Episode Fifteen | Activism, Y'all

We get a little bit meta in this week’s episode as we sit down for a conversation with Michelle Khouri, host of The Cultured Podcast and owner of FRQNCY Media Company, a first-of-its-kind podcast production and marketing company in Atlanta, Georgia. Michelle talks about how her background as a writer compelled her to find a medium to tell stories more deeply, eventually leading her to podcasting. Through FRQNCY Media, Michelle hopes to create a podcasting hub in Atlanta that will connect the city’s sonic legacy to its contemporary technological and creative innovations. 


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 We begin with a discussion of Michelle’s extensive history in the South. She grew up in Miami, “a sunny place for shady people.” She grew up immersed in her own culture and taking it fore granted before moving to Orlando and then West Palm Beach. Although she loved Miami, she never felt at home in other Floridian cities. When the opportunity presented itself, she moved to Atlanta and fell in love with the city. She moved through a variety of marketing and public relations jobs in the city before she took a job as the Public Relations Manager for the Atlanta Convention of Visitors Bureau. This particular job allowed her to learn everything that she could about the city so that she could communicate points of interest to visiting journalists and businesspeople. She notes that while Miami has a very clear vision of itself, Atlanta is so many disparate things to so many people. She sees this Atlanta’s disparate culture as an outcropping of its history of segregation: not just black/white segregation, but the segregation of Atlanta’s many different cultures into separate niches across the city. 

Michelle notes that while the city hasn’t yet chosen its identity, it is, most of all, a creative city. She also notes that Atlanta’s ability to rebuild, redefine itself, and create something completely new in the aftermath of disasters and devastating fires colors the city’s character throughout its history. With her new company, FRQNCY Media, Michelle hopes to harness the creative and technology booms happening in Atlanta right now. Michelle’s vision for FRQNCY Media is to create a full-service podcast production company and community hub. They will also be building a physical studio space with recording studios, co-working space, and workshops for podcasters. Referring back to Atlanta’s robust sonic legacy, Michelle describes her hope to create a podcasting community hub in Atlanta. Gina then describes her impetus for beginning About South as a response to the massive southern culture industry, which trades matters of real political importance for southern kitsch. Although she knew what she wanted the message to be, she and Kelly knew very little about podcasting as a medium. She emphasizes how helpful it would have been to have had someone to call up for advice. 


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While Atlanta is home to so much creative energy, Michelle discusses how the city doesn’t necessarily recognize and support its artistic talent. She notes that people generally take their money to New York or Los Angeles because those places are more accommodating for artists, and talented Atlantans follow that money to those other locations. Additionally, the local government caters to outsiders, creating policies that are designed to bring in outside dollars instead of aiding creatives who are already here. Even with the creative drain caused by local policies, we still have so much talent residing in Atlanta. Michelle asserts that people love this city, and they are determined to succeed despite the local government. Local residents and citizens have created this ecosystem where people help each other out. Though we could create venues for more collaboration, the fact that we are still here is a testament to our determination. 


 Michelle Khouri, host of The Cultured Podcast and founder of FRQNCY Media

Michelle Khouri, host of The Cultured Podcast and founder of FRQNCY Media


Episode Fourteen: No More Silence

This week we talk with Malinda Maynor Lowery and William Sturkey, both professors of History at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, about the recent removal of the Confederate monument known as Silent Sam. The monument was erected in 1913 on the upper quad known as McCorkle Place ostensibly to remember "the sons of the University who died for their beloved Southland 1861-1865.” Malinda and William note the important distinction between a memorial and a monument: a memorial honors a loss whereas a monument celebrates some new entity or concept. This distinction is vital when considering the timeline of Silent Sam’s installation on campus. Nearly 50 years after the end of the Civil War, did the administration truly intend to memorialize the dead or did it wish to declare the campus a space for celebrating Confederate values and Jim Crow practices?  


 The pedestal of Silent Sam after it was removed on August 20, 2018. Photo by Hameltion via Wikimedia Commons.

The pedestal of Silent Sam after it was removed on August 20, 2018. Photo by Hameltion via Wikimedia Commons.


The removal of Confederate monuments has been a slow process lasting several decades, but the fight has picked up speed after nine people were murdered by white supremacist Dylan Roof in Emanuel A.M.E. Church in Charleston, South Carolina in 2015. Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote that “visitors to Charleston have long been treated to South Carolina’s attempt to clean its history and depict its secession as something other than a war to guarantee the enslavement of the majority of its residents” (source). He urged for the removal of the Confederate flag from capitol grounds in Columbia. Activist Bree Newsome removed the flag from South Carolina’s state house grounds in an act of civil disobedience in the summer 2015. Eventually, South Carolina officially removed the flag that had inspired and encouraged terrorism.

These acts of horrific violence reignited the decades-old fight to remove Confederate monuments that embolden and elevate Confederate values. In 2017, New Orleans removed four confederate monuments, including P.G.T. Beauregard and Robert E. Lee. The statue of Beauregard was removed in the middle of the night by a team bound in bullet-proof gear. Mayor Mitch Landrieu said that the statue of “Robert E. Lee was used as an example to send a message to the rest of the country, and to all the people that lived here, that the Confederacy was a noble cause. And that's just not true” (source).

