid in their southern identity as rural areas, and what it means that New Orleans decided to take down its Confederate statues.
Southern exceptionalism posits that the South is the exception to American exceptionalism while city exceptionalism imagines that cities are unlike their surrounding regions. New Orleans exceptionalism posits that the city is so different from the rest of the South (and country) that it can’t build stable connections to other places and people in the region. Jennie explains that frequently exceptionalism is a myth that we as people have to live by. It’s what makes one place feel like home more than any other. But it’s still a myth: “Every place is particular and no place is exceptional.”
Jennie has lived in New Orleans on and off since 2003. After Hurricane Katrina hit, the housing landscape changed: the city introduced more housing vouchers and did away with public housing. While tourists flock to the Ninth Ward, where water hit houses they way trucks hit houses, Jennie notes the relationship between the city and the supposed wilderness make it difficult to see the devastation today.
The conversation comes back to the things that make New Orleans just like every other southern city dealing with poverty, sprawl, climate change, and gentrification. Jennie recounts how public systems such as education and housing have become more privatized since Katrina, and as those institutions fail, the prison industrial complex swells. Mentally ill, uneducated, and homeless people end up in jail as a solution to social problems.
Though this interview was conducted several weeks ago, we end up coming full circle and discussing Confederate monuments. This past May, Mayor Mitch Landrieu pulled down symbols of the Confederacy. For Jennie, the statues of Robert E. Lee, P.G.T. Beauregard, and Stonewall Jackson produced a “solid south” where there never was one. The mayor posits the monuments stand as a large footprint of a small portion of the city’s history, one that creates a story that never really belonged to New Orleans. No one knows yet what will happen to the empty pedestals. In the mean time, they hold space for those who say their history was derided in the removal.
Jennie Lightweis-Goff is an instructor of American and southern literatures at the University of Mississippi. Her book, Blood at the Root: Lynching as American Cultural Nucleus, is available through SUNY Press.
In this week’s episode, the About South team drove six hours to Ridgeland, Mississippi to attend Murder is Golden, a Golden Girls tribute and parody dinner theater put on by Mississippi Murder Mysteries and the Fringe Dinner Theatre. Gina, Adjoa, Kelly, and About South friend Shannon Finck talk about the power of community and community theater in a time where interaction is undervalued and, as we’ve seen recently, increasingly violent. By bringing people together over a show set in Florida, a state itself divided with exclusionary politics, the Fringe theater group inspires laughter, self-acceptance, and the opportunity for connection.
Sitting with the cast as they ate their post-show dinner at Biaggi's, the About South team had the opportunity to ask each member a little bit about their character and how they related to The Golden Girls. A common theme was admiration for the characters who could proudly be themselves. Particularly, both the cast and Gina, Adjoa, Kelly, and Shannon found the depiction of the Golden Girls’ strong sexuality a radical move even by the standards of today. Older women displaying their sexuality is still taboo, although shows like Netflix’s Grace and Frankie are working towards normalizing older women as sexual beings with sexual agency. By owning their sexuality, the Golden Girls give the audience permission to accept themselves and, ultimately -- hopefully -- the people around them.
Although community theaters continue to close all over the nation and many more still are threatened by the lack of social and financial value placed in the arts, owner of Mississippi Murder Mysteries and Fringe Dinner Theatre Becky Martin understands the need for live theater. Being a member of an audience allows people to take themselves out of whatever is going on in their lives and experience something communal, delightful, and inherently radical.
So, what does this have to do with the South? Florida, when divided as either a part of the physical or cultural geography of the South, provides the setting for the Golden Girls to have these Florida-specific, yet southern-exclusive experiences. It is in this charged space that the characters, all transplants to the South save for Blanche Devereaux, exhibit their strong personalities. Participating as an audience member becomes then an act of politics-- it is political and it is personal.
We’d like to thank, again, the incredible cast members who sat down to talk with us: Becky Martin (Blanche), Jessica Wright (Rose), Tommy Kobeck (Dorothy), Sam Gregory (Sophia), Walt Herrington (Lawrence), and Dan Hawthorn (Lt. Theo Kovak), Also, big thanks to A-1; check out his album, After School Special.
From Instagram #goldengirls
When Jon Smith, a professor of southern studies at Simon Fraser University and one of the toughest critics in the field, told us that he would be visiting Atlanta in April, we invited him on the show to critique our first season. We discussed many of the things folks might identify as southern, including blue crayfish, cornbread, and Cahaba lilies. Our conversation highlights why talking about the south is important, and why it is sometimes necessary to dispense with manners in order to do it well.
