I speak for the colored women of the South, because it is there that the millions of Blacks in this country have watered the soil with blood and tears, and it is there too that the colored woman of America has made her characteristic history and there her destiny is evolving.- Anna Julia Cooper
The earliest memories that exist in my mind, exist on Hamlet Chapel Road on a plot of land in the middle county of North Carolina. The center of my universe, the long road housed the majority of my family stretched along both sides in both directions and anchored in the middle by my house, shared with my grandparents and uncle.
In this memories, I recall the simplest of things: shelves lined with mason jars before it was Etsy/Pinterest cool and the pantry laden with flours, lards, and cast iron pans. I remember the stream that ran beside the house, softly babbling against the river rocks that lined the bottom and sides and the thick, lofted tree branches that housed cardinals and bluebirds and other things my grandmother watched with delight from our wrap-around porch. I remember the willow tree, so proud and elegant and strong and the honeysuckle that my mother and I would gather to snack on while we watched the cars drive by. I remember the rolling hills, and sun tea, and the people driving over just to say hello to my grandparents or parents.
I remember, first and foremost, the land; the culture. I remember the South.
“We should just ban the South from voting. They never get it right.”
“What is wrong with southern people!? Why are they all so stupid?”
“I’m scared of the South. I never want to go there. I might get lynched.”
“It doesn’t matter anyway. The only people who live there are toothless yokels.”
“…I thought you were from New York….”
It is popular these days to disavow and distance oneself from the South, vehemently and constantly. What was once considered an American cradle has all but been formally declared as a social and political death-space, often by the same folks who seek to be politically and socially astute. What once was, in relation to the Civil Rights Movement, died 50 years ago with Dr. King and never returned. The South shall never rise again and must continue to pay the sins of fathers past. Dead.
Instead, our contemporary imaginations and discourses describe the South as a block of Republican red sweeping from Virginia deep into Texas with little give. The South is the home of the Confederate flag and the seemingly endless monuments that rise in their honor. The South is the home of the weary, “disenfranchised” white voter and their respondent racism. The South is late-nite punchline and historical crime scene. The South is silent.
In 1995, Outkast triumphantly and defiantly declared that “the South got something to say.” Speaking to the desire of artists, then, to mimic and uphold West Coast and New York values, Andre 3000 also spoke to the precarious position of being a Black Southern person in a land that time and the rest of the country want to forget.
In 2010, the vast majority of Black people in America resided in the states considered part of the South, a chain stretching from Maryland into Texas. Yet, much as it was then, our imaginations of Black in America are urban, occupying space in Chicago, New York, Los Angeles, or Oakland. Much of this is due to the narrative of the Great Migration as a tipping point in which former natives left North and West in great droves. While this migration was powerful in response to the depressed wages, limited opportunities, and threats of physical violence, the description of it as linear destiny turns our attention away from the region as a life-space in which Blackness and culture still emerge. Those who chose to stay, to make their voices heard among the willow and magnolia trees, appear stagnant until the 1950s and then go quiet again as the 1980s emerged.
Outkast’s 1995 contribution on the stage mimics in kind Anna Julia Cooper’s 1891 statements in A Voice From The South. Born in North Carolina, but educated at the University of Paris-Sorbonne, Cooper raised her voice as a Native Daughter to question the growing race problem left unresolved after the Civil War. Using an early Black feminist framework, Cooper asserted that to understand the South was to understand the fabric of American values and destiny. Similarly, she asserted that the destiny of the “colored woman” and the South were intertwined, “because it is there that the millions of Blacks in this country have watered the soil with blood and tears, and it is there too that the colored woman of America has made her characteristic history and there her destiny is evolving.”
Over 100 years separated, the children of the South rose to name and claim their place as not just spectators of their country and people but arbiters of culture, politics, and socio-political impact. Raising their voices, alongside countless others in education, music, art, theater, and politics their vision for, experience with, and memories of the South acted as both a signal and a signifier. To be Black and Southern was not to be doubly dead but instead to be offered a particular seat at the table in addition to furnishing your own. To be Black and Southern was not to be doubly discounted, but to be understood as its own positionality and epistemology. To be Black and Southern was to be the litmus test and touchstone.
To be Black and Southern…
What happened after New Orleans?
Beyonce became the first Black woman to headline Coachella in 2018, having postponed from her original 2017 date. The concert, which broke records for it’s Beyhive Buzz, paid homage and tribute to historically Black colleges and universities and Black Greek letter organizations in its thematics and motifs, itself an homage to the South as the space that birthed these two institutions. Yet, more than this, Beyonce allowed other Southern voices and themes to rise with hers in a larger, more general homage not just to the region but also to Blackness. Her sampling utilized some of the biggest names in Southern hip-hop, making nods to the regional bounce music of New Orleans, trap music, and jazz. Her vocal sampling of Nina Simone’s “Strange Fruit” evoked within it the spectre of poplar trees alongside the contemporary pain felt by Black bodies. Most poignantly, her vocalization of “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing,” penned by fellow Southern James Weldon Johnson, alongside “Freedom” felt like a continuation; a charge.
Beyonce is no stranger to amplifying the South in her musical work. Lemonade‘s visuals borrow heavily from the rural and coastal and her video “No Angels” from her self-titled album features Houston’s 4th ward prominently. A native of Houston, Beyonce’s meteoric and legendary rise has often come with new area codes and sensibilities of place. Beyonce the star belongs in New York, belongs in Los Angeles. Her representation of Black Excellence and Black Girl Magic belongs in Paris before it belongs in Texas or Louisiana or Alabama. Our imaginations of the Black, of the excellent, foreclose the South as a producer of anything more than trauma. In this regard, to acknowledge that high art, high performance, and some of the most rousing representations of Black life still comes from the South would require us to undo our own understanding and orient our senses to receive new vernacular, new images, and, most importantly new sounds. To reignite our memories would require us to challenge our own senses of the Black and who is valuable in our discourses. Homecoming must not be an activity but a practice
We must practice.
What happened after New Orleans? What happened after Charleston? What happened after Waller County, TX? What happened after Charlottesville?
As Trumpism foregrounds continued disassociation with the South, propelled by white Americans whose racial anxiety and animosity color the narrative, we must ask who we imagine to be Southern. Further, we must ask what we imagine the South to be and what we believe it to be capable of. Much like A Voice from the South, much like Outkast, much like Nina Simone, much like Dr. King, much like Beyonce, we can not turn our backs on the productions and people the region that birthed this country continue to give no matter how it struggles. We must not ignore the efforts of resistance that take place not in chic cafes or brunch locales but in local churches, rural community centers, and back country roads. We must reckon with the culture as it is, not forcing aspiration or false consciousness.
We must recognize that the South languishes because we refuse to intertwine our destinies and reckon our histories. The South languishes because we refuse to remember. We will not move forward until we remember. We will not move forward until we listen.
I do not go home often enough. What I carry from home is recipes and melodies and memories carried on the warm breeze. What Beyonce did these past few weeks, what others have done, is reassert that our destinies will forever be tied to the land and as either evolves, so too shall we. Our characteristic history, our honorable talents, exist because of the seeds planted, watered over generations and powerfully prayed over in the lap of Southern mothers. There is power in that. There is honor in that. There is life in that.