Furthermore, the North Carolina legislature enacted a law amidst this 2017 climate that “prevents removing, relocating, or altering monuments, memorials, plaques and other markers that are on public property without permission from the N.C. Historical Commission” (source.) Shortly after this, a group of activists took town a statue dedicated to “the boys who wore grey” in Durham, North Carolina. Like Silent Sam, this statue was erected by the Daughters of the Confederacy many years after the end of the Civil War (source). 


 Plaque on the pedestal of Silent Sam. Photo by Hameltion via Wikimedia Commons

Plaque on the pedestal of Silent Sam. Photo by Hameltion via Wikimedia Commons


Malinda and William discuss what this history means for the UNC Chapel Hill campus. For many, the town of Chapel Hill and the University community has long represneted one of North Carolina’s most “progressive” spaces. However, as they explain the University’s Board of Governors is a highly politicized and partisan entity that has used the controversy about the statue as a “bargaining chip” in other debates about the role of public education in the state. On August 20, 2018 protestors toppled the statue. Currently, it does not stand on campus, but there has been a debate about its potential reinstallation. What does it mean to re-erect a Confederate monument on public grounds in 2018?

As educators, Malinda and William also express their concerns about UNC students’ safety and well-being as well as the role of historians in contextualizing these issues for the larger public. Ultimately, the presence of Confederate monuments dictates who has claim on a space. As Malinda says in this episode, Silent Sam was erected by a university administration that never expected UNC Chapel Hill would someday, finally, be integrated.


  University Ephemera Collection, North Carolina Collection, Wilson Library , University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill via Wikimedia Commons.

University Ephemera Collection, North Carolina Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill via Wikimedia Commons.


We’d like to think Malinda, William, and the Center for the Study of the American South for joining us for this conversation. We’d also like to thank Goliath the pit bull for his general good cheer and wonderful recording etiquette.


Episode Thirteen: Grow

This week, we talk pumpkins-- giant pumpkins. Randi R. Byrd serves as the Community Engagement Coordinator for the American Indian Center at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and facilitates the Healthy Native North Carolinians Network. She is also an award-winning grower of giant pumpkins. 


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Although Randi always had a green thumb, she only connected her interest in agricultural practice to her fascination with pumpkins in 2009. Growing a 700-pound pumpkin is a difficult feat that often requires the support of family and friends. Randi talks about the community she found not only in fellow growers of giant pumpkins, but the local Indigenous community as well as her online friends that encouraged her pursuit, performed ceremony on the land with her, and physically tilled the soil from which actual magic could grow.


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Pumpkins are the perfect harbinger of fall. Around the end of September, they start appearing rapidly in grocery stores, on front porches, and in our food. For growers of giant pumpkins, however, the fruit is not a seasonal occupation. Growing pumpkins of this size requires months of planning and hard work. You must select a site in full sunlight, where the soil must be monitored and brought to the ideal pH level. The seeds should have the ideal genetics, as big pumpkins beget bigger pumpkins. Once in the ground, you must train the vines and cover them with soil to promote secondary root growth, while also watching carefully for signs of Vine Borer. A giant pumpkin takes at least 130 days to grow and each day is more vital than the last as your giant pumpkin grows into something incredible.

Growers capture the imagination of audiences at state fairs and weigh-ins, but it’s more than that — growers work to share their knowledge and seeds with other growers, promoting a community of those interested in mixing genetics and hard work to produce the stuff of fairytale. Although there is competition in the growing community, what it comes down to is cultivating land to produce more than fruit.


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P.S. As Randi says, growing real magic isn’t about winning. In case you’re curious, though, the world record for giant pumpkins was in fact a whopping 2,6246 pounds set by grower Mathia Willemijn in 2016 (source).

More about our guest: Randi R. Byrd is unapologetic cultivator of love, community and absurdly large pumpkins. At the American Indian Center at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, she serves at the Community Engagement Coordinator and facilitates the Healthy Native North Carolinians Network. she collaborates with diverse indigenous communities in North Carolina and beyond around health and wellness through a holistic community lens, community grassroots organizing that values indigenous ways of knowing and practices, by facilitating and promoting tribally-vetted and culturally appropriate curricula about Native Peoples, and affirming tribal self-determination. In 2016 she was recognized by the university with the C. Knox Massey Distinguished Service Award, celebrating “unusual, meritorious or superior contributions.” Her hobbies include growing competition-sized giant pumpkins, fishing, poetry, and creating beautiful trouble with those who dare. She is currently working towards certification as a Horticultural Therapist through the NC Botanical Garden at UNC Chapel Hill and serves on the Advisory Committee for the North Carolina Native American Ethnobotany Project.


From Instagram, #giantpumpkin:

Episode Twelve: Environmental Tell-All

This week, we’re back in Boone — well, Banner Elk — North Carolina. We sat down with Zackary Vernon, an assistant professor in the Department of English at Appalachian State University. Zack has lived in Boone for three years and chronicled his early days in the high country in the essay, “Adventures of a Bad Environmentalist.” The piece was published in the North Carolina Literary Review and won the first Alex Albright Creative Nonfiction Prize. We talked with Zack about what it means to be an environmentalist and the problematic nature of environmentalism.


 Looking out from Zack’s front yard.

Looking out from Zack’s front yard.


Banner Elk, Boone, West Jefferson, and Blowing Rock, all nestled in the Blue Ridge Mountains, comprise the “high country” of southern Appalachia. Each town in the high country has a different population and a different feel, from wealthy second homers and retirees to ski resorts and financially challenged college students. 