We wanted to get right to the point and ask Jon what he thought of our first season. He responded with an overview about the strengths and weaknesses of the blue crayfish as a metaphor for the south. He argued that the south and southern identity consists of a belief that there is a south rather than any existing external traits of the region, and the blue crayfish may not adequately capture the element of desire in the way we construct the region. Ultimately, he argues, the blue crayfish wasn’t “invented” in the same way that the south was.
He also provided us with some excellent slogans for future About South merchandise including “I come from the land of blue crayfish,” “I’m proud to be a crayfish-person,” “Bitter Blue-Crayfisher,” and “Garden and Crayfish.”
Along with first-season guest Scott Romine, Jon is currently working on a project about southern food, so we next turned our attention to cornbread. Citing a passage from The Southerner’s Handbook: A Guide to Living the Good Life, Jon demonstrates how contemporary southern food culture becomes a carrier of regional identity, attempting to construct a white southern identity that isn’t about slavery. He notes that until recently, “southern food” didn’t exist: it was just food. The way some southern publications discuss food today may appear, at first, racially inclusive, and invested in building a better south; however, the rhetoric is still invested in the fantasy of southern exceptionalism, which causes far more problems than it solves. Jon argues that if we want to make things better, we need to proceed from a realistic assessment of where we are, and popular forums about the south tend to willfully ignore foundational truths about the region.
Our conversation then turns to the Appalachian Trail and Cahaba National Wildlife Refuge. Jon was back in the south to visit national, state, and local parks for a research project he’s currently undertaking. Although the Appalachian Trail is over 2,000 miles long, Jon notes that, interestingly, knowing that someone lives close to the Appalachian Trail provides more useful information about their home than knowing that someone lives in “the south.” Moving on to the Cahaba Lily, a rare lily that only grows in the shoals of a few rivers in Alabama, Jon points out that Alabama is the fifth-most biologically diverse state in the country, and it is much more logical to be proud of Alabama for its nature—and the collective political action required to protect it—than it is for us to be proud of the south or southern heritage, which is based on a fiction. “We all know what’s bad about the south,” Jon states, “and that’s why we want to talk about cornbread instead, but why not talk about the Cahaba lily? Not as southern, but as part of what is amazing about Alabama.”
We also briefly discuss the relationship between Jon’s scholarship and southern manners. He describes how his scholarship changed after Patricia Yaeger’s book, Dirt and Desire: Reconstructing Southern Women’s Writing, 1930-1990 (published in 2000). While Yaeger’s text went on to become one of the most cited southern studies book published in the last twenty years, it did not immediately receive the field's highest accolades. Yaeger advocated that southern manners are designed largely to hide injustice, and in order to fight injustice, one can’t be polite. Jon took her lesson to heart, making a conscious decision to be more direct in his scholarship. He describes the desire to affect change in southern studies and in the south as an “impossible job”: “If you’re not direct enough, you get ignored. If you’re too direct, people call you irrationally angry, and blow you off for that reason.”
Jon Smith is a professor in the English Department at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia. Along with Riché Richardson, he is the series editor of the New Southern Studies Series from the University of Georgia Press. He’s also the author of Finding Purple America: The South and the Future of American Cultural Studies. We would like to extend our thanks to Jon for this week’s episode. Read an excerpt from his book here.
This week, we traveled to Gadsby’s Tavern Museum in Alexandria, Virginia to talk with Lauren Frances Adams and Stewart Watson, artists and colleagues at the Maryland Institute College of Arts, about their art installation Centennial of the Everyday, which is currently on display in the museum.
While Gadsby’s Tavern is well-known for its connection to the “founding fathers,” Lauren and Stewart’s installation highlights the contributions of women, enslaved peoples, and other unnamed citizens to the important events that occurred in this space. Their artwork complicates simple narratives about what America was and what it is, inviting visitors to consider spaces as archives and to remember the many "strangers" in the periphery of historical texts.
To create this three-part installation, the artists conducted extensive research and created works in a variety of media, including furniture, stoneware and textiles, which are inserted around other historical exhibits on display in the museum. To create "A Particular Provenance" Lauren and Stewart collaborated with individuals connected to the history of Gadsby’s Tavern Museum, either through genealogical or organizational history. The installation includes furniture donated by these individuals -- Stephen Hammond, Tracy Loughlin, Laurie Sisson, Char McCargo Bah, Joan Sereysky Scarsdale, DeAnne Bryant, and Lex Powers -- and modified by the artists to reflect the owner’s connection to either John Gadsby, the tavern, or the museum. Lauren and Stewart describe how their collaboration with others gave them permission to open up the usually tight narrative around the tavern and its history to investigate more of it’s complexities and difficulties.
