Let America be the dream the dreamers dreamed —
Let it be that great strong land of love
Where never kings connive nor tyrants scheme
That any man be crushed by one above.
— Langston Hughes
“Let America Be America Again”
By Chuck Reece
In the wake of the most divisive and hateful election season any of us can remember, the question for The Bitter Southerner becomes, as our punk-rock heroes the Clash once put it, “What are we gonna do now?”
I have a habit: Every weekly feature story we do has its own folder on the hard drive, numbered in sequential order. The number is now up to 171. It reminds me how many weeks we’ve been at this and how grateful we are to have built in audience — a family, in many ways — around The Bitter Southerner.
Slowly, with your help, we’ve been pushing this storytelling enterprise toward sustainability. Last week, some of us were trying to do some long-range planning, and a question came up: Had we ever looked at our stories, ranked by number of readers?
So I downloaded the data and discovered the most popular Tuesday feature in our three-plus-year history was Story No. 1 — the essay I wrote that explained what compelled us to start The Bitter Southerner. In that piece, I wrote the following:
If you are a person who buys the states’ rights argument … or you fly the rebel flag in your front yard … or you still think women look really nice in hoop skirts, we politely suggest you find other amusements on the web. The Bitter Southerner is not for you.
The Bitter Southerner is for the rest of us. It is about the South that the rest of us know: the one we live in today and the one we hope to create in the future.
No one on our crew would take a single word of that back today. Several people have asked me over the last three years to define more precisely what those words meant. My answer typically boils down to three things:
No. 1: We believe absolutely that a prosperous South requires respect for every individual. Here’s how we put it in our mission statement, written on our first anniversary: “The Bitter Southerner exists to support anyone who yearns to claim their Southern identity proudly and without shame — regardless of their age, race, gender, ethnic background, place of origin, politics, sexual orientation, creed, religion, or lack of religion.” We give zero credence to anyone who comes from a place of racism, homophobia or transphobia. We give no quarter to anyone who believes that others — simply by nature of who they are — are inferior. We believe every human is equal in God’s eyes. Moreover, religious intolerance has no place in the South if our region is going to prosper long after we’re gone. We don’t care which God you pray to, or whether you pray to none at all.
No. 2: You can’t talk about a prosperous future South without acknowledging the ugly and vicious parts of its past. The South defended slavery, enforced Jim Crow, beat down the marchers, turned out the dogs. It murdered and lynched people who wanted nothing more than equality in the eyes of their fellow citizens, as well as people who already had equality but supported the right of others to the same status. The South killed little girls, a subject Alabama writer Charles McNair examined poignantly in our earliest weeks. So we must never gloss over our history, even if it’s something as simple as this: If we extol the virtues of okra, the little green vegetable that binds our gumbo together, we must always acknowledge the plant is not native to North America. It came here with the slave trade.
No. 3: I tell people that if you really want to understand what The Bitter Southerner stands for, all you have to do is swap out one letter in our name. Instead of the I in Bitter, slip in an E. What we want is a Better South, for everyone who stands up and declares himself or herself a Southerner. As our rock and roll buddy Lee Bains III of Alabama’s magnificent Glory Fires put it to us two years ago:
“It doesn't matter where your parents were born or what religious tradition you follow or what type of person you find attractive; if you say you're a Southerner, then you're a fucking Southerner, and we need to hear about it.”
Damn skippy, we do.
Oh, Hell, No
Wednesday, on Facebook, we posted the same graphic we posted on election day. Two hands shaking, with the words, “We voted. Now, let’s work together.”
Our folks seemed to like that graphic just fine the day before — you know, when we believed we’d be happy to work together with the people we just beat in the election. But many people screamed back at us.
An old friend, a musician in Nashville and one of our most steadfast supporters since the beginning, wrote this: “You want me to work with the ‘lock her up’ guy? The ‘no Muslims’ guy? The pussy grabber? What part of ‘Bitter’ does The Bitter Southerner not understand?”