When Zack moved to Boone, he was excited to live among nature, have a small farm, raise chickens, and the like. Environmentalism sounded good, but it turned out to be much messier and far less idyllic than Zack had imagined. In environmental circles, Zack says, there’s a tendency to romanticize oneness with nature. That all wore off when he found himself playing judge, jury, and executioner of the creatures around him.


 Zack Vernon, admitted “bad environmentalist”

Zack Vernon, admitted “bad environmentalist”


Zack reads from his piece, “Boone Summer: Adventures of a Bad Environmentalist.” He ruminates on his somewhat eccentric neighbor, Larry, and the feces-filled realities of being a good environmental steward.

After the reading, Gina and Zack discuss his forthcoming environmental tell-all book, in which Zack pulls the curtain back on how messy and uncomfortable environmentalism is. “Sometimes it feels like you’re violating your most basic principles in order to live this principled life you envisioned for yourself,” he says. 

Sound Note: There is a small sound glitch around minute 20:45 of this episode. We apologize for this hiccup in the original recording. Sometimes computers fail us. Zack says, “We see no tracks in the garden, but there is a pile of shit out in the garden.”

 

Episode Eleven: ᏙᎯᏧ

In this episode, Gina visits Dr. Ben Frey, a citizen of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians and a professor in the American Studies department at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Ben talks about the current state of the Cherokee language and revitalization efforts in North Carolina. As Cherokee is the only surviving language in the Southern Iroquoian language family, it is remarkably unique. The Cherokee language is only about as similar to its nearest linguistic relative as English is to Russian. Ben discusses the importance of the language not only linguistically, but also as a tool to view his peoples’ knowledge about how to live in harmony with one another and the world.


 Ben Frey started a Cherokee language coffee hour at UNC.

Ben Frey started a Cherokee language coffee hour at UNC.


The language is spoken by the three federally recognized nations of the Cherokee people: the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians in present-day North Carolina, the Cherokee Nation in present-day Oklahoma, and the United Keetoowah Band also in present-day Oklahoma. Because of historical bias against Indigenous languages, the Cherokee language is endangered with approximately only 12,000 Cherokee speakers remaining across over 300,000 Cherokee citizens. Only 230 members of the Eastern Band speak the language. Many of the speakers are over the age of 65, and the language has not been passed on to younger generations. Although the language is publicly visible on street signs, store signs, and pottery, it is rarely spoken in public life. 

Ben emphasizes the connection between the Cherokee language and the Cherokee people. He describes how his Cherokee elders posit that all things are endowed by the Creator with a particular vibration, and the Cherokee language is the vibration given to the Cherokee people as the sound with which they are supposed to vibrate. To him, that sound feels particularly southern, and it is tied to a specific place: the southern Appalachians, which are meant to echo with the sound of the Cherokee language. 


 Street Sign in Cherokee, NC | Photo by Billy Hathorn via Wikimedia Commons

Street Sign in Cherokee, NC | Photo by Billy Hathorn via Wikimedia Commons


Ben then turns to a discussion of current revitalization efforts. In both current-day Oklahoma and North Carolina, Cherokee people have created language immersion schools with the goal of exposing infants as young as six months old to the Cherokee language eight hours a day, five days a week. It began as a childcare program and developed into New Kituwah Academy in North Carolina. As the children have grown, the schools have added grades, teaching students all of their academic subjects in the Cherokee language. The immersion school in North Carolina recently graduated its first class of sixth graders, and the school in Oklahoma recently graduated its first class of high schoolers. Ben would like to encourage those high schoolers to come study with him at UNC Chapel Hill, offering “ᏙᏳᏛ ᎠᎭᏂ ᏤᏓᏍᏗ ᎠᏆᏚᎵ.”

Ben notes that although the language is endangered today, it wasn’t always that way. It was spoken regularly for over 14,000 years. As late as 1955 half of the community in Big Cove spoke the Cherokee language at home. He wonders how we might move beyond Anglo-centric bias to create a world where understanding Cherokee is meaningful and useful. 

Ben urges both Cherokee people and non-Native speakers who would like to learn Cherokee to consider their motivations. Particularly because the language is endangered, studying it can be depressing or feel like an obligation, and for Indigenous people, it may bring up negative feelings about contemporary and historical traumas, but Ben encourages language learners to find their joy. And he suggests that non-Cherokee learners ask themselves what they can bring to the community as a language learner. He also urges those learning the language to set a small goal and develop a habit — to learn a few phrases and try to order a cup of coffee knowing that they will make mistakes, but understanding that they can laugh at these mistakes. 


 Ben Frey who will be translating Drake’s latest album into ᏣᎳᎩ.

Ben Frey who will be translating Drake’s latest album into ᏣᎳᎩ.


We close this episode with a discussion of what Ben loves about the language and why he thinks the Cherokee language is important. He uses the phrase ᏙᎯᏧ to illustrate how the language creates and shapes relationships between people. Although this phrase might be translated into English as “how’s it going?,” the word ᏙᎯ means peace, slowness, and restfulness. The shift in emphasis in the Cherokee phrase marks a different kind of relationship between people. 

Ben asserts that learning the Cherokee language is important because it gives us “a tool to view how our ancestors knew that they were supposed to live in the world.” He emphasizes that Indigenous cultures worldwide lasted for as long as they have and are still here because they were doing something right. That knowledge is encapsulated in Indigenous languages, and by caring for these languages, we care for this knowledge. In an era of climate change, hurricanes, deforestation, and violence against one another, Ben suggests that the whole world might benefit from learning Indigenous ways.

 We would like to thank Ben for his time, and Mr. Ed Fields for all of his wonderful language work and his “Cherokee glasses.”



** During this episode, Ben discusses briefly the problematic term “Cherokee Princess,” noting that the term “Cherokee Princess” should set off alarm bells when we hear it because the Cherokee people do not have royal families. Furthermore, the etymology of the term might very well emerge from a time when Cherokee women were kidnapped and sold into sex slavery by people who “marketed” them as “Cherokee Princesses.” The term implies that one might have been forced into sex slavery, part of a history of violence against indigenous women which persists today, as indigenous women are disproportionately reported missing or murdered in both the United States and Canada.

Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women Database: https://www.mmiwdatabase.com

Episode Ten: Theater Everywhere

This week, we talk with the founder and Executive/Artistic Director of the Serenbe Playhouse, Brian Clowdus. Brian is known for building immersive, site-specific productions using the “playhouse” of the grounds of Serenbe, a small curated community just outside of Newnan, Georgia. We talk about how outdoor theater both inspires innovation and provides for more accessible theater in the U.S. South and beyond and how Brian’s productions have created room for outdoor drama to grow.


 From the recent production of  The Seagull .

From the recent production of The Seagull.


Like many professional theater artists, Brian went to school in the northeast and moved to New York to pursue his career. After a revelation that working in New York wasn’t for him, Brian moved back to the south to be close to family and to have the space to pursue the type of theater that he wanted to create. And then he visited Serenbe.


 Brian Clowdus as Sir Walter Raleigh in the outdoor drama  The Lost Colony  in 2009, the summer Gina & Brian met. Photo courtesy of the Roanoke Island Historical Association

Brian Clowdus as Sir Walter Raleigh in the outdoor drama The Lost Colony in 2009, the summer Gina & Brian met. Photo courtesy of the Roanoke Island Historical Association


Serenbe is described “a wellness community connected to nature on the edge of Atlanta... a neighborhood full of fresh food, fresh air and focused on wellbeing.” Serenbe’s Playhouse has over 50,000 visitors a season and only a small percentage are Serenbe community members. People travel from all over Georgia and beyond to see famous titles including Peter Pan and, recently, Titanic — each produced with inventive design and directorial choices. Brian discusses how the unique challenges of the outdoor play space both inspire and encourage the whole team at Serenbe Playhouse to think big, often announcing new ideas before they’re entirely sure how to make them reality.

Since founding Serenbe Playhouse, Brian has gone on to share his process with other locations as Brian Clowdus Experiences. Having theater outdoors allows companies of all sizes to mount productions fit for their budgets, artistic goals, and cast. Brian shares the value of theater uninhibited by space with areas all over the country as an option that is both financially and creatively more accessible for theater makers. By focusing on connecting with audiences -- for if it weren’t for audiences, there would be no show -- Brian understands how to produce theater that everyone can experience.


Titanic: The Musical at Serenbe Playhouse Music & Lyrics by Maury Yeston, Book by Peter Stone Directed by Brian Clowdus


Each season has six productions, including annual shows The Sleepy Hollow Experience (running September 26 to November 4) and The Snow Queen (running from November 28 to December 30). You can learn more about Brian and the Serenbe Playhouse by visiting their website, www.serenbeplayhouse.com. If you’re in the Atlanta area, we encourage you to check out The Edgar Allan Poe Experience, which will run at The Wren’s Nest from October 17-31.


 See The Edgar Allan Poe Experience at The Wren’s Nest this fall.

See The Edgar Allan Poe Experience at The Wren’s Nest this fall.


We would like to thank Brian for taking the time to talk with us and share more about his incredible work and Ed Thrower for assembling sound clips for the episode.

Episode Nine: Plan B(oone), Meat Camp

This week Gina, Kelly, and Adjoa took a trip to Boone, North Carolina, a city in the southern Appalachian Mountains with its fair share of mythology and nostalgia from its namesake, Daniel Boone, to its contemporary tourist economy. Although Boone and Watauga County were largely spared from the ravages of mining and mountaintop removal, it is nevertheless a complicated space mired in controversies about gentrification that eerily echo Watauga County’s colonial history. As your About South team travels through the county, they visit the famous Mast General Store and end up in Meat Camp. All the while they try to pin down what’s real about southern Appalachia and the tourist economy and speculate about the future of a place with an apocryphal past. 


 Mast General Store, a real place. Sort of.

Mast General Store, a real place. Sort of.


On the way to Boone, the team talks about the history of the city and the history of Daniel Boone, the city’s namesake. Gina helps to clear up some of the confusion and differentiate Daniel Boone from other famous and infamous “frontiersman” such as Johnny Appleseed and Davy Crockett. Using the line “more room, Daniel Boone” from a poem, Gina explains how Daniel Boone took white settlers beyond the Yadkin Valley and across the Cumberland Gap, trespassing into Cherokee territory and then into Shawnee territory and violating treaties between the British and Native nations. Eventually, as Gina explains, Daniel Boone’s “exploration” and the land speculation that followed him became a factor in the American Revolution. 


  Daniel Boone Escorting Settlers Through the Cumberland Gap  by George Caleb Bingham, 1851-1852

Daniel Boone Escorting Settlers Through the Cumberland Gap by George Caleb Bingham, 1851-1852


 After arriving in Boone, the local hosts, Jessica Martell and Zackary Vernon, recommend taking a trip to Plan B in Meat Camp. Gina, Kelly and Adjoa are intrigued by the name of the place, so they decided to go. On the way, they stop at the Lucky Pickle in Valle Crucis for lunch and run into Cody Miller who tells them a little more about Meat Camp. Cody confirms that it was a place to hunt and process or dress meat, but he calls into question its affiliation with Daniel Boone. 

Before arriving at Meat Camp, the team — accompanied by Zach — takes a quick detour to walk through the Mast General Store, a general store and post office built in 1882 and later purchased by the Mast family. On the road to Meat Camp, they discuss how the store trades in nostalgia for a time that never actually existed.


 Meat Camp

Meat Camp


 At Meat Camp, the About South team spends some time sitting on the stoop and talking with locals. They meet Samantha Bradshaw, a cashier at Plan B, who tells them about the history of the store and Meat Camp in general. They then meet up with Zackary’s coworkers, Jessie Blackburn and Billy Schumann who are kind enough to invite them into their yard to visit with their sheep and to learn more about Meat Camp. Billy, who is the Director of the Center for Appalachian Studies at Appalachian State University, describes how gentrification has become a problem in Watauga County as houses in the county are purchased by vacationers looking for second homes, which, in turn, prices long-term residents out of the housing market. In parting, Billy offers some sage wisdom about Hillbilly Elegy, the recent controversial New York Times bestseller about the region:“Everyone is entitled to talk about their truth and their experience, but it’s never a good idea to extrapolate the whole of a region of 205,000 square miles and 25 million people out of that.” 

We would like to thank Zack Vernon and Jessica Martell for their exceptional hospitality. We would also like to thank Cory Miller, Samantha Bradshaw, Wayne Pennington, Jessie Blackburn, and Billy Schumann for their contributions to this episode. 


Episode Eight: Upstairs, 1973

On June 24, 1973, an arsonist set fire to the Upstairs Lounge, a gay bar in New Orleans’ French Quarter. Dozens of people lost their lives that night, but the event isn’t widely-known about. This week, we sit down with Ryan Prechter, a visiting lecturer in Georgia State University’s History Department. Ryan studies queer history in the south, particularly in New Orleans. We revisit the tragedy with Ryan to better understand why it happened and how it relates to where we are now.


 The memorial plaque located at the site of the fire. Photo: Courtesy of Ryan Prechter

The memorial plaque located at the site of the fire. Photo: Courtesy of Ryan Prechter


The Upstairs Lounge was situated in the heart of the French quarter in an unassuming spot, as gay-friendly bars were at the time. June 24, 1973, a Sunday, the Upstairs Lounge hosted an all-day drinking event. The bar got crowded and the crowd got intoxicated. Patrons reported a man in the restroom for “bothering” people, declining to go into specifics, and he was removed from the bar. A while later, someone incessantly rang the bar’s doorbell, usually a signal that a patron’s ride had arrived to escort them home. But that night, there wasn’t a car waiting. On the other side of the bar’s main entrance were flames. 

A bartender was able to get some people to safety through the emergency exit in the back, but the bar itself was a fire hazard. As the fire department tried to quell the flames, it became apparent that there were still several people inside the building, trapped behind bar-covered windows. Those on the street could only watch. Thirty-two people died. In the aftermath, the Times-Picayune likened the scene to Hitler’s incinerators on its front page. Nobody in the city could figure out if that many people had died from fire in New Orleans before. No one was ever arrested or charged for the fire, but the man who was booted from the Upstairs Lounge is widely believed to be the arsonist.


 The Upstairs Lounge is now unassuming office space. Photo: Courtesy of Ryan Prechter

The Upstairs Lounge is now unassuming office space. Photo: Courtesy of Ryan Prechter


The fire at the Upstairs Lounge is an important moment in gay history, but many people, gay or not, don’t know about it. Ryan heard about it for the first time shortly after the 40th anniversary in 2013. He wondered how he’d never known about the incident even though he’d spent a good amount of time in gay spaces and around gay people in the French Quarter. “The fact that I didn’t know about this, I knew other people must not know about this as well,” he says. 

The Stonewall protests in New York City galvanized gay people and gay rights’ activism. The fire at the Upstairs Lounge did neither of those things for New Orleans. Gay liberation groups and safe spaces existed, but “radical politicization had not found its way to New Orleans,” Ryan says. Additionally, the anti-gay sentiments that caused Stonewall weren’t to blame for the events at the Upstairs Lounge — the person who set the fire was likely a gay man — and the shame of homosexuality persisted. Many people didn’t claim their gay relatives’ remains to lay them to rest. 

Ryan attributes the more recent revisiting of the Upstairs Lounge by historians and scholars to a collective desire to bring justice to the situation after the 40th anniversary in 2013. He cites Skylar Fein's work, "Remember the Upstairs Lounge" as an important node in the memorialization.  New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu, son of the mayor at the time of the event, memorialized the fire at the Upstairs Lounge almost as if to make good since his father decided not to return from vacation after the tragedy in 1973. The Archdiocese of New Orleans, which largely ignored the fire at the Upstairs Lounge, released an apology. Today, the door that led to the Upstairs Lounge remains. The plaque that commemorates the fire is as unassuming as the bar once was, a bit of history hidden in plain sight that largely goes unnoticed.