"Not on View," a textile installation on a historic canopy bed in the museum’s East Bedchamber reflecting on the history of the Female Stranger, a local legend about a gravely ill woman who arrived at the hotel under mysterious circumstances in 1816 and passed away shortly after her arrival. The canopy is made out of custom-printed textiles and features silhouettes of anonymous women found in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. A nearby stone vessel houses a speaker which plays an audio recording of a woman crying. The vessel bears an inscription from Alexander Pope’s “Elegy to the Memory of an Unfortunate Lady”: “Grieve for an hour, perhaps, then mourn a year.” The artists see these pieces as a testament to all of the unnamed people who have traversed this historical space and, more broadly, to all of the “strangers” who are part of American history, but have been forgotten or overlooked.
We would like to thank Stewart, Lauren, everyone at Gadsby’s Tavern Museum and at Area 405 for hosting us in Alexandria, Virginia and Baltimore, Maryland. We hope that you will visit Gadsby’s Tavern Museum where the installation will be on display until September 3, 2017.
From Instagram: #centennialoftheeveryday
In this episode, we sit down with David Davis, a professor of English and Southern Studies at Mercer University, to discuss the telling of a southern reality in S-Town. With around 40 million downloads, Brian Reed’s hit podcast S-Town prevails in the American conscious and understanding of the south. We look at how Reed’s telling takes a real story of human complexity and frames it as quasi-fiction, buying into southern gothic tropes and obscuring the lives of his subjects with a thin layer of regional gold.
All seven chapters of S-Town were released in March of 2017 to blockbuster success, two years after the suicide of the show’s main character. S-Town tells the story of John B. McLemore, a man living in a town that he likens to southern gothic landscapes like Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily.” Reed uses details about McLemore’s life such as his sexuality and masochistic behavior to create a character that is indeed reminiscent of archetypes from Flannery O’Connor and filled with his own tragic symbolism.
We like to call this episode a podcast about a podcast. While we spend most of our discussion on the consequences of S-Town for southern identity on a broader scale, we are interested in how McLemore both creates a caricature of himself and provides Reed with deeply intimate information. We consider several lingering questions about the podcast, including: where are the limits of informed consent, and did Reed abandon those limits? Does telling McLemore’s story perform something productive in the seemingly-endless narrative quest to document and unpack the south? Exotic and dysfunctional, the south in S-Town plays a familiar role as one held up and scrutinized for holes in authenticity. Ultimately, we ask can the constantly reproduced “real south” ever be a real landscape?
David Davis’s book, World War I and Southern Modernism, will be out from the University Press of Mississippi in late fall. Listen to him talk about his journey to southern studies here:
Monique tells this story in her documentary film, My Louisiana Love, which was directed by Sharon Linezo Hong. By following Monique’s family during the time between Hurricane Katrina and the BP oil spill, the film reveals the contemporary dilemmas faced by the Houma Nation. Monique sat down with us on a rainy day in New Orleans to discuss the documentary, her environmental activism, and why we should all care about what’s happening in Louisiana.
The United Houma Nation is a mixed band of Indigenous people who are from and still live in the Mississippi River Delta. Monique explains that long before the colonization of what we now know as New Orleans, the area was a place for trade for several Indigenous peoples. The Houma originally lived in an area north of Baton Rouge, but as Monique describes, they moved south to avoid Removal: “I always say that we dodged the Trail of Tears by going deep into the Delta and living at the ends of the earth.” After the Houma were forced into the Delta, their land rights were taken from them by people who wanted to harvest mink, otter, and muskrat furs in the region. Monique sees a continuity between these colonizers, the plantation economy, and the oil and gas industries that followed, as they each continued to usurp Houma land rights.
When asked about the current issues facing the Houma Nation, Monique explains how they are related to historical traumas. She also describes the complex relationship between the oil and gas industries and the Houma people: while oil companies dredge canals through wetlands and build oil waste pits in the backyards of indigenous communities, the Houma work force is nearly completely dependent on the oil and gas industries for jobs. Climate change also presents a major threat to Houma communities, as the sea level rises and tropical storms become stronger and more frequent. Even the plan for coastal restoration and “non-structural adaptation” depends on deep-water drilling, drawing its funding from the royalties that will be collected by Gulf states for offshore drilling beginning in 2018 through the Gulf of Mexico Energy Security Act (GOMESA). Funding via GOMESA also faces threats from the current administration, who propose routing royalties to the National Treasury.