More poignantly, a young woman wrote, “You can't work with those who want you dead. I'm utterly afraid today, a bisexual living in Alabama. They will burn me at the stake soon.”
If you think those people are overreacting, you're wrong. Just look at this.
So let’s get something straight here: We will not shy away from shining the harshest of lights on anybody who would commit violence, terror or harassment against anyone because of who they are. And no, my old friend Jon, we will never ask any of our readers to “work with” someone who does not respect the rule of law, who would ban people from this nation based on religion, who brags about sexual assault.
Oh, hell, no. Those are the people we have to fight to our dying breath, but we must fight with dignity and with class and with the long view in mind. The fight for human rights across the South and around the world has raged for a long time, and it rages still. In my most pessimistic moments, I wonder if it will still rage long after I’m gone. But I absolutely refuse to forget the words of one of my heroes, the Civil Rights Leader and U.S. Rep. John Lewis.
“If you're not hopeful and optimistic, then you just give up. You have to take the long hard look and just believe that if you're consistent, you will succeed.”
We’d be nuts to look at what happened this week and say, “Oh, don’t worry. It’ll be OK in the end.” But we must find reasons to be hopeful and optimistic, because fighting the battles ahead of us now will be hard. We have to find the same faith that drove Congressman Lewis and his fellow citizens across that bridge in Selma.
Southerners now have to stretch farther and reach higher to build our understanding of the South and each other. In no other way can we make the place better. For our part at The Bitter Southerner, we’re going to do two things.
1. We’re going to start difficult conversations.
2. We’re going to do more stories about issues that keep the South from reaching the potential that all of us — you, the reader, us, the staff, everybody — see in our region.
Here’s how we’re getting started. First, we are making a serious commitment to bring more voices of people of color into The Bitter Southerner. You’ll see that start over the next few weeks as we introduce a new series of columns. One of those columns will be about Southern music, and I’ll be taking turns writing it with Dr. Joycelyn Wilson, one of the nation’s leading scholars on hip-hop culture. Joyce and I met at South by Southwest in the spring, and we struck up a friendship. We both believe in the power of Southern music: It’s just that she was raised on beats and rhymes and I was raised on twangs and whines. We believe that by having conversations with each other, we’re going to stake out even more of the common ground that black and white Southern music have always shared. We also believe we’ll become even better friends.
On the subject of food, one of our columnists will be the great Nicole Taylor, author of “The Up South Cookbook: Chasing Dixie in a Brooklyn Kitchen” and creator of the “Hot Grease” podcast. Nicole grew up in Athens, Georgia, and now lives in Brooklyn. She tells brilliant stories about the South through its food. Nicole will deliver many of her columns in audio form, and her first piece for us will make the connection between food and the Klan murder of U.S. Army Reserve Lt. Col. Lemuel Penn in her hometown more than 50 years ago.
If you are a Southern writer, photographer, creator, whatever, we want your voice. We want The Bitter Southerner to become the first Southern publication ever to pull off the trick of gathering a diversity of voices that reflects the true nature of the South. Like we said, if you say you’re a Southerner, we need to hear from you. My email is firstname.lastname@example.org. If you’ve got something to say, we want to hear it.
On that second point, we’re going to dig in and do stories about those who have great difficulty finding a home in the South. We have a story that’s been in the works for several months now — and you’ll see it soon — that looks at four organizations around the South that have sprung up over the last 30 years to meet a serious need: how to create a sense of family and home for young LGBTQ Southerners, too many of whom are disowned by their families and left to fend for themselves. (And it’s coming from our own Amelia Hess, a Tulane University student who interned with us this summer, a courageous and thoughtful member of the LGBTQ community.)
Of equal importance is the need for us to venture more frequently into the rural South for our stories. On election night, I could not help but think about my late, great old man, Clarence, and his 11 brothers and sisters in our little hometown of Ellijay, in the Appalachian foothills of North Georgia. All 12 of them grew up knowing that although life could be hard, they would always have a way to make a living and make lives and families there in Gilmer County. Maybe none of them would get rich, but they could live dignified lives there. And they did, every one of them.
