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This Ain't Chicago: Regional Distinction in the Post-Soul South

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This Ain’t Chicago: Regional Distinction in the Post-Soul South
for the degree
Field of Sociology
Zandria Felice Robinson
December 2010
UMI Number: 3433619
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This Ain’t Chicago: Regional Distinction in the Post-Soul South
Zandria Felice Robinson
Since the 1960s, African American populations have been returning to the South from the
Northeast and Midwest regions of the United States after a century of migration northward,
negotiating the boundaries and opportunities of a new, post-Civil Rights American South.
Progressing at a steady and significant rate, this migration reversal has significant implications
for African Americans across the country, African Americans already living in, or who never
left, the South, and for the South as a region, which is experiencing new forms of economic,
political, and ethnic diversity. While a small body of research examines the political and
economic implications of African Americans’ returning to the South, the cultural implications of
this demographic shift have been understudied. This dissertation examines the creation,
representation, and sustainment of black cultures in the post-Civil Rights South through a case
study of Memphis, Tennessee. It chronicles the concerted shift in attitudes towards and about the
South by black American populations beginning in the 1960s, the changing representations of the
South in the popular black imagination, and the politics of black cultures and identities in a New
South city. It is particularly concerned with how race, class, gender, and sexuality identities are
mediated by regional sensibilities. The dissertation utilizes ethnographic data, film, literature,
music, and popular culture to map black Southerners’ contemporary conceptions of the South
through an analysis of black cultural production in and about the South.
For DeMadre, whose spirit lives on in Assata and these pages.
Introduction 5
The August 1971 issue of Ebony magazine, dedicated to “The South Today,” heralded the
emergence of a truly “New” South—one finally free of the stigma, and to a lesser, the reality of
racial bigotry and injustice that characterized the region since the advent of the ‘peculiar
institution.’ The issue cited black1 elites from Julian Bond to Fannie Lou Hamer, both of whom
implored blacks to “remigrate” and “come home”; presented articles on intellectuals, business
leaders, and professionals of the South; discussed the southward migration of industry; addressed
black ambivalence about the South and skepticism about the actual newness of this instantiation
of the South; introduced the most savory of “classic” Southern foods, from kidney stew to creole
jambalaya; and educated its audience on the beauty of “Southern Belles...renowned for their
warm, earthy, and full-bodied appearance…[and who] possess a charm and sophistication rarely
found elsewhere” (159). This issue of Ebony is emblematic of the work and time being invested
in “reclaiming” the South—both by Southerners who never left the region and northward and
westward migrants contemplating a return home—in the infancy of Southern integration. For the
writers and editors of Ebony and the contributors to the August 1971 issue, the South was,
indeed, new, and was African Americans’ best-kept secret: a haven for business and intellectual
pursuits, a place where racial attitudes were changing and being compelled to change by
Introduction 6
unprecedented black success and political power, and a place where the comforts of “home,”
from the more agreeable weather, to the rich foods, to the beautiful women, awaited new and
returning migrants as well as lifelong residents just below the Mason-Dixon line.
The American South has been imagined, fashioned, and re-imagined as one or another
form of “new” since Reconstruction. The “New” South explored in this research is that South
defined, challenged, and re-created by black Americans since the 1960s through media, scholarly
works, music, arts and letters, and migration. African American regional reclamation efforts like
those epitomized by Ebony’s “The South Today” issue have shaped and continue to carve out the
concrete and discursive landscapes of the black American South. Processes of primary and return
migration undoubtedly contribute significantly to increased positive—and sometimes positively
propagandistic—attention to the region in the post-Civil Rights era. Newcomers to the South,
who constitute a significant portion of the pattern of “reverse migration,” bring with them
positive collective memories of the region made possible by a host of cultural artifacts and postSoul cultural products. Cultural artifacts—from the guttural sounds of Muddy Waters, to the
writings of Alice Walker, to Alvin Ailey’s famous dance tribute to the South, “Revelations”—
comprise a set of historical memories that are critically reflective on the black Southern
experience. Post-Soul cultural products, including films like Maya Angelou’s Down in the Delta,
the words and sounds of nationally-prominent Southern rap artists like Atlanta-duo OutKast to
Mississippi-native David Banner, and Tyler Perry’s controversial theater, film, and television
corpus, build upon, reinforce, and sometimes engender these historical memories, making it
possible for African Americans who have never lived in the South to have shared memories of
the region in much the same way that contemporary African Americans have a shared memory
Introduction 7
of the experience of slavery.2 While negative collective memories of the region, those
immortalized by file footage of brutality during the Civil Rights Movement, documentaries like
Eyes on the Prize, and films like John Singleton’s Rosewood, certainly abound, through efforts to
reclaim a native homespace, positive collective memories, coupled with narratives of the
region’s progress along racial lines, outweigh these negative collective memories for many,
particularly younger African Americans. While new migrants and return migrants may be
motivated by cultural artifacts, cultural products and personal, family memories—a grandmother,
cousin, or uncle from “down South”— such efforts are underscored by intergenerational black
Southerners’ personal and performative desires to claim and articulate a black experience distinct
from that of African Americans in the large urban centers that served as black Southerners’
migration destinations for the first half of the 20th century. These migration destinations include
Philadelphia, New York, Detroit, Boston, Los Angeles, and perhaps most notably for African
Americans in and from the Mississippi Delta who constitute the key players in this study,
Chicago. Black Southerners’ recent reclamation and less-apologetic articulation of a regionalized
blackness is born of a genuine desire—as residents, progeny, and co-creators of the South—to
defend the region from naysayers who lambaste the South’s perceived wholesale rurality, undereducation, fundamentalism, racism, backwardness and poverty. This is not to suggest that black
Southerners are not critical of the region. In fact, some of the most poignant and thoughtful
condemnations of the region comes from its African American sons and daughters. Yet, in the
spirit of the underdog tradition perfected by Southerners since the Civil War, black Southerners
rescue the region from the scrutiny of outsiders even as they turn their own critical gazes on the
South’s persistent ills. In the process of defending and critiquing the region, black Southerners
Introduction 8
forward authenticity claims that implicitly privilege the black Southern experience, effectively
solidifying a relationship to the “roots” of “real” blackness.
For black Americans, Southern and not, the newest black South is as constructed as it is
real, as accomplished as it is natural, and as contested as it is accepted. It enters contemporary
black popular consciousness by way of Southern hip-hop artists from OutKast to Lil’ Wayne;
Southern films from Maya Angelou’s Down in the Delta to Tyler Perry’s corpus; matronly black
grandmothers in chicken sandwich commercials; and well-meaning, if fundamentally misguided,
documentaries of bus trips through the region’s key black spaces and places by African
American public intellectuals. Examining African American Southerners’ evolving relationship
to and with the region, particularly since the 1960s, illuminates the differential instantiations of
race, class, gender, and black solidarity in the post-Civil Rights era. This research thus examines
the personal and performative desires of blacks in the urban South and reveals how seemingly
racially universal dimensions of African American life—experiences of race, class, gender, and
sexuality, for instance—are complicated by regional histories, cultures, performances, and
epistemologies. I explore how race, class, and gender are mediated through a prism of regional
distinction, difference, and accomplishment. I then explore how these regionally mediated
performances and identities, once operationalized as universal black American experience, are
used to market regionally and racially authentic products, goods, and services to black
Southerners, black non-Southerners, and racial and regional others. The seemingly innocuous
discursive, identity, and performative terrain I examine here belies the increasingly complex
boundaries of blackness in the age of Obama, revealing new articulations of familiar dimensions
of class and gender cleavages in black communities.
Introduction 9
This research treats regional distinction as a strategically negotiated accomplishment based on
shared, though contested, understandings of what it means to be a black Southerner. I draw on
existing social-scientific research on performance, or “doing”—doing gender, race, and class—to
theorize the individual and structural consequences of articulating a distinctly Southern black
identity. I use accomplishment as a framework because it most completely captures the range
and degree of investments respondents make in erecting and managing a Southern identity in a
variety of public and private contexts.
Examinations of accomplishment are grounded in the sociology of culture as, most often,
identity accomplishments manifest themselves as cultural distinctions with structural bases and
implications. That is, as John L. Jackson has argued, people’s identity performances allow them
to draw lines of cultural difference between themselves and others, and their performances are
often informed by structural constraints, like those of race and class; these identity performances,
in turn have structural implications, such as reifying or challenging existing expectations for
race, class, and in my analysis, regional, groups.3 Through the work of Bourdieu and the legacy
created by him in the field of sociology of culture, the concepts of cultural distinction and taste
as fundamental tools of class perpetuation and inequality are now institutionalized in studies of
social and cultural capital. Rather than conceptualizing distinctions—between places, people,
and things—as self-evident and natural occurrences of difference, sociologists examine how,
beyond the obvious, distinctions are achieved and accomplished through strategic and deliberate
practices organized and executed by cultural elites and other social actors. Theorizing
distinctions as “accomplishments” allows us to examine the processes through which things,
Introduction 10
people, and places imagine themselves as distinct and are recognized as such. For instance,
Molotch, Freudenberg, and Paulsen (2000) examine how places—Santa Barbara and Ventura,
California—that were similar on standard demographic measures were, in fact, quite different, as
demonstrated by the cities’ disparate responses to the introduction of the commercial oil
industry, highways, and other 20th century forces of American modernization. The authors
effectively highlight the empirical purchase of the concepts of “character” and “tradition” by
illustrating that Santa Barbara and Ventura’s respective responses to the forces of urban change
over a century’s time were deeply enmeshed in a commitment to particular city images,
identities, and visions.
Just as people create the distinctive character of places through sets of interactional
choices made in an array of contexts—political and economic being only the most obvious of
these contexts—people also enact distinctions between themselves and others in everyday
interactional contexts. Drawing on both theories of boundary maintenance (Lamont, 2000) and
performativity (Jackson, 2001), scholars have examined how people accomplish selfhood
through the performance or “doing” of race, class, and gender identities, recognizing how these
performances are embedded in broader cultural and structural forces (West and Zimmerman,
1987; Lamont, 2000). Across a host of social differences, then, the actions of people and places
structure and are structured by elaborate processes of boundary work.
Like other axes of identity and difference, region and regional distinction can be difficult
to measure empirically because of contested boundaries, definitions, and changes over time.
Endless debates over the “real South”—what geographically and culturally counts as the South,
whether the region is a “state of mind” rather than a geographically located place, and who can
Introduction 11
legitimately be called a Southerner—make complicated work of locating the region in popular
memory and imagination. Still, the concept of region, particularly as it has been operationalized
in sociology, is bounded by a few general principles that are useful for thinking about the
persistence and accomplishment of black Southern cultures. These principles include at least four
key ideas: first, regions may begin as a result of geographic and historical or cultural ties;
second, the underlying unifying phenomena for a particular region may or may not be preceded
by economic and/or political ties; third, regional differences, regardless of their origins, are
correlated with empirically differential outcomes and consequences; and fourth, regions are both
physically located places of being and cognitively mapped states of mind (Griswold,
As a unit of analysis, region enjoyed somewhat fervent use in the first half of the 20th
century, being elaborated on most famously by Howard Odum at the University of North
Carolina, Chapel Hill and his colleagues, students, and intellectual progeny. The particular form
and purpose of regionalism Odum advocated fell out of use during the Civil Rights Era, in part
because the industrial and social modernization of the South from the 1940s to 1970s rendered it
no longer a major “problem” worthy of a sociological solution.4 Still, Southern sociologist John
Shelton Reed can be reasonably conceptualized as the sociological pied piper of regionalism,
particularly regionalism of the Southern variety, in the post-Civil Rights era. Recently, region
has entered debates concerning the persistence of place cultures in an increasingly globalized
world, (Griswold and Wright, 2004), though cities and neighborhoods remain the key units of
analyses for such inquiries.
Introduction 12
Yet, region is less often studied in these sophisticated ways that take seriously regions as
constituted cultural spaces; more often, unless region is the topic of inquiry, particularly in
quantitative research, it is little more than a variable to be controlled. Sociologists are less
willing and able, because of time, methodological, and epistemological principles and
constraints, to make generalizations about an entire region, although we recognize, if nebulously,
the historical, geographic, and cultural differences that make regions distinct. This disciplinary
tendency to focus on more manageable units of analysis—neighborhoods, communities, cities,
even nation-states—coupled with American sociology’s effective “looking away from Dixie” in
the postwar period (Griffin, 2001) has led to the understudying of contemporary regional
cultures. As such, regional difference is often subsumed under other forms of difference, such
that race, class, gender, or sexuality differences take on a universal character devoid of spatial
contingencies and cities seem to exist autonomously, devoid of broader regional contexts. While
certainly, there are key features of difference that operate quite similarly across space and place,
as Molotch et al (2000) demonstrate, similar sets of characteristics can yield different outcomes
based on the function and operationalization of place distinction. For instance, E. Patrick
Johnson’s (2008) ethnographic and oral history of gay African American men in the American
South highlights how a set of primary characteristics—black, male, and gay—are shaped and
mediated by space and place. Acknowledging cross-space dimensions of the black-male-gay
status set, Johnson nonetheless convincingly demonstrates that Southern rearing and residence
introduce important differences in experiences and outcomes.
This research takes seriously the differences produced by place distinction and endeavors
to demonstrate just how those differences lead to regionally-marked alternative identity
Introduction 13
outcomes for African Americans in the South. I do this, however, with attention to the ways in
which the South is not only accomplished by people in everyday interaction and identity
formation, but by popular media representations of black Southern identity. Thus, I focus on how
black Southerners talk about and accomplish the regional dimensions of race, class, and gender. I
also focus on how the black Southern identity is accomplished and marketed in the media by
entities as diverse as fast-food corporations, film moguls, and scholars. This on-the-ground
accomplishment, coupled with mass-mediated accomplishment undergirds attention to the
region, as folks attempt to make cultural sense of the continued lure of the South and
Southerners, surrounded with non-Southern newcomers, shore up the boundaries and
distinctiveness of their regional identities.
Since the 1960s, African Americans have been “returning home” to the South, reversing a
demographic trend that characterized much of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. While the
individual and cultural dimensions of African American primary and return migration to the
American South have received significant attention in the popular media, with coverage in
magazine issues, newspaper articles, film, music, and news specials, they have received less
sustained scholarly attention. Although scholars have documented the demographic features, and
to a lesser extent the economic correlatives, of African American primary and return migration to
the South (e.g. Adelman, Morett, and Tolnay, 2000; Tolnay, 2003; Hunt, Hunt, and Falk, 2008),
there is less systematic, empirical research on the cultural and political causes and implications
of African Americans continuing to “return home” to the South. Further, existing research and
Introduction 14
popular media attention have focused disproportionately on African Americans migrating to the
rural South, though recent data and analyses indicate that African Americans have been and are
migrating to major Southern cities and increasingly to their surrounding suburbs (Falk, Hunt, and
Hunt, 2004). Finally, existing discussions of African American migrants, popular or scholarly,
obscure the experiences of lifelong residents of the South, about which we contemporaneously
have even less knowledge.
In the latter half of the 20th century and thus far in the 21st, much of the sociological
research on the relationship between African Americans and the South has been framed within
the context of African American migration: out-migration from the region to the metropolises of
the Northeast and Midwest and West and “re-migration” or “return migration” to the region’s
rural and urban places, particularly since the 1960s. The out-migration or Great Migration
literature documents who migrated from the South and why, how they adjusted to life in their
new locales, and the long-term effects of the influx of African Americans into these urban
centers on race, culture, and spatial politics in the American city (e.g. Kusmer, 1978; Grossman,
1989; Lemann, 1991; Griffin, 1995; Sugrue; 1996; Tolnay 2003). The in-migration, or return
migration, literature documents the demographic profiles of primary and return migrants,
attempts to understand why migrants return to or make a primary move to the South, and posits a
concept of “home”—examined most famously in Carol Stack’s (1996) Call to Home—as an
underlying explanatory factor for African American relocation to the South (Adelman, Morett,
and Tolnay, 2000; Falk, Hunt, and Hunt, 2004; Hunt, Hunt, and Falk, 2008).
While demographers and demographically-driven work and theorization (Adelman,
Morett, and Tolnay, 2000; Falk, Hunt, and Hunt, 2004; Hunt, Hunt, and Falk, 2008) provide a
Introduction 15
significant and thorough descriptive profile of patterns and dimensions of return migration, the
cultural life of the black South, or black Americans’ participation in, accomplishment of, and
relationship to it, cannot be fully understood through discrete, snapshot measures of the region’s
racialized pushes and pulls. Specifically, this literature does not adequately reconcile rationalactor motivations, such as employment opportunities and relatively cheap cost of living, and
cultural memories, myths, and contexts, such as attraction to a South with “tea as sweet as the
men.”5 The migration paradigm that dominates much of the sociological literature on African
Americans in the South, as well as popular discourses on African Americans’ relationship to the
region, extends and solidifies the association of blackness with Southern-ness and rurality. For
instance, America’s shifting urban demographics and concomitant urban problems over the
course of the 20th century are often framed as a result of culture clash and resource competition
between residents and new migrants, where the former are usually white and/or middle class and
the latter are Southern-born African Americans, or, post-Immigration Act of 1965, of Latino or
Asian descent. As such, much of our scholarly understanding of black Southerners is within a
context of comparison with and difference from blacks and whites of the urban North, West, and
Midwest. These comparisons highlight black Southerners’ regional difference, or Southern-ness,
and rurality, often constructed as urban “greenness.” We, therefore, know very little about black
Southerners in relation to themselves—as urban and rural, as green and savvy. These
epistemological pitfalls limit our ability not only to fully address the cultural context of “returns”
“home,” but to also answer more fundamental questions about the place and function of the
South in contemporary African American culture and social memory. Beyond cheap land,
warmer weather, kin ties, and a heretofore loosely theorized sense of home, what is the specific
Introduction 16
nature of the continued draw of the South for African Americans, and how is it shaped and
maintained? To answer this question and subsequent questions about regional accomplishment,
this research begins with the South in its complexity—as rural, urban, suburban, comprised of
lifelong intergenerational residents and newcomers, simultaneously locked in an increasingly
sophisticated manifestation of the black-white race relations paradigm, and as tackling the
integration of “new” immigrants into Southern communities with globally-situated methods.
In addition to African American returns home, this research is implicitly interested in
disciplinary returns home. I am advocating here specifically for a return to sociology both “in
and of the South,” a distinction first noted in an essay by Edgar Thompson (1945) and
expounded upon by Southern sociologist Larry Griffin (2001).6 Sociology in the South, Griffin
recounts, is “aimed at advancing general knowledge about…social patterns that [transcend] the
particularities of time and place” by examining the region’s host of offerings, particularly in the
areas of race and race relations, poverty, rural sociology, and collective action (53). Sociology of
the South is “aimed at deepening understanding of the region per se” (52). While the latter
pursuit may not in itself be of scholarly value, given that our goal as academics is to, with each
research endeavor, contribute to the advancement of knowledge in our respective disciplines,
some attention to understanding the region in itself is necessary for any sociology that utilizes
the South as its research site. Attention to migration patterns, particularly recent research on
reverse migration, forgoes a robust sociology of the South in the name of advancing good
Studies in and of the American South were very much a part of the disciplinary work of
social scientists in the first half the 20th century. Academics, government officials, journalists,
Introduction 17
and all manner of commentators were interested in the “backwardness” of the region—its
underdevelopment after slavery and Reconstruction, overwhelmingly rural population, sparse,
country cities, and persistently vicious race conflicts are but a few illustrations of said
backwardness. Sociologists and anthropologists, sometimes working in concert with the
American government, published a number of studies in and of the South from the early 20th
century to just shortly after World War II. Pioneering sociologist W. E. B. DuBois’ Atlanta
community studies remain some of the most compelling and comprehensive studies of black
communities and black social institutions in the South (Wright and Calhoun, 2006) and are
exemplary of sociology in and of the South. Community studies, including Allison Davis,
Burleigh B. Gardner and Mary R. Gardner’s Deep South: A Social Anthropological Study of
Caste and Class (1941), Hortense Powdermaker’s After Freedom: A Cultural Study of the Deep
South (1939), Charles S. Johnson’s Shadow of the Plantation (1934), and John Dollard’s (1949)
Caste and Class in a Southern Town largely chronicled the lives of African Americans in the
rural South and focused on the specters of race, race relations, and poverty under the
ethnographic umbrella of community life. The American Youth Commission, particularly
interested in African Americans in the South, published several studies, two of which focused on
the South.7 Straddling the lines between literature and science, Zora Neale Hurston’s
anthropological collections of folktales from Florida and the Deep South were featured
prominently in both essays and fiction.8 From the 1920s to the 1950s, Howard Odum and
colleagues at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill produced a number of works now
seminal to what has been conceptualized as “Golden Age” sociology in and of the South,
Introduction 18
focusing on array of topics, including folklore, Southern community life, race relations, and
For several reasons, sociology both in and of the South waned significantly in the second
half of the 20th century. Major shifts in the discipline during and after WWII, coupled with
increasing differences in sectional versus regional interests, contributed to the decline of the
viability of the concept of region and regionalism. Further, a postwar industrial boom thrust the
South more definitively into modernity, closing the gap between it and other regions and
approaching, at least ostensibly the “regional convergence” advocated for by notable
regionalists, Odum included. More significantly, perhaps, was that sociologists had followed the
“problem”—whether that problem was conceptualized as the race problem, the Negro problem,
or the problem of the color line—from the South to the urban metropolises of the North. That is,
in the postwar period, sociological scholarship on black populations concentrated increasingly on
migrating groups, drawing vertical, geographical lines from South to North and beginning new
investigations into race, race relations, and black communities where migrating populations set
down their bags. In short, in sociology, the race problem migrated from the rural South to the
urban North,10 and the region problem, supposedly solved by postwar industrialization and the
outmigration of its race problem—all but disappeared from sociological discourse. Hence, the
social scientific backdrop and setting for much of what we know about black American life in
the latter half of the 20th century emerges from studies of Philadelphia, Chicago, New York, and
Los Angeles, rather than Atlanta, Houston, Raleigh-Durham, or Memphis. One of the major
empirical and theoretical consequences of “looking away” from the South is that black life has
Introduction 19
become, in general and particular senses, homogenized across spatial formations as race
superseded, rather than intersected with, intraracial place and space differences.
There are three notable exceptions to this postwar trend of “looking away” from the
South. Representative of social science in and of the South, they have fueled and undergirded
contemporary attention to the region, its “new” migrants, and the black South in the final
decades of the 20th century.11 The first, John Shelton Reed, has kept a running sociological
discourse on the South and Southern culture since the 1970s and continues to ask and address
questions posed by “Golden Age” sociology of the South, as well as grappling with
contemporary questions about the changing South in the post-Civil Rights era. His work is
particularly important because of its insistence on investigating cultural and social psychological
differences—that is, differences beyond those generally controlled away by quantitative uses of
region—between Southerners and non-Southerners. Reed has consistently proven that regions,
and the South specifically, have cultural cache that cannot be easily measured, although his
corpus certainly demonstrates a number of ways to try to do just that. The second, published in
1996, is Carol Stack’s Call to Home: African Americans Reclaim the Rural South, which is
perhaps the single-most important text in inspiring social scientists—qualitative researchers and
demographers and other quantitative researchers alike—to explore a neglected region. Stack’s
careful ethnography of black “re-migration” or “reverse migration” to the Carolinas grappled
with the contested nature and memory of the South, the politics of reclamation, and the struggle
to create home. Finally, Christopher Silver and John Moeser’s (1995) The Separate City: Black
Communities in the Urban South, 1940-1968, a comparative analysis of black urban politics and
change during a critical moment in American urban history, is one of the most rigorous
Introduction 20
examinations of black Southern communities vis-à-vis themselves and non-Southern
communities to date. The study draws on the cases of Atlanta, Richmond, and Memphis to
demonstrate that the process of spatialized racial segregation that occurred in Southern urban
communities was distinct from the ghettoization that characterized racialized patterns of black
community settlement in the urban North. Their study presents a solid challenge to theses
forwarded by Chicago sociologists about black urban neighborhood settlement and community
life, presenting an alternative, regional framework for black urban development in the era of
Civil Rights and urban renewal. These exceptions notwithstanding, social science from the 1950s
forward tended solely towards sociology in the South: it was oft-cast as the space and place
whence the urban North’s growing black population came (Drake and Cayton, 1945; Hannerz,
1969); later, it was analyzed as the site of social movements and collective action during the
Civil Rights Movement (Morris, 1986; McAdam, 1990); and most recently, it has been
investigated because of reverse migration trends and the ever-expanding Sunbelt population
(Adelman, Morett and Tolnay, 2000; Hunt, Hunt, and Falk 2008).