As Monique screens the documentary in locations outside of Louisiana, she interacts with people who question why southern Louisiana is facing the environmental challenges she explores in the documentary. Monique emphasizes that the current issues aren’t due to isolated events such as Hurricane Katrina or the BP oil disaster. Instead, they have been building over many decades. Southern Louisiana has made many sacrifices for the nation, but instead of recognizing those sacrifices, others tend to blame those who live in coastal areas for their difficulties without understanding the historical context.
We encourage you to check out My Louisiana Love, which will be available to stream for free between July 18 and July 24 as part of the Vision Maker “40 Years, 40 Films” series, which celebrates 40 years of Indigenous cinema. During that week, it will also be airing on many local public television stations across the U.S.
From Instagram, #visionmakermedia
To kick off Season Two Gina and Kelly travel to the end of the world: Venice, Louisiana, which claims to be the southernmost point in Louisiana accessible by car. Traversing through landscapes reminiscent of True Detective, they find oil refineries, fishing communities, and estuary life — alligators, egrets, herons, spoonbills, ibises, and several other rare species of birds. They leave with questions about how our dependence on oil has transformed coastal wetlands into sacrificial spaces, as Louisiana continues to lose approximately 24-38 football fields of land every day.
Venice is just under two hours south of New Orleans, at the tip of Plaquemines Parish. Gina and Kelly are surprised by how quickly the cityscape of New Orleans gives way to suburban ranch homes and then to rural landscapes. They are also taken by the juxtaposition of industrial oil refineries on one side of the highway and wetlands on the other. As the road narrows to two lanes, coastal wildlife becomes more prevalent. After watching an egret catch a fish out of the road in front of them, they exit the car and wade through the water to make sure that it is passable.
Finally, they pull up to a sign delineating that they have reached the southernmost point in Louisiana (though further investigation suggests that designation might rightly belong to Port Fourchon). They explore the town of Venice, following signs for a marina with a bar where fishermen go to wait out rainstorms.
From a small pull-off on the side of the road, they can see rookeries with hundreds of ibises and egrets. Swimming around the perimeter of the rookeries, large alligators begin their own investigation of Gina and Kelly. In addition to the wildlife, the landscape is marked by groves of dead and dying trees rising out of the water.
Driving home, they discuss rising coastal waters and wetland loss. Gina remarks that she will be sad if this place disappears in her lifetime, and the two contemplate how much of the land might have been lost already. After returning home, many people ask Gina if the rapid pace of coastal erosion is due to Hurricane Katrina, trying to tie the changing landscape to the memorable event. However, coastal wetland loss was happening before Hurricane Katrina, which forces us to consider how our dependence on fossil fuels makes us culpable and how we might work to slow coastal wetland loss and protect these habitats for the people and wildlife who depend on them.
We would like to thank all of the people who made this episode possible: Ann for donating her map; Tony for offering guidance and taking photos of us at the end of the world; and Jennie and Chip Lightweis-Goff for their New Orleans hospitality.
Information on Louisiana's wetland lost:
From Instagram: #endoftheworld
Gina and Kelly discuss their favorite moments from the second half of season one. In this episode, we discuss Gina’s storied history as a majorette. We also catch up with Ali Arant. In an outtake, Tara Bynam and Gina discuss the inherent pleasure of righteous anger. We also discuss a possible spinoff: “About War Eagle,” and we investigate the motivations of humans and monsters in bonus clips from “Real Early South” and “The Faulkner Witch Project.” Rounding out the episode, Joey Kennedy provides insight about the incoming Attorney General, and Vice Mayor Seyram Selase tells us why it’s important to return to the South.
We would like to thank our special guests for making this season a success—we could not have done this without you. We would also like to thank our listeners! We appreciate your kind ears and your support! Please follow us on social media, and help us spread the word by sharing your favorite episode from this season on your preferred social media platform.
Please join us for the About South Season One Wrap Party at Argosy in East Atlanta Village at 7:30 p.m. on Friday, December 9! We would love to raise a glass with you and hear your feedback about our first season! You can RSVP on Facebook or EventBrite.
We'll be back July 7th! Until then, listen to our new podcasting friends, Story of My Life.