 The door today. Photo Courtesy of Ryan Precter

The door today. Photo Courtesy of Ryan Precter


We'd like to thank Ryan for sitting down with us to talk about this event. The Huffington Post collected images of the Upstairs Lounge before the fire. You can see them hereThe View Upstairs (an off-broadway musical about the Upstairs Lounge) by Max Vernon just closed in May. Learn more about the show here

Episode Seven: Birds in the City


  A Blue Heron in Piedmont Park, Atlanta

 A Blue Heron in Piedmont Park, Atlanta


It may seem obvious, but Jason reiterates that birds care little for our sense of cartographic regionalism. They are, however, influenced greatly by eco-regionalism. Depending on the needs of the species, some birds can live as easily in the North Georgia mountains as they can in parts of Canada. Urban development, although certainly devastating to some ecosystems, may provide new shelters for generalist/opportunistic birds like the “Sky Lamborghini,” the Peregrine Falcon, who is able to substitute skyscrapers for cliff faces. Other species build their nests in the nooks and crannies of modern architecture and find easily-replenished food sources in our daily city life.  


 Sky Lamborghini via Wikimedia Commons (Photo: Francisco M. Marzoa Alonso)

Sky Lamborghini via Wikimedia Commons (Photo: Francisco M. Marzoa Alonso)


Because the southeast has so much old growth forest, there is a great variety of species. Atlanta is commonly referred to as “the city within the forest,” and Jason says it is because of this that Atlanta allows for such diverse birding. Piedmont Park alone has over 200 species over the course of the year -- enough to make even novice birders excited. With so much bird life in and around the city, almost everyone has a bird story to tell, a moment in their daily lives where actual dinosaurs did something amazing. 

Why make birds political? Well, because everything is political. In his article “The Woods are My Safe Haven-- But That’s Not True For Everyone” on Audubon, Jason writes, “we celebrate [nature’s] majesty and encourage others to go out and experience it. And yet, the targets of this encouragement seem to be calculated. Whether it’s on ads for outdoor gear and apparel or in mainstream media, you typically don’t see depictions of black people enjoying the outdoors.” 


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This lack of representation limits access to a space that should be available for everyone. We naturally gravitate towards images that look like us and allow those images to outline our own interests. A space that is defined by its openness, nature is guarded by depictions of who should enjoy its “majesty.” This issue becomes more complicated when we understand that nature is not exclusive to rural, secluded spaces -- that nature is, in fact, everywhere we go.

Through his work in the education department at the Atlanta Zoo, Jason visits schools around Atlanta to teach kids about animals and encourage them to pursue their scientific interests. As birding becomes more popular -- both in Atlanta and at large -- Jason is optimistic that the birding space will grow to be more inclusive, diverse, and accessible. 

Visit Jason on Twitter, and play #TrickyBirdID with him every week!

 

Episode Six: Puppets!

This week, we went down the road to the Center for Puppetry Arts, the only center of its kind in the country. When we think of puppets, Jim Henson -- Father of the Muppets and Mississippian -- usually comes to mind. The Center is home to the largest collection of Jim Henson puppets and props, but it’s also much more than that. Gina spoke with Museum Director Jill Nash Malool and Producer Kristin Haverty about the importance of the Center’s location in Georgia, what it means to support the arts in local communities and internationally, and what we still have to learn from puppets.


 The Center for Puppetry Arts showcases contemporary puppetry, a rich global historical collection, and your old friend Kermit.

The Center for Puppetry Arts showcases contemporary puppetry, a rich global historical collection, and your old friend Kermit.


But first, what exactly is a puppet? Puppets are things that you can pick up and manipulate and turn into a character. Jill admits that definition is … pretty vague, but that’s on purpose. People who visit the museum usually don’t realize just how connected their lives are to puppetry. Puppets can be made from clay, wood, or textiles. They can be stop-motion and for one-time use. The museum’s founder, Vincent Anthony, decided he wanted to put together a center where you could have puppetry live, puppetry as a static fine art, and puppetry as a craft for the public. Larger cities usually have a ballet, an opera, or both, but very few have a dedicated place to experience puppetry.

The Center for Puppetry Arts has two permanent galleries: the Global Collection Gallery and Jim Henson Collection Gallery. The Global Gallery teaches visitors about puppetry as a global tradition. The puppets in this collection include ones from The Lion King on Broadway, marionettes from China, a leather shadow puppet from Cambodia, and more.


 Cambodian leather shadow puppet

Cambodian leather shadow puppet


Puppets are displayed as fine art throughout the Center, which means, like at most museums, you can’t play with them. This also means they have to cared for and conserved like pieces of fine art. In 2007, when Jim Henson’s family decided the Center would be home to the world’s largest collection of Jim Henson puppets (including the Fraggles, the Muppets, and your friends from Sesame Street!), props, and costumes, the center had to renovate its storage area to include things like climate control to meet museum standards — and keep the puppets around as long as possible for future generations. At the the Center, there’s always something new to see: most items are only put on display once every two years.


 Dance your cares away!

