By Chuck Reece | Photo by Sarah Dorio
From my teenage years forward, I’ve been troubled by the fact that so many talented young Southern people believe they must move away to display their talents.
I used to believe that myself, and I have seven years of history in New York City to prove it. There, I learned I could take myself out of the South, but I could never take the South out of me. I remember the spring of 1985, about six months into my first stint in Manhattan, sitting in my little fifth-floor walkup apartment, listening to Tom Petty, a Florida boy, sing this:
There’s a Southern accent
Where I come from
The young’uns call it country
The Yankees call it dumb
I got my own way of talking
And everything gets done
With a Southern accent
Where I come from
We are who we are, I reckoned. I couldn’t hide my accent even when I tried. I’d just have to impress the New York folks with my talent instead, and that’s what I tried to do. Over time, I learned to love that city with a passion — its speed butting up against quiet moments in hidden dives, its incredible density and diversity, so many people from so many places living chockablock on a few islands and a smidge of the mainland, its remarkable and determined resilience in the days after those bastards took out the skyscrapers back in 2001, during my second and final stretch in Manhattan.
Yes, I learned to love it. But it was never Home.
Home had a different accent.
Which brings me to the most remarkable thing that’s happened since we started The Bitter Southerner. Had it happened only once, I would have read nothing into it. But it’s happened repeatedly now, so it’s worth sharing.
The first time, it went like this. I was sitting in a coffee shop in Atlanta, and a young man came up to me and asked me if I was the guy from The Bitter Southerner. I said I was. He said some very nice things about the BS, and then said this: “I decided to do my graduate work back home in the South because of your site.”
Wow. That was nice.
Then it happened again. And again. And again. “I moved home because of your website.” Or “I want to see if I can do what I want to do at home.”
Between all four partners, we’ve heard variations on this more than a dozen times now.
This is scary, given the responsibility it implies, but it is also heartening, because it says young Southerners are beginning to see more possibility to live the lives they want to live in their own region. Clearly, there are countless reasons why any person might choose to live in one place vs. another, and I’d not dare overstate the influence of one website, even if it’s mine, on such decisions.
But I do think — at least, I hope — that The Bitter Southerner is making a difference by assembling a community of folks who look at the region with new eyes, who see its possibilities in new ways, who are no longer content to live within the bounds of the stereotypes with which the national media too often portray our home.
From left to right: Dave Whitling, Kyle Tibbs Jones, Chuck Reece & Butler Raines
We’ve learned three very important things by hanging out and working with folks in The Bitter Southerner Family over the last year.
Anyone who thinks the South does not harbor a great population of smart, hard-working, innovative people is ridiculously misinformed. The writers, photographers, filmmakers and illustrators who have shared their work with you demonstrate this consistently. But we also see it in our subjects — from the Mississippi and Memphis entrepreneurs behind Southern Airways Express, the little airline that could, to the wild creativity that drives the Mardi Gras Indians of New Orleans.
More people in the South are ready to talk about difficult topics than most of us think. Now and then, The Bitter Southerner gets serious and deals with issues of race ... or issues facing rural farming and fishing communities ... or issues of systemic inequity and violence in the South’s cities. On these occasions, we always see The Bitter Southerner Family stand up and wade into some difficult waters. And with very few exceptions, y’all treat each other with respect. You have civil dialogue on difficult issues. Imagine that.
The more of our readers we meet, the more deeply we believe the South actually isn’t “like that.” Think about it. Almost every mass-media depiction of the South plays off one of two ideas: obsequious gentility or obsequious redneckery. Well, we’ve actually met and talked to a whole bunch of you by now, and most of y’all seem to fit neither stereotype. Or sometimes you fit both, like this one guy from Adel, Ga., who told us he was a “genteel redneck.” See, it depends on the moment and the circumstances. The Southern Thing is complicated. And that’s the whole point: Simplistic stereotypes miss the essential truth of the South. But The Bitter Southerner community understands that the joy of the South isn’t in our region’s individual ingredients. The joy is in how we blend them.
For almost two years now, we’ve published stories about the genuine South. What matters the most to us about the whole experience so far? Well, of course we’re as proud as punch of the work of our writers, photographers, filmmakers and illustrators. But we are proudest of the fact those stories have united a community that wants to look at important ideas — and have a little fun in the process.
Today, The Bitter Southerner community is, by even the most conservative measures, at least 50,000 strong.
Damn. Look at what y’all have done. You have created what those eggheads at the consulting firms would call “a disruptive force.”
It’s our job, we know now, to foster this community — to keep on telling its stories, to find ways to bring its members together in the real world and not just the virtual one, and to help support the businesses that represent the next iteration of our region and the best of our region today.
If we’re gonna disrupt some old beliefs and explore a few new ones, we might as well do it right. And we think the best way to do that is by being an unconventional business: one that aims not only to make a profit, but also to make a difference.
As we prepared for this year’s membership drive, we asked our contributors — who have worked for us for far less money than they deserve — to tell us why The Bitter Southerner mattered to them. We’ll show you what all of them said, in a bigger way, come Thursday, but I wanted to share one thing in particular from our Man in Memphis, Richard Murff. Richard has the distinct (or dubious) honor of having written more stories for The Bitter Southerner than anyone but yours truly. He sent me one line in particular that stuck with me:
“What The Bitter Southerner presents is an unflinching view of a place in all its weird complexity – the sorrow and the laughter, the past and the present, our crimes and, we hope, redemption.”
It struck us that maybe Murff had hit the main nerve of The Bitter Southerner: In this family, we don’t flinch. We want to look at it all: the sad parts and the happy parts, the past and the present, what was done wrong and what can be done to set it right. We are weirdly complex, just like our home.
We hope we can count on you, our readers, as well. We are deeply and eternally grateful for your support. Please join The Bitter Southerner Family, patronize The Bitter Southerner Family Establishments and buy the occasional item from The Bitter Southerner General Store. We also hope we will see you at The Bitter Southerner Family Reunion this November or other events you’ll be hearing more about as the months roll on.
You’re our family now. We aim to do right by you.