I intend here to bring sociology home to the South, or at very least encourage its return.
Building on the foundation of sociological and anthropological community studies of the black
South and regional theory and epistemology, I hope to illustrate the continued importance of
sociology in and of the South. To this end, I offer an ethnographic examination of selfconsciously performative Southern blacks to highlight the underlying importance of place in
black American life. This research is located in both a regional place—Memphis, Tennessee—
and regional discourse and memory—the plethora of media, art, literature, and film that speak to
the African American Southern experience. Through it, I hope to highlight the contemporary
Introduction 21
experiences of black Southerners and demystify African Americans’ relationships, real and
imagined, to the region. I argue that, racial universals aside, place cultures, and in this case
regional cultures, matter, and complicate our understandings of race, region, and urban life in
post-Civil Rights America.
Like any region, the South is comprised of a combination of small, one-road towns, sprawling
suburbs, and growing metropolises, each with their distinctive, spatially-contingent
characteristics. While a representative sociological regional study might sample an array of
Southern cities or some combination of Southern metropolises, rural towns, and suburbs, often
stories of the South are told through in-depth case studies of individual communities. Historian
David Goldfield has argued that the history of the South lies in the development and life of its
cities, pioneering the historical study of the urban South that has animated Southern Studies and
histories of the region over the past two decades. The work of historians of the black urban
South, including Robin D. G. Kelley’s (1990) work on Birmingham, Alabama and recent
research on Durham, North Carolina and Chattanooga, Tennessee by Leslie Brown (2008) and
Michelle R. Scott (2008), respectively, effectively highlight the usefulness and significance of
individual case studies of Southern cities for understanding dynamics of race, class, gender, and
labor in the South. This work also highlights an inescapable fact about the urban South: Southern
cities are at once urban, rural, and suburban, with the lines between these distinctions drawn
more definitively by demographic designations rather than cultural or visual cues. NonSoutherners in particular quickly comment on the “countryness” of the region’s cities and the
Introduction 22
suburban quality of many of its neighborhoods. My research continues the focus on Southern
city case studies for two reasons. First, for Southern Studies scholars and historians of the South,
a contemporary case study of a Southern city revisits two of Goldfield’s contentions about the
relationship between Southern cities and the South as a region: (1) that the history of the South is
discoverable through an excavation of the history of its cities, and (2) that the future of the South
is inextricably linked to its cities. Perhaps in the South, more than any other region, cities cannot
behave or be conceptualized as autonomous actors devoid of regional character.12 Second, for
sociologists, focus on an individual city continues key theoretical and methodological traditions
in urban sociology and adds a regional dimension to studies of black life, heretofore largely
absent in postwar American sociology. Yet, I am attentive to the characteristics of my case: as a
Southern city, Memphis constitutes and is constituted by the rural, the urban, and the suburban.
Thus, this research is at once a regional endeavor that requires me, as an urban sociologist, to
expand my conceptualizations of urbanism, and an urban sociological endeavor that requires me
to, as a Southerner, acknowledge the ways in which Southern cities can seem downright strange
to non-Southerners.
Still, while the ethnographic data presented in the following pages adheres to the casestudy tradition in Southern Studies and urban ethnography, I am cognizant of the multiplicity and
diversity of cities that constitute the urban South. There are indeed multiple urban Souths, and I
do not intend to gloss over the distinctions between Southern cities, and in particular, the
distinctions between the ways African Americans understand and experience different Southern
cities. For instance, 21st century Memphis, still carrying the weighty legacy of being the city that
killed King and serving as the “big city” for Mississippi Delta migrants, is distinct from Atlanta,
Introduction 23
the “city too busy to hate” and the black South’s answer to the black middle class cultural
enclaves of New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles. Black Southerners, and particularly black
cultural elites in Southern cities, draw on local histories and tropes to construct their own placeinspired brands of contemporary black Southern life. I attend to these intraregional place
distinctions with other data sources, including film, hip-hop, corporate advertisement, magazine
and newspaper articles, and the myriad efforts of city boosters. Yet, despite these distinctions,
Southern cities are unified by their shared regional history and contemporary constitution
simultaneously rural, urban, and suburban.
Memphis is important to our understanding of historical and contemporary African
American urban life in and outside of the South for several reasons.13 Foremost, as one of a few
key urban stops out of the Mississippi Delta during the Great Migration, Memphis served as a
repository for rural cultures and a place for rural migrants to become versed in urban mores,
either before migrating North, other urban centers in the South, or deciding to lay down roots in
the city. With train lines extending from New Orleans through the Mississippi Delta up to
Chicago, Memphis was a key cultural space and place in African American migration from the
Mississippi Delta northward and westward to Chicago, Detroit, St. Louis, Kansas City and other
urban centers. The rural-urban sensibility that came to characterize Memphis populations
continues today, forging the cultural and historical basis, I argue, of black Southern regional
distinction. Black Memphians consistently produced a musical and political culture, exported
through Stax Records and other local record labels, rooted in both rural and urban sensibilities.
The soul music created in Memphis became the premiere cultural soundtrack of Civil Rights and
post-King assassination black America. Some thirty years after Wattstax14, inheritors of
Introduction 24
Memphis’ musical legacy, rap group Three Six Mafia, scored a Grammy award-winning city
anthem with “It’s Hard Out Here for a Pimp,” whose soulfully belted chorus combined with
classic Memphis rap style epitomize the simultaneous operation of rural and urban cultures in
post-Civil Rights Memphis.
Unlike other Southern cities, such as Houston, Atlanta or Charlotte, that have been
popularly recognized as black Southern Meccas, Memphis is a site of tension between
progressive representations and imaginings of the South and the historical backward, countryness that the city and the region have been so desperate to leave behind. Within Memphis, as in
most urban places with a significant black population, intraracial and interracial differences are
striking. Yet, Memphis’ differences exist at extremes that highlight the vestiges and
consequences of race, class, and regional oppression, particularly since the assassination of King.
For example, Memphis has a solid black middle class and blacks in key political positions,
including the city’s first African American Mayor Willie Herenton, who served the city for 18
years before his resignation in 2009, but also has the highest urban infant mortality rate in the
country, an epidemic particularly concentrated in a small number of predominantly black zip
codes. The legacy of King’s assassination has spawned particularly Southern manifestations of
white racism, white liberal guilt, and African American responses. In this way, Memphis is
perhaps keenly representative of the city as Southern history, present, and futures. It
continuously relives the assassination of King and the stunting of the Civil Rights Movement
through its attempts to reconcile the lingering effects of racism on city politics and progress. It
does so quite publicly, without the comforts of construction as a black Southern Mecca, like
Houston or Atlanta, or construction as shiny, model representatives of the “New South,” like
Introduction 25
Charlotte or Dallas, where Southern-ness is an “ethnic option,” a spice added to an otherwise
generic Metropolis, America life. The smiling, chicken-wing-frying grandmother from
McDonald’s Southern-Style Chicken Sandwich advertisements represents an idealized black
South in which the black middle class relives or remembers fondly a youth of backyard picnics
with potato salad and sweet tea in a model New South. The underlying issues engaged by Tyler
Perry’s swearing, imposing, gun-wielding grandmother “Madea” in those darker moments—
child abuse, violence, incarceration, domestic violence, and intraracial class tensions—represent
the “dirty” South of racism, classism, and sexism in which the region was, for better and worse,
never abandoned by African Americans. This research utilizes a regional lens to explore overlaps
and tensions between smiling grandmothers and gun-wielding ones, between, primary and return
migrants and intergenerational residents, between the well-to-do and the ne’er-do-well in real
and imagined black Southern communities.