Dance your cares away!


People usually don’t think of the arts as having a home in the south, Gina notes. But the Center is very well known in the international puppetry scene, and in domestic traditional arts scenes. “There’s definitely a sense of Atlanta and the center having a very prominent role in puppetry,” Kristin says. Kristin loves that the center has a long history of inviting guest artists to share ideas and techniques and create an exchange of ideas and introduce people to the south once they choose to venture outside of the world’s busiest airport.

Even though it’s off the beaten path for traditional art purveyors, the the Center is a destination for puppeteers from around the world. Kristen doesn’t think Georgia’s low per capita spending for arts means audiences aren’t interested in experiencing new and innovative art. Kristen says audience interest and appreciation despite low arts budgeting makes it even more important that the Center is in Atlanta. The center instills a sense of excitement about the arts into children and features adult programming and shows people of all ages how to incorporate the arts into their own lives.


 War Horse, a puppet worn by two puppeteers and sturdy enough for a human actor to ride.

War Horse, a puppet worn by two puppeteers and sturdy enough for a human actor to ride.


In 1983, the Center created Experimental Puppet Theater (XPT) as a way for puppeteers doing shows at the Center to have fun together, branch out, and try new things. Before long, the Center added more people and structure to the program. Now, every January, applicants (mostly local) submit their XPT ideas. Selected candidates, visual artists, performers, and other interested parties come together to develop a group show and individual pieces. It all hits the stage every May. XPT participants have taken the unique puppet-centric platform and formed art collectives and ventured into film and television work after the program.



One of the annual highlights of the Center's programming is The Ghastly Dreadfuls. Kristin calls it a synthesis of great aspects of puppetry because it showcases great storytelling and uses different styles of puppetry, creating an all-around fun evening of theater. But that show is only around Halloween, so we recommend marking your calendar now.

And on August 30th, the Center hosts the Dark Crystal Ball to celebrate the opening of the exhibit for one of Henson's most beloved non-Muppet masterpieces. 


From Instagram #puppets:

Episode Five: Hospitality

In this episode, we talk about the myth of southern hospitality with Tony Szczesiul, Professor of English at the University of Massachusetts Lowell and author of The Southern Hospitality Myth: Ethics, Politics, Race, and American Memory. Tony traces the long history of the myth and explores how it is embedded with the region’s other non-hospitable traits including enslavement and segregation. Tracing the history of southern hospitality throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries reveals its importance to contemporary debates about immigration, tourism, and the culture industry.


  The Southern Hospitality Myth: Ethics, Politics, Race, and American Memory  from UGA Press

The Southern Hospitality Myth: Ethics, Politics, Race, and American Memory from UGA Press


Southern hospitality is one of the most pervasive and persistent myths about the U.S. South, and it is used to convey a lot of values and ideals and send certain messages about the region. We think of hospitality as a positive value associated with welcoming, manners, kindness, and generosity. However, hospitality is also about exclusion: defining who belongs and who does not. Stories told about southern hospitality were appealing to white people and welcoming to white people. However, as Tony argues, enslaved people made southern hospitality possible: wealthy white planters could not extend the hospitality without a contingent of forced laborers. When the phrase “southern hospitality” emerges in the 1820s, it debuts in debates about slavery, where it is clearly linked to the slave economy and made possible through slave labor, becoming a shorthand for the justification of southern plantation life as the pinnacle of manners, tradition, and ritual. The myth becomes a compelling propaganda tool, and stories about southern hospitality become an important part of the defense of slavery. 

While we think of hospitality as either taking place in a domestic space between individuals, Tony invites us to also think about how hospitality involves relationships across borders and countries. In his book, he explores how hospitality factors into how Americans responded to the Fugitive Slave Law and Negro Seaman Acts. The Fugitive Slave Law made it illegal to exercise hospitality to runaway slaves. Because many Christians saw hospitality as a biblical imperative, they viewed the law as an infringement on their right to practice their Christian beliefs and to control the threshold of their own homes. Some Americans who were on the fence about slavery became active abolitionists, and the law spurred a national debate about how we defined citizenship. Interestingly, both sides of the debate cited St. Paul’s Letter to Philemon to justify their position with slaveholders noting that St. Paul sent a runaway slave back to his owner and abolitionists noting that St. Paul sent the slave back as a brother in Christ. The same biblical imperative to be hospitable is referenced in contemporary immigration debates, and has inspired some southern evangelicals to make stronger demands about how the United States treats immigrants. 


 A portrait of the fugitive slave Anthony Burns, whose arrest and trial under the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 touched off riots and protests by abolitionists and citizens of Boston in the spring of 1854.

A portrait of the fugitive slave Anthony Burns, whose arrest and trial under the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 touched off riots and protests by abolitionists and citizens of Boston in the spring of 1854.


Although the myth has complicated origins in slavery, it evolves to assume a variety of meanings over time. References to southern hospitality proliferate throughout the twentieth century, undergirding southern cultural endeavors that we can still see on the pages of Southern Living today. Beginning in the 1920s, southern hospitality is deployed to develop southern tourism and foreign investment in the region. Tony urges us to remember that southern hospitality has always had an economic imperative. The myth was created by southern slaveholders to justify their lifestyle, and it has paid off for generations of white southerners. Tony relates a story about how Thomas Jefferson who had a reputation for hospitality, hid slave labor from guests using dumbwaiters. He sees this story as a metaphor for the myth itself: unseen labor went into the construction of the myth and unseen strangers were relied on for their labor but never welcomed. Ultimately, Tony argues that southern hospitality is not ethically possible until after the Civil Rights Movement. 