The members of my family who chose to stay in Ellijay and build their lives there don’t have the same confidence my father’s generation had. I see too many of them and others in their community working low-paying jobs that barely keep them out of poverty.
We have to head into the rural South and learn what needs learning. We never have forgiven — and will never forgive — racism and needless phobias. Neither to some dude on the street, nor among our own families. We believe too strongly in the basic equality of every individual.
Everybody who reads the BS understands what it feels like to be the “other,” the misfit, even in their own families. We doubt you’d give a damn about our stories if that wasn’t true. But that means we have the responsibility to acknowledge that neither political party has done much to address the economic and cultural fallout that rural America has suffered with the rise of industrial agriculture, urbanization, globalization and technology. As a result, it’s clear that rural people started to feel like the “other,” too. They were mad enough about it to hand us our asses in Tuesday’s election. We can’t get better, as a region, without attempts to understand them — and to encourage them to understand us.
Maybe we’re pollyannas, but we never forget the words of old warriors like John Lewis — a man beaten down for the color of his skin on that bridge in Selma so long ago, but who still reminds us of the power of optimism and hopefulness.
We might not break it down quite as simply as David Wong, a child of rural, deep-red Illinois, did in Cracked, but it does provoke thought when he writes, “Already some of you have gotten angry, feeling this gut-level revulsion at any attempt to excuse or even understand these people. After all, they're hardly people, right? Aren't they just a mass of ignorant, rageful, crude, cursing, spitting subhumans? Gee, I hope not. I have to hug a bunch of them at Thanksgiving.”
The South at Its Best
Most people who know me only through the BS are surprised to learn that when I finally, on the third attempt, married the right person, she turned out to be a Republican. As she explained to me on our first date, “I lean the other way. But I’m kinda, you know, a Rockefeller Republican.” You know … socially liberal, but fiscally conservative. Many times since, she’s heard me hit her with the same joke I replied with on that first date: “Honey, you know there’s only about six of you left, right?”
But Stacy will fight you if you do anything that suggests women should not be paid equal wages for work of equal value. She works for the equal recognition of women entrepreneurs, researchers and academics in our home state’s life-sciences industry every day. Stacy will fight you if you tell her that she does not have absolute control over her own body, and will defend the U.S. Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision wholeheartedly. She is, to use a term of favor that has only recently come into our lexicon, a Nasty Woman.
She told me early on in this wigout of an election season she could not vote for her party’s candidate if that orange guy won. I asked, “So, you’ll, like, vote against Trump, but for the Republicans down the ticket?”
“No.” She adamantly said she would vote a straight Democratic ticket — to punish, as she says, “the old white men” who had made the party she chose as a young woman into something she no longer recognized.
That’s what this election season did to so many of us. It made us do things and say things we never dreamed we’d do or say. Or even have to.
In the middle of this world of hurt, The Bitter Southerner pledges two things:
We will lash out with great vengeance and furious anger at those who would deny the rights of — or commit violence against — anyone they see as “the other.”
We will at the same time encourage every person who feels treated as an “other” to try harder than ever to understand all the other “others.”
This will be hard, but it will be worth the effort, because we believe to our souls that the American South has always been at its very best when its cultures and people cross the barriers that keep them apart. My favorite example (of course) is a band: Booker T. & the MG’s. Four young Memphians, two black and two white, who couldn’t go to lunch together in public, but who went into the Stax Recording Studio on South McLemore Avenue and created a Southern soul sound that is indelibly imprinted in the ears of the whole world.
When I’m asked to speak about the origins of The Bitter Southerner, I’ve turned this example into a trick. I put up an official 1962 portrait of Booker T. & the MG’s, and I ask the audience if anyone knows who’s in the picture. Only rarely does a hand go up. Then I click on the audio to their instrumental hit, “Green Onions.” Every head starts bobbing.