The research presented here is the result of four years of ethnographic research conducted in
Memphis from 2004 to 2005 and 2006 to 2009. The data include 96 interviews with black
residents of Memphis, including Memphians with roots in the city that they can trace back to
their parents generation or beyond, migrants from the Mississippi Delta, migrants from other
urban centers in the South, and primary and return migrants from the urban North. Respondents
represent a broad spectrum of black Southern life and identities across class, sexuality, and
political lines. I logged hundreds of participant observation hours at block parties, neighborhood
community organization meetings, church gatherings, and festivals to observe and participate in
Introduction 26
the myriad community spaces of black Memphis. In addition to presenting the stories that
emerge from the ethnography, I turn to African American literature, film, hip-hop, and popular
media from the 1960s to present to understand the varied cultural contexts of contemporary black
Southern life. African American encounters with the South in these media illuminate the
contingencies of black Southern cultural life at the close of the 20th century, and highlight the
dimensions of the South’s continued resurgence—as villain and savior—in African American
memory and discourse.
Chapter One examines more closely the “turn South” in African American arts and letters
since the 1960s, as well as the contentious debates between African Americans over
representations of the region that have continued into the first decade of the 21st century. It draws
on black literature of the 1960s, including essays and autobiographical works, to highlight the
theoretical bases and contours of the Southern turn. It builds upon the work of scholars like Onita
Estes-Hicks (1993), who point out that the 1960s represented a key paradigmatic shift in African
American treatment of the South in published works from the South as the “scene of the crime”
to the South as a space comprised both of good and evil, as a region remembered fondly by its
black sons and daughters, and as a homespace to be reclaimed.
Chapter Two continues to examine the turn South, focusing on one of the most contested
spaces for the Southern turn—hip-hop music and culture. It juxtaposes non-Southern rappers’—
and by proxy non-Southerners’—contention that rap music “isn’t in [Southerners’] blood” with
the Southern notion that hip-hop, in fact, came from the South. It draws on data collected on the
local hip-hop scene in Memphis to contextualize how Southerners draw distinctions between
Introduction 27
themselves and non-Southerners through the assertion of more authentic, organic cultural
Chapter Three draws on interview data to think through the ways in which race is lived
by blacks in today’s South and explores how the history and collective memory of racial coping
and socialization strategies operates in African American Southerners’ decisions about how to
engage with white folks. It highlights black Southerners’ continued subversion of racial
oppression as well as their evolving racial attitudes and cross-racial interactive behaviors. It
focuses on the ways in which, performatively, black Southerners claim to have “figured out”
white folks and examines the line between racialized predictions of behavior and what cultural
anthropologist John L. Jackson has called “racial paranoia” (2008).
Chapter Four builds on notions of “doing” and “performing” gender through a
racialization and regionalization of gendered experiences and interactions. Troubling the regional
archetypes of the Southern belle and Southern gentleman, it enters an ongoing discussion of the
viability of black men’s and women’s love and marriage relationships through an examination of
black men’s and women’s regionalized performances of gender, both between regional insiders
as well as between regional insiders and regional outsiders.
Chapter Five explores the intraracial class tensions implicit in regional reclamation
efforts, highlighting how Southernness is managed and maneuvered to operate as a form of black
solidarity and collective identity. While the “boundaries of blackness” (Cohen, 1999) and
fissures in the veneer of black solidarity have been examined and highlighted by academics,
polling centers, journalists, and others, this chapter adds region to the toolkit of intraracial
distinction, demonstrating the ways in which black Southerners, across class-statuses, use their
Introduction 28
regional identity, albeit in class-specific ways, to assert a more authentic, racially-connected
middle-class existence.
The conclusion revisits the turn South to understand its broader implications for African
American outcomes in the 21st century. While reclamation efforts continue to bring more African
Americans, cognitively and physically, to the South’s metropolitan and rural areas, the specter of
racial disadvantage with a regional twist threatens African American progress. The conclusion
examines recently emerging trouble spots, including the housing and employment crises, to
understand the regional dimensions of race and class disparity in the New South.
Turning South 29
“The South is always hot,” Keith, a 32-year-old secondary English teacher, tells me during one
of our interview sessions on the front porch of a soul music and hip-hop café in midtown
Memphis. Indeed, the July heat is even bothering me a bit, and I generally pride myself on
withstanding the Mississippi’s summer humidity. Keith, however, is not talking about the
weather. He is “learning” me on the ongoing significance of the South in African American
culture. He continues:
The Harlem Renaissance? Southern stories stolen from the South made to seem like they
were native to Harlem Negroes’ experience. Gospel, blues, jazz, funk, soul? The South.
Dance? The South. [Alvin] Ailey? The South. Hip-hop? The South. Atlanta? The South.
Before I can point out that, technically, Atlanta’s Southern-ness has not been stolen or
overlooked, despite some evidence to the contrary—after all, Atlanta prided itself for many
decades on being in the South but not of it, being “too busy to hate” unlike the rest of its regional
counterparts—we are interrupted by the lone café worker, Hasan, who has been not-soinconspicuously eavesdropping as he bused, wiped, and re-wiped the other two tables on the tiny
porch. “Now tell me just how hip-hop came from the South,” he says to Keith, who quickly and
dramatically inhales and proceeds to “learn” the Bedford-Stuyvesant-born Hasan with a trip
through black music history from West Africa to Lil’ Jon. After Keith recites several field hollers
that he claims are from Mississippi’s notorious Parchman Farm penitentiary, Hasan is so visibly
outdone by the comedy that his shoulders shake, his eyes begin to water, and when he finally lets
Turning South 30
out his reserved burst of laughter at the end of Keith’s lecture, Hasan falls to the ground, saucer
in hand.
This exchange is one of many such exchanges I witnessed, or engaged in myself, as
Southerners and non-Southerners debated the South’s place—and merits and credits—in African
American culture. Despite the predictable heat, the South is not always “hot,” nor has it always
been. Its co-optation during the Harlem Renaissance and Zora Neale Hurston’s corpus
notwithstanding, the South spent more of the first half of the twentieth century being escaped and
condemned by African Americans than it spent being praised and warmly remembered. Richard
Wright’s Black Boy (1945) repackaged the slave narrative for a post-WWII America, in which
blacks continued to flee the South as they had done during and after slavery as “[refugees] forced
[into] flight for physical and psychological survival.”1 Black Boy inaugurated a series of
migration narratives that situated the South as “the scene of the crime” and the urban North as a
relative bastion of freedom. These autobiographies painted a decidedly hopeless picture of the
region and its inhabitants, black and white. Yet, by the late 1960s, the third generation of African
American biography, epitomized by Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1970),
was fully part of a broader shift in tenor towards the South by African Americans. In arts and
letters, dance, music, and popular media, African Americans endeavored to take a reflective look
at the region, turning South and at least culturally, rarely again looking away from Dixie.
Such a shift might have been easily anticipated for at least three reasons. First, African
American migration to the South outpaced migration from the South in the 1960s, so more
favorable representations of the region may have been expected as a reflection of this
demographic shift. Second, the Brown decision and the subsequent series of Civil Rights Acts of
Turning South 31
the 1960s marked a concerted effort to change the region, opening the imaginative space for
African Americans to re-evaluate the South in light of these changes, regardless of their efficacy
in everyday practice. Third, anxieties about racialized urban crises and the relative failure of the
Great Migration project facilitated a desire to narrate and create a different African American
experience, for which the rural South served as setting and backdrop.
This chapter explores the ways in which popular African American culture turned South
beginning in the 1960s. While the literary turn South, easily the most visible culture work of the
Southern turn2, occurred primarily in the 1970s, less deliberate forms of culture work, such as
Alvin Ailey’s 1960 inaugural performance of the now-seminal dance piece, “Revelations,” and
the rise of Southern soul music at Stax Records, were indicative of the coming shift in African
American literature. Further, as ascertained by data collected for the 1970 Census, the 1960s is
the first decade in which the South experienced a net in-migration of African Americans. I
examine how this Southern turn was and is fundamentally contested by African Americans,
Southern-born and non-Southern-born, who criticize this shift as merely reworking black middle
class desires to control the black poor, or perhaps worse, as a misguided trek back to the
plantation and black racial subservience. It examines the definitive debate between Hurston and
Wright as prefigurative of the Southern turn and its critiques in the 1960s and beyond. I argue
that not only is the prevalence of black Southern cultural products beginning in the 1960s
constitutive of the Southern turn, but also that the reclamative and reflective nature of some of
these cultural products is part of this turn as well. Not all Southerners imagined themselves to be
reclaiming the South, of course; some had never left the region and could have been merely
articulating an objectively distinctive, regional point of view. Yet, even these culture producers
Turning South 32
were cognizant of the zeitgeist of the Southern turn: the highly visible Southern Civil Rights
Movement and its legal successes, the resurgence in popularity of the Southern sound through
soul music, and the spirit of African American writing about the South coalesced in a prouder,
less apologetic production of Southern culture. The works I highlight here certainly each have a
non-Southern or anti-Southern counterexample: like Zora Neale Hurston had Richard Wright,
Stax had Motown, Romare Bearden had Jean-Michel Basquiat and so forth. I do not contend
here that black cultural production ceased or lessened in other regions, or that attention to the
urban experience of African Americans outside of the South decreased. Rather, I am highlighting
here the ways in which the South was accomplished by this Southern turn as a distinctive,
regionalized articulation of black being and experience and the ways in which other African
Americans responded to the assertion, affirmation, and prevalence of this differential blackness. I
conclude this chapter with a discussion of how cultural shifts, like the Southern turn, are
embedded in broader anxieties, public and scholarly, about the space and place of black folks in
modern America. I revisit the intraracial facets of these tensions in Chapter Four.
The dimensions of the Wright-Hurston debate, including its appropriation in African American
scholarship as a hegemonic narrative of opposition similar to that of W. E. B. DuBois and
Booker T. Washington, have been mined at length.3 As William J. Maxwell points out, the
debate frequently serves as “shorthand and ballast for imagined dichotomies between black rural
and urban selves and cultures and the affiliated binaries of the South and North, folk and mass,
all energized in the wake of twentieth century migration.”4 While I recognize that both Wright
Turning South 33
and Hurston were interested in preserving a universal “folk” and its concomitant culture, I
resurrect this recurring debate, cognizant of the possibility of oversimplification, to suggest that
at their core, Wright and Hurston’s intellectual differences, as well as intellectual differences
over their intellectual differences, are reflective of anxieties about the place of the South in
African American life and culture. From these anxieties flow a host of dichotomies: urban and
rural, progress and stasis, men and women, historicized and outside of history. Yet, Hurston and
Wright’s core differences, I contend here, are about regional identity and representation.
Substantively, Wright and Hurston represented two ends of the spectrum of African American
Southern experience in the early 20th century South, and therefore their differences were far more
personal and epistemological than the notion of an “intellectual debate” can encapsulate. That is,
Wright’s intense disdain for what he viewed as domineering women like his mother and aunt, the
backward Southern dupes that he encountered as he came of age, and his turbulent Mississippi
Delta rearing shaped his approach to African American life and writing. For Wright, the South
was a source of shame and helplessness and epitomized the denial of humanity. Conversely,
Hurston’s free-spirited if measured upbringing in the all-black and relatively autonomous
Eatonville focused her attentions on the power and knowledge of black folk life. As such, she
was more likely to see African American life as being comprised of many problems, interests,
and concerns, race and racism being just one of them. In a 1938 essay, “Art and Such,” she
writes famously that, “…Negroes love and hate and fight and play and strive and travel and have
a thousand and one interests in life lie other humans. When his baby cuts a new tooth, he brags
as shamelessly as anyone else without once weeping over the prospect of some Klansman
knocking it out if and when the child ever gets grown.”5 Wright’s narrative about his mother’s
Turning South 34
response to his boyhood battle with a white child recounted in the 1937 essay, “The Ethics of
Living Jim Crow: An Autobiographical Sketch,” directly contradicts Hurston’s assertion that
race and racism were not chief concerns of black folks. Wright sustained an injury requiring
stitches during this battle and felt that a “grave injustice” had been done him. When he recounted
the story to his mother, in search of sympathy, she whipped him until he had a fever, all the
while “[imparting] to [him] gems of Jim Crow wisdom.” He contends that he remembers the
once calming, lush space of the battle as a “symbol of fear”:
From that time on, the charm of my cinder yard was gone. The green trees, the trimmed
hedges, the cropped lawns grew very meaningful, became a symbol. Even today when I
think of white folks, the hard, sharp outlines of white houses surrounded by trees, lawns,
and hedges are present somewhere in the background of my mind. Through the years
they grew into an overreaching symbol of fear.
For Wright, the very pastoral scenes that constituted the backdrop of black life in Hurston’s
South represented white racism, shame, and a hegemonic, uncritical blackness that reinforced the
rules of Jim Crow through equally unkind emotional and/or physical violence.
Hurston and Wright traded scathing critiques of one another’s work—notable direct
critiques were Wright’s review of Their Eyes Were Watching God and Hurston’s review of
Uncle Tom’s Children. Beyond the personal and gendered reasons behind Wright’s critiques of
Hurston,6 his core stated criticism of Eatonville’s ethnographer was that her writing pandered to
existing stereotypes of black folks with which whites were already comfortable—as singing,
laughing, crying, and otherwise emoting. For Wright, Hurston’s characters’ constrained or nonexistent rage was wholly inconsistent with a South of racial degradation, inequality, and
violence, a South with which he was most familiar. Of Uncle Tom’s Children, Hurston wrote in
the Saturday Review that Wright’s characters were one-dimensional and violent, and that his
Turning South 35
interpretation of black Southern dialect was sub-par, particularly for a son of the South. Her
critique echoes the writers’ intraregional distinctions as well as positions towards the South.
While both were from the South, which rendered them a desire to preserve some notion of the
folk, their differential rearing and experiences caused them to articulate that “folk” in different
The “rage and resentment” that characterized Wright’s escape from the South and his
subsequent writings about that life and escape from it ultimately triumphed, as several forces,
from her own personal misfortunes to the radicalizing tide in African American political and
cultural expression, challenged Hurston’s authority. The continuous and public nature of white
violence against blacks, as well as blatant racial inequality, made her positions on segregation—
that blacks should remain segregated as they could thrive in segregated spaces— and other issues
seem untenable. James Baldwin and Ralph Ellison’s critiques of Wright notwithstanding7, the
latter’s narrative of Sartre-like8 struggle against an oppressor resonated with the African
American public. When both Hurston and Wright died in 1960, the protests of the Civil Rights
Movement, followed by the rise of the Black Power Movement, Wright’s vision had more or less
triumphed. His escape from the South was being narrated and re-narrated in African American
writers’ autobiographical condemnation of the South, in sociological research on blacks in the
urban North, and in a form of racial protest that was increasingly located in urban locales, in and
out of the South. Hurston’s sense of the rural folk had all but disappeared from black writing, as
if those people no longer existed save as the subaltern oppressed disconnected from the larger
freedom struggles erupting all over the nation. Further, rurality in general, even the rural-folk-inurban-space tropes that dominated migration narratives, had dissipated in African American arts
Turning South 36
and letters. Yet, rurality, newly conflated with the South, would return with a steadfastness and
endurance fueled by cultural anxieties about the place of region and race in modern America.
The rediscovery of Zora Neale Hurston’s work by Alice Walker in the 1970s is now understood
as the quintessential moment in the black literary turn South. Yet, Zora had been loosed, as it
were, in a number of ways before her rediscovery and subsequent canonization. In fact, on the
third day after Zora’s January 28, 1960 death, she rose again: the inaugural performance of Alvin
Ailey’s “Revelations” was January 31, 1960 at Kaufmann Concert Hall, housed in the 92nd Street
Young Men’s Hebrew Association in New York City, not far from the Harlem in which Hurston
spent her formative years with the “Niggerati.” “Revelations” began a tradition of regional
remembrance, reclamation, and accomplishment that persists in African American culture. I
outline here the cumulative effect of several cultural products: Ailey’s Revelations, Stax
Records’ soul music, and African American writings of the Southern turn. Through them and the
production of subsequent cultural products for Southern turn, Hurston’s legacy was solidified
and gained more nuanced dimensions of gender, race, class, memory, and region. Moreover, the
cultural products of the Southern turn universalized the Southern experience, creating a lexicon
of regionalized racial tropes that have become synonymous with the black American experience
writ large. Just as the nation had been Southernized (Egerton, 1974), black America was
undergoing a public, discursive, and demographic Southernization.