While the history of southern hospitality involves white people welcoming other white people and excluding others on the basis of their race, Tony also discusses how alternative frameworks for hospitality were happening in non-white communities at the same time. For example, the Negro Motorist Green Book published between 1936 and 1966 provided African Americans with a way to navigate through segregated facilities as they travelled through the United States. Tony notes that according to the Green Book, many prominent southern towns known for their “hospitality” did not have a single hotel where African Americans could stop and stay for the night. However, the book did include “tourist homes” where families welcomed travelers who contacted them in advance. 


 Cover of the 1940 edition.

Cover of the 1940 edition.


We would like to thank Tony Szczesiul for talking with us this week. We would also like to thank all of our friends in Lowell, Massachusetts: Sue, Paula, and everyone who came out to the panel in April about why southern studies matters everywhere. 

Episode Four: Presenting The Sound and the Furious


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In their first episode, "Trump, the Dirty South, and the Humanities," they "look back one year into Trump's presidency. Andy sees Agrarians Everywhere! Elizabeth admits that her antebellum knowledge finally feels relevant."

We love tuning into this show, and we know our listeners will love it too. 

Learn more at https://www.soundandthefuriouspod.com.

Episode Three: Presenting Story of My Life


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From Story of My Life: "Bill Best is known as the Tomato Man in parts of Eastern Kentucky. But he'll tell you he's more of an heirloom bean man. A prolific seed saver, Bill has more than 700 varieties of bean seeds; he's even brought a bean back from the brink of distinction. He's the author of Saving Seeds, Preserving Taste, and a founder of the Sustainable Mountain Agriculture Center. Story of My Life met Bill on his farm to hear about heirloom vegetables, growing up rural, and his life on the land. In this episode, you'll learn how to save tomato seeds from your garden."

Learn more at: http://www.storyofmylifepod.com.

Also, check our Lindsey Alexander's new collection of poetry, Rodeo in Reverse

From Instagram, #tomato

Episode Two: Five More Facts, or Crayfish Living


 Dr. Grover loves peas, fresh goldfish, and building little structures out of gravel. 

Dr. Grover loves peas, fresh goldfish, and building little structures out of gravel. 


We're also launching our Patreon account, which you can find at the bottom of this page or here. You can also support us with one=time donations via our support page. We really appreciate your support, and we'll use your money to continue to offer you ad-free content as well as the occasional promotional swag surprise.

Episode Sixteen: Gone With the Windys

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. 


 Framed "conversation piece" from Margaret Mitchell's house in Midtown, Atlanta.

Framed "conversation piece" from Margaret Mitchell's house in Midtown, Atlanta.


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.


 Illustration to  Fanny Hill  by Édouard-Henri Avril.

Illustration to Fanny Hill by Édouard-Henri Avril.


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.


 Pansy, aka, Garbage O'Hara

Pansy, aka, Garbage O'Hara

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. 

Episode Fifteen: Television

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.


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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:

Lost Boundaries (1949).

Ernest T Bass learning some table manners. The Andy Griffith Show.

Buckwild Trailer 1 (2013) HD - MTV. 

Jamie Oliver makes a bet with West Virginia radio host Rod on the Dawg. This clip is from episode 4 of Jamie Oliver's Food Revolution.

Lafayette serves a couple of Rednecks an AIDS Burger. © 2008 HBO Productions; True Blood All rights reserved

Promotional spot for the third season episode "Quagmire," set in Georgia.

 

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. 

Episode Fourteen: Providence & the Anthropocene

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. 


 From the edge of the canyon.

From the edge of the canyon.


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. 


 From the floor of Providence Canyon | Photo via Wikimedia Commons

From the floor of Providence Canyon | Photo via Wikimedia Commons


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.


 Fro NPR: "The Geologic History of Earth. Note the timescales. We are currently in the Holocene, which has been warm and moist and a great time to grow human civilization. But the activity of civilization is now pushing the planet into a new epoch which scientists call the Anthropocene."  Ray Troll/Troll Art

Fro NPR: "The Geologic History of Earth. Note the timescales. We are currently in the Holocene, which has been warm and moist and a great time to grow human civilization. But the activity of civilization is now pushing the planet into a new epoch which scientists call the Anthropocene."

Ray Troll/Troll Art


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


Mapping Providence:

 

Episode Thirteen: Remembering Emily Burns

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.


 Emily Burns

Emily Burns

 

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.


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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.

Episode Twelve: When the Stories Come Out

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.


 The Wren's Nest in Atlanta's Historic West End

The Wren's Nest in Atlanta's Historic West End


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. 


 Kalin Thomas works with Scribes students.

Kalin Thomas works with Scribes students.


 Akbar Imhotep has been with The Wren's Nest since 1985.

Akbar Imhotep has been with The Wren's Nest since 1985.


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.


 Joel Chandler Harris on the front porch of his West End home.

Joel Chandler Harris on the front porch of his West End home.


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.


 The Wren's Nest receives an honor from the Atlanta City Council for its Scribes writing programs.

The Wren's Nest receives an honor from the Atlanta City Council for its Scribes writing programs.