That sound, that blessed, funky sound, is a gift the South gave the whole world. It was created by people who ignored the color lines and cultural barriers, at their personal peril, because they knew they had it in them to make something beautiful. The MG’s were the South at its best.
A World of Hurt
A few weeks ago, we published a long interview with Patterson Hood, one of the founders of the Drive-By Truckers. We talked for a long time about the MG’s. I laughed — felt my Southern pride swell, even — when he said, “You put goddamned Booker T. Jones on a flag, and I'll fly that in my yard. You can raise that on the capitol steps. That ought to be the Southern flag.”
I called Patterson last night, a few hours before DBT would hit the stage in Philadelphia for their first concert since election day. I told him that The Bitter Southerner — although we had always tried to stay above the daily mudslinging of American politics — was going to have to wade in. Our readers were depending on us to contribute, at least a little, to making sense of what had just happened. We also talked about the working-class white people we both grew up with, the people who believed they could always make a decent living for themselves in their hometowns.
“Our working class has lost that, and in part because of the Clintons,” he said, and he’s right. If a progressive South is going to move forward, we have to recognize that the centrist rhetoric of the Clinton machine might have been appropriate to the 1990s, but it failed to recognize the realities of 2016. Patterson told me that, over DBT’s history, he had directly confronted “a lot of people who spout off racist bullshit.”
“We’ve told them,” he said, “‘We don’t want your money. We don’t want you at our shows.’
But when you’ve got someone who is genuinely pissed off about their jobs being sold out, worried about having enough money to buy a ticket to a rock show, I get it. I do.”
To understand the South these days is to wrap your head around all of that. It’s not easy. It will require more work — more attempts to find understanding, more conversations that, while difficult, must be had.
The Bitter Southerner is in the business of having the toughest conversations, because we know — we know it to the bottoms of our souls — that only the hardest conversations yield real understanding. We’ve been down that road, and we have to commit to go farther down it, into the swamps, into the scariest parts.
If you are discouraged about the events of this week, as we are, we encourage you to rise up, to find, in whatever way you must, sources of hope.
The last thing I asked Patterson before DBT went onstage in Philly last night was what they planned to do in their first show after election day. This is what he said:
“Get it out of your system, you motherfuckers, because we’re coming back strong. My god is rock and roll. He ain’t as healthy as he used to be, but I believe. And I consider hip-hop rock and roll. Nothing pisses me off more than when somebody says Public Enemy shouldn’t be in the rock and roll hall of fame. PE is as much the spirit of rock and roll as Chuck Berry.”
So what, I asked, were his plans for the night’s show?
“We’re gonna go in there and just raise hell on them,” Patterson told me. “We’re gonna swing from the chandeliers.”
The fighting spirit of Southerners like him persists, and we need it now more than ever. We also need sources of hope, and they are out there. We see them clearly in the South’s young folks. Last night, I saw this post on Facebook from a dear old friend who now teaches in Georgia’s public schools:
“I came to work this morning fighting back tears, not sure how to deal with my grief and still find a way to teach my students. I thoughts of Yeats and slouching beasts, his poem ‘The Second Coming,’ the closest expression of my utter dismay. But one of my precious sixth-grade girls sparked a glimmer of hope in me when she came into homeroom: ‘Trump won, but one day I am going to be president, and I really am going to make America great again.’ March on, you strong young woman, and carry hope and determination forth. It will soon be in your hands.”
Our intention from here forward is to raise hell on the folks who deserve it, and at the same time to try our best to understand our region better, even if that means confronting the distasteful. We owe at least that much to kids like that one.
We will stay in line with our Southern-born, eyes-open, punk-rock past: We will tell you the truth as we see it. We want the BS to be the place where the most difficult conversations about the future of the South happen. We are either brave enough or stupid enough to take on that responsibility. If we go astray, steer us straight. If we don’t go far enough, push us. And yes, we will still post pictures of azaleas and your grandmama’s quilt.
Our hearts and our souls are with you, the people who want a better South.
Until we find it, we’ll remain bitter.