Revelations and Reclamation
Modern African American dance, gaining traction in the 1930s and 1940s, always situated the
black South as an important site of memory and performance inspiration. The work of Pearl
Turning South 37
Primus and Talley Beatty, in particular, laid the foundation for Alvin Ailey’s enduring success
with Revelations. Pearl Primus’ “Strange Fruit” (1943), set to the poem of the same title,
viscerally chronicles one woman’s response to a lynching. Talley Beatty’s five-part suite,
Southern Landscapes, chronicling black life during Reconstruction included “Mourner’s Bench,”
(1947) a movement that highlighted the sorrow of one man as he processed the Ku Klux Klan’s
destruction of an interracial community of farms. Both Primus and Beatty’s work treat the
racialized violence endemic to the region and focus on the complex emotional responses to
Southern horrors from the post-reconstruction period to the WWII era. The overarching purpose
of their pieces was to give voice to, with bodily vocabulary, the effects of the continued legacy
of racial violence on black folk, as well as to center a Southern vernacular in the articulation of
these narratives. Ailey’s Revelations, however, was more deliberatively reclamative of the
Southern experience and was based on the dancer’s experiences and remembrances of his rearing
in 1930s small-town Texas. Although Ailey spent his adolescent years in Los Angeles and lived
his adulthood in New York, it was his Southern experiences to which he looked back and from
which he drew the inspiration for the pieces in Revelations. As Thomas F. DeFrantz (2006)
notes, “Revelations mapped rural Southern spirituality onto the concert dance stage,” and Ailey’s
memories of the South were strategically recalled and reshaped to narrate the authentic African
American experience.9 While the use of spirituals in black concert dance was not necessarily
new or unique by the time Revelations debuted, Ailey’s reclamation and accomplishment of
Southern distinctiveness through them was. Ailey recounted his childhood memories of the
Baptist Church in Texas in a 1961 interview in Dance and Dancers magazine: “…baptismals by
tree-shrouded lakes, in a lake where an ancient alligator was supposed to have lived—the holy
Turning South 38
rollers tambourines shrieking in the Texas night.”10 The imagery Ailey utilized, both in his
choreography and written and verbal recollections in various interviews, was unmistakably and
deliberately Southern. Yet, like many cultural products of the turn South, Ailey’s corpus
universalized the black Southern experience as the black American experience, and has since
been extended worldwide as representative of American cultural life.
Stax: Southern Soul to American Soul
Although not directly engaged in reclamation efforts, Southern rhythm and blues artists sought
certainly to redefine the soundscapes of African American life, just as their blues predecessors
had done in the previous generation. They articulated a distinctly Southern black experience that
blended gospel and blues traditions and the sound of Civil Rights struggle through wa-wa
guitars, the snapping snares of incomparable rhythm sections, and the wails of Aretha Franklin,
Otis Redding, Al Green, and others. Although these artists were not necessarily reclaiming the
region because, in effect, they had never let it, or its contradictions, go, they were reclaiming,
their right to speak as Southerners, to own their stake and investment in the region, and to
distinguish themselves not as backward and country, but as instrumental in the political and
cultural struggles and life of African American communities. Southern R&B artists’
unapologetic production of a Southern brand of soul quickly began to define the black American
experience in general. By the 1970s, Southern soul had become synonymous with the black
freedom struggle, belting out hope, promise, and racial pride. In 1972, Stax Records organized
Wattstax to commemorate the 1965 riots in Watts, Los Angeles. Moreover, Wattstax was the
black South’s quintessential demonstration of interregional black solidarity. Commemorated in
Mel Stuart’s 1973 documentary of the same title, performances of “Old Time Religion,” the
Turning South 39
theme from Shaft, and Rufus Thomas’ indomitable funky chicken, amongst others, coalesced to
bond Southern soul to black Los Angeles. While Wattstax is remembered today as a seminal
cultural moment in the black American experience, it was the distinctly regional brand of black
Southern soul music—from Isaac Hayes to the Staple Singers—that served as the soundtrack for
black life and struggle in the immediate aftermath of the Civil Rights gains of the 1960s.
Black Writers and the Turn South
Following Ailey and soul music, African American writers began to reclaim the region, and did
so most directly through Zora Neale Hurston. Alice Walker’s 1975 essay “In Search of Zora
Neale Hurston,” stimulated a rescue and reclamation of Hurston that then became part of the
broader (re-)turn South in African American culture. Gradually dispensing with the “shame” of
their Southern pasts, African American writers with Southern rearing attempted to demonstrate
the inherent value of that rearing and experience—distinct life lessons gleaned only because of
the region’s particular racial past and present and its rich, ongoing folk life—without explicitly
romanticizing the region. Five years before publishing the essay on her search for Hurston both
physically for her grave and as a literary, feminist mother, Walker reflected on her Southern
rearing to discuss the gifts the black writer from the South must render to American literature.
She writes,
No one could wish for a more advantageous heritage than that bequeathed to the black
writer in the South: a compassion for the earth, a trust in humanity beyond our knowledge
of evil, and an abiding love of justice. We inherit a great responsibility as well, for we
must give voices to centuries not only of silent bitterness and hate but also of neighborly
kindness and sustaining love (Walker, 1983 [1970]:21).
Although Walker asserts that she does not “intend to romanticize Southern black country life”
(Walker 1983[1970]:21), her reflection is very much a part of “looking back” to the South, and
Turning South 40
in particular towards a generally segregated, rural black existence, to embrace both the
“bitterness and hate” and “neighborly kindness and sustaining love” of a black Southern
experiential and epistemic position. Walker and others are quite deliberate in delineating the
boundaries of the South being reclaimed: this is a black folk South, one in which whites exist and
are undoubtedly oppressive, but one in which they are not the only propelling force; that is, a
South in which, as Hurston said, black folks might have been excited about their babies’ first
teeth without contemplating the possible fates of those teeth as a result of white racial violence.
In addition to reclamation work, black writers took to defending the region from monolithically
negative representations. In 1974, Addison Gayle criticized the Black Aesthetic Movement of the
1960s for what he saw as its conscious excising of the black Southern experience from black arts
and letters. He implored black artists, and black writers in particular, to “reclaim the Southern
experience,” both defending the region and challenging dominant African American
constructions of the South as a space and place to which out-migrants should and/or could never
return.11 Estes-Hicks (1993) points out that beginning in the late 1960s, the African American
autobiographical tradition underwent a thematic shift from the South as the “scene of the
crime”—a paradigm for which Wright’s Black Boy serves as template—to the South as a space
comprised both of good and evil, as a region remembered fondly by its black sons and daughters,
and as a homespace to be reclaimed.
This “turn South” in black arts and letters, which paralleled a similar resurgence in attention to
the South by white historians and literary scholars, did not go unchallenged. Critics (Dubey,
Turning South 41
2002; Reed, 1996) charged that the reclamation of Southern distinctiveness since the 1960s, and
implicitly and explicitly black versions of Southern distinctiveness, arose in tandem with major
political and economic changes that thrust the region into definitive modernization. They further
alleged that such projects were aimed at maintaining and rearticulating conservative and neoconservative politics that justified institutional racism (Kruse, 2005). These critiques often echo
sentiments about the South articulated in early black Southern autobiographies, in which the
South in its entirety loomed large as the place, space, and state of mind to deliberately forget.
Beyond simple lambasting of the South, however, these analyses deconstruct the black South
tropes of rurality, happiness, and rootedness in place and their emergence as both a response to
urban crises outside of the South and intraregional crises of integration, modernization, and civil
rights gains. Three key issues, which are not necessarily mutually exclusive, surface in these
critiques: ruralism, representation, and half-truths.
The “folk” aesthetic in African American literature has persisted since Reconstruction to
reconcile sharp differences in African American positions after slavery. Ruralism has always
been central to this aesthetic, particularly in the Harlem Renaissance and later in the literary turn
South of the 1970s. Hazel Carby’s 1991 essay, “The Politics of Fiction, Anthropology and the
Folk: Zora Neale Hurston,” unpacks this aesthetic and its reclamation in and through Hurston’s
work, its rediscovery, and its canonization. Although Hurston recognized the transformable
nature of black folk forms—that spirituals could change into children’s hand games and later
emerge as parts of folk tales—she refused to recognize the transformable nature of black
people’s production of culture across geography and temporality. This, of course, presented a
theoretical and epistemological problem for Hurston, given the mass exodus of African
Turning South 42
Americans from the South in the first half of the 20th century. Carby writes that Hurston,
“measured [rural folks] and their cultural forms against an urban, mass culture” and “did not take
seriously the possibility that African-American culture was being transformed as AfricanAmerican peoples migrated from rural to urban areas” (Carby, 1994:31). Ultimately, Carby
highlights how Hurston’s own politics precluded the progress of “the folk” although she herself
was representative of the same syncretistic, transformative progress she loathed. Carby terms this
contradiction Hurston’s “discursive displacement of contemporary social crises,” (Carby,
1994:32) a notion that is carried forth directly into most subsequent critiques of the literary turn
South.12 This “discursive displacement” might also be used to think about popular critiques of
the turn South, as reclamation efforts have often been characterized as an escape from
disinvestment in urban North in much the same way as white and black exodus from the innercity to the suburbs is termed “flight.” I return to this idea of “discursive displacement” in Chapter
In a piece in the April 1996 edition of The Village Voice, political scientist Adolph Reed
extends and contracts the notion of discursive displacement by simply accusing the black middle
class of half-truths at best and delusions at worst. He contends that the ubiquity of turn-South
nostalgia—“in every major newspaper and excuse for a news magazine at the supermarket
checkout line, in the classroom, in the local bar, across the dinner table, in cultural criticism, in
foundation boardrooms and policy papers, on the talk show circuit” (24)—is particularly
problematic for the achievement of gender, sexuality, and class equity in the black community.
He locates “black nostalgia for a segregated past” in the class and age anxiety of black baby
boomer elites, arguing that nostalgia for pre-desegregation black life reinforces the middle-class,
Turning South 43
paternalist, and patriarchal norms of the segregated black community. In segregated
communities, Reed argues by extension, intraracial distinctions—family background, class, place
of residence, political affiliation—facilitated privileged African Americans’ abilities to police
and control working class and poor African Americans (Higginbotham, 1993; Brown, 2008).
While African Americans might long for the pre-desegregation heydays of the black sections of
cities like Detroit, Chicago, and Milwaukee, it is in and through the American South—because
of larger black-to-white population proportions and consequently higher numbers of distinct
black communities, cheaper costs of living, and concentrated black political power—that these
“dangerous dreams” might be contemporaneously realized.
Adding a spatial and located dimension to the critique, Dubey (2002) characterizes
resurgent interest in the South as a form of “the spatialized cultural politics of difference said to
be distinctive of the postmodern era” (352). She argues that rapid and definitive modernization
forces in the region spurred swelling interest in reclaiming that which, perhaps at some point,
made the region culturally distinct—rurality, “rootedness,” localized, and face-to-face interaction
untouched by globalizing forces. The implication of these efforts, she contends, is the
“[conservation of] particularistic and countermodern forms of cultural value at the steep cost of
stalling economic and political change” (Dubey, 2002:368) by seemingly strange bedfellows: on
the one hand, conservative and/or racist white elites interested in maintaining the racial status
quo, and on the other, African American elites—in Dubey’s analysis literary cultural elites—
interested in combating the problematic forces of modernism that produced black urban crises in
metropolises across the country through a reclamation of the rural South. Essentially, for Reed,
Dubey, and other critics of the turn South,13 black and white Southerners are active and complicit
Turning South 44
in maintaining interracial inequities and interracial and intraracial class inequities by hearkening
back to a seemingly less complicated rural past.
While these critiques certainly highlight the ways in which power—white racial power, black
middle class/elite power—is operating in otherwise innocuous if nostalgic remembrances and
accounts of the past, they miss the ways in which individual actors challenge and harness this
power to erect individual distinctions, represent their own marginalized life experiences, and lay
claim to authentic, or perhaps more accurately, “sincere,” (Jackson, 2005) existences. In their
focus on the “re-“ parts of “return” and “remember,” critics inadvertently invalidate the
testimony and experiences of those Southerners who never left the South, as well as miss the
nuance necessary to posit a critique of Southerner’s positions. That is, what happens when
Southerners, born and raised in the South, who have never left the South, espouse what nonSoutherners and other critics situate as problematic constructions of region, race, and culture?
Further, criticisms notwithstanding, from the 1960s forward, black cultural products, produced
by academics as well as popular, mass-audience black media shifted to a more comprehensive, if
problematically sympathetic, view of the South. This culture work walked the line between
reflection/nostalgia and promotion/boosterism, constituting a regionalized cultural rally that
reminded those who had left the region of its power and promise, introduced non-Southerners to
the region’s vibrant and resilient cultural life, and demonstrated the region’s relevance to
understanding black folks’ experiences across America. Even when the cultural product was a
“negative” portrayal of the South—witness, for instance films such as Alan Parker’s Mississippi
Burning (1989) or John Singleton’s Rosewood (1997)—such films were viewed largely as the
Turning South 45
way the South was, a history lesson, as it were, and a testament to how the far the region had
come. Through this culture work, the curtain was lifted on the black South for potential primary
and return migrants to see; in turn, the black South was relatively free to author its own show,
after being hidden, obscured, and deliberately forgotten in waves of northward and westward
After the swell of work around the region that coincided with the first net in-migration of
African Americans to the region in the 1960s and 1970s, the African American South became a
recurring phenomenon of interest in the works of writers, artists, musicians, journalists, and
academics. “Southern Girl,” a 1980 funk single by San Francisco Bay Area band Maze featuring
Philadelphia’s Frankie Beverly rang out and topped R&B charts. Killens and Ward’s (1992)
Black Southern Voices anthologized Southern-themed black fiction, poetry, non-fiction, and
essays by Southern authors to, as co-editor Ward says in the foreword, “make it possible to
hear…the full range of sounds representing the history and creativity of a people who were and
are cocreators of the South as a literal and figurative realm” (Killens and Ward, 1992:5). In 1993,
the African American Review published a two-part issue on The Black South that was to be
conceptualized as a “near relative” (Salaam and Ward, 1993:5) to the Killens and Ward (1992)
anthology. In addition to reappraisals of the black Southern intellectual tradition, particularly in
arts and letters, the issues include sections on culture, drama, poetry, fiction, and art, which
include new and re-printed literary works and critical essays. Further, a host of media
publications and news outfits took up the cause of putting faces and stories to the continuing
trend of return migration, attempting to understand the black folks conceptualization of the South
as “home.”
Turning South 46
The cumulative effect of this culture work was twofold. First, it epistemologically re-cast
African Americans as “Southerners, too” (Hornsby, 2004), highlighting the existence of blacks
in the South before, during, and after the Great Migration and highlighting African Americans’
shared stake in the legacy and future of the region. In tandem, this culture work also cast the
black Southern experience as the black American experience. Second, it established the cultural
groundwork for region to publically function as a form of intraracial distinction that could
therefore be packaged, marketed, and exploited. On all fronts, the South “rose again” in African
American memory, consciousness, and experience between the 1960s and 1990s and became a
site of convergence and contention in black life.
The turn South has persisted over the past two decades in literature, black film and hiphop music, adopting more sophisticated forms of articulation, as well as drawing more caustic
critical commentary. Black Southern writers continue to reclaim the South, although in a
decidedly post-Civil Rights moment in which reflection on region draws on urban and rural
tropes of Southern-ness to accomplish a distinctive black Southern experience. Southern hip-hop
artists, re-writing the historiography of the form to situate the genre’s origins as Southern—
rooted in the definitively Southern sounds of gospel, blues, and soul music—rather than as
urban/Northern, also challenge and affirm representations of black life dominant in hip-hop. The
region’s place at the music industry table has not only been solidified, but Southern artists also
continue to account for a majority of sales, hits, and popularity on the hip-hop and R&B charts.
Key films, including Daughters of the Dust (1991) Down in the Delta (1998) and the more recent
Idlewild (2006), ATL (2006), and Hustle & Flow (2005) have worked to de-center, challenge,
and in some instances affirm representations of black life as existing purely in impoverished
Turning South 47
urban contexts outside of the South. Although certainly not existing without backlash, this
Southern invasion of hip-hop and R&B music, and to a lesser extent African American film,
facilitates the opