A look at the people who tell our stories and the values of the people who read them, i.e., you.
by Chuck Reece
“Look away, look away, look away …”
It’s more than just a line from a familiar tune no Southerner should sing anymore. Those words also paint a picture of how Southern society behaved for far too many years.
We look away.
We look away from the burden of our history, that our region insisted on holding slaves a full 550 years after King Louis V abolished the institution in France in 1315. We look away from the Jim Crow practices that held the descendants of slaves as second-class citizens. We look away from the inequities in Southern society today.
Southerners, historically, have just been too damned good at looking away.
We founded this publication because a new generation of Southerners was rising, people who had stopped looking away. We believed that telling true stories of the South in the 21st century would require us not to look away, but to look at. That kind of journalism required special journalists, photographers, filmmakers, and illustrators — people who could tell stories about the things we rightfully love and find meaningful in the South, while remaining cognizant of the dirt underneath them.
As we wrap up the first week of our 2019 membership drive, we ask you to consider the value of these storytellers’ work — and to consider whether it has enough value to you to invest in becoming a member of The Bitter Southerner Family.
It might help to read the stories behind the stories we’ve published in the last 12 months.
In 2007, Cynthia Tucker won the Pulitzer Prize for commentary in her work as the editorial-page editor of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Cynthia surprised us early last year when she put a story pitch into our submissions system. It was the first time anybody with a Pulitzer on the shelf had proposed writing for us. The resulting story, “In the Hate of Dixie,” was a masterful accounting of how Cynthia, a black woman raised in the Jim Crow era in Monroeville, Alabama, had never heard the stories of the 17 lynchings that happened in her home county until the Equal Justice Initiative documented and memorialized them.
When we first heard a Hollywood movie called “The Green Book” was coming, our managing editor, Tim Turner, had a hunch (which turned out to be correct) the moviemakers would deliver a whitewashed version of a story that every black Southerner lived through during Jim Crow. Tim asked Cynthia if she would consider writing a piece that gathered the stories of real people who had to use the real Negro Motorist’s Green Book to travel safely through the South. That story, the first Tuesday feature we published this year, gave voice to people who relied on that book — from Cynthia’s childhood acquaintances to Hammerin’ Hank Aaron, the baseball great.
Since our beginnings, we’ve welcomed the contributions of photographers who were ambitious and adventurous enough to use their cameras to search for deeper meaning. Our first contribution from Micah Cash came several years ago. Called “Dangerous Waters,” it was a series of photographs chronicling the public works projects of the Tennessee Valley Authority, whose dams brought electricity to the rural South but sacrificed the homes, land, and ways of life of people whose communities now lie beneath the lakes created by those dams.
Late last year, Micah called to let us know of a new project. He had traveled across seven Southern states and visited about 60 Waffle Houses to photograph the environments around them from inside them. He stuck to his own rules and made photographs only from the table or counter-stool where he was having coffee.
The resulting story could have a simple, heartfelt tribute to these little diners where Southerners have consumed millions of waffles and eggs, where “scattered, smothered, and covered” is a completely familiar order with no mystery to it at all. Micah instead looked deeper and made us see how a Waffle House offers the best view of the modern South as it really is.
“Waffle House is the stage for the country we live in,” Micah wrote. “There was approximately a 50/50 ratio of women to men, and no obvious age range. It’s everybody from high schoolers to parents with babies to the elderly. As a whole, the ability for the local culture of a place to exist within the walls of a pervasive fast food restaurant is amazing.” For the folks who read his essay and studied his photographs, their next trip to a Waffle House will have deeper meaning.
When Single Lock Records, the Alabama label that puts out the albums of the Mississippi hill-country blues standard bearer Cedric Burnside, called last year wondering if The Bitter Southerner might write a feature story about Burnside, I hesitated.
Here is why: I have read countless stories about the South’s native blues players, the ones who chug away for years at tiny juke joints with scant recognition. Generally, those stories are written by well meaning white music nerds who admire and study the music deeply, but could never write from a bone-level understanding of the rural, black communities from which the blues arise.
I knew we should tell Burnside’s story, but I believed The Bitter Southerner should tell it differently than a conventional music writer might. It took us a while to find the right person, but with the help of friends, we connected with Brian Foster. By day, Brian is an associate professor of sociology at the University of Mississippi. He grew up in the Memphis of the 1990s, in the era when Three 6 Mafia (along with Atlanta’s Outkast) began building Southern hip-hop into the powerful cultural machine that it still is today. And he studied how music builds culture in the South.
But Brian had never written about music in that, you know, magazine way. Still, he was damned eager to try. Over the next three months or so, Brian took the time to get to know Cedric and Shaquonna Burnside, stopping frequently by their place in Benton County, Mississippi, as he drove between Memphis, where he lives, and Oxford, where he teaches. When Brian’s first draft arrived in February, right after Burnside lost his bid for a Grammy Award, my jaw dropped. From his opening description of arriving at the Burnside home — “Come down the way slow, into the yard easy. Don’t matter where you park.” — I was hooked. Along with the remarkable pictures from Adam Smith, who has been photographing the entire Burnside clan for two decades, Brian’s story became something we dared not dream last year when the idea took shape. We gave our readers a story that presented the hill-country blues from an honest and genuine perspective. Brian told us exactly why, in Cedric’s eyes, the music matters right now, and he told us in the language of the Mississippi hill country, unadorned and straight up.
Max Blau has contributed to The Bitter Southerner since 2014, and he’s a veteran journalist in our hometown, doggedly and deeply covering the issues facing our city for a wide variety of publications like The New York Times and Politico. It’s fair to say that over the last two or three years, Max and his photographic partner in crime, Dustin Chambers, have obsessed on the west side of our city, once the home of prospering, middle-class African American neighborhoods, where too many residents now struggle.
Max and Dustin spent two full years visiting with the family of Chiliquila Ogletree, a U.S. Army veteran trying to raise her six grandchildren in her family’s home on the meagerest of resources. Their story, which we published last summer, created among our readers a great deal of buzz and an outpouring of offers to help.
Then, as Super Bowl LI was about to arrive in Atlanta this year, Max and Dustin delivered another moving look at the west side — an oral history with photographs about a neighborhood called Lightning, which was wiped from the map forever as city fathers pursued their big-time sports dreams.
And the Ogletree family story, of course, continues. Max plans to revisit their story soon. Stand by, because we know it will be another clear-eyed look at the inequities of city life in the South.
How does a small publication such as ours attract such talented contributors, people capable of making bigger money from bigger outlets? For a long time, I attributed it to two factors. The first: We create opportunity for young storytellers of great potential. As the old saying goes, we give the kids a break. And the deepest rewards of our jobs come from working with these storytellers to put their best work in the spotlight. The second: Many writers and photographers who cover the South believe The Bitter Southerner gives them a place to tell their stories in ways no other publication can.
But over the last year, I’ve come to believe there is a third, which is the most important of all: our audience. That is, all y’all. I think great Southern storytellers come to us because they realize our audience is distinctive. They know Bitter Southerner readers are the Southerners who prefer to look at, rather than look away from, our region’s ongoing problems and challenges. Who prefer to look at, rather than away from, our troublesome history and find genuine reconciliation. Who want a better South.
We will always give you the stories about hiding under the azalea bushes in the springtime and sneaking out on summer nights and Jell-O molds with Bojangles’ Chicken Supremes in them. That’s just how we are, and we can’t help it. But we always go a little deeper — to wonder why spring flowers feel like a place of refuge for every Southerner, or how delicious it feels to sneak out from under the cloak of responsibility on a fragrant, steamy evening, or why the hell anybody would put fried chicken in gelatin. And we’ll always ask what those things tell us about ourselves and how we should act in this, the most diverse region in America.
About a month ago, we asked all The Bitter Southerner Family members to take part in a fill-in-the-blank exercise. It was simple: “I believe in ________________.” Perusing the responses made so clear to us the common concerns of our readers, the kinds of modern Southerners they really are. So, we took bits of what we heard from the Family and wove them into something we have decided to call The Bitter Southerner Family Creed. It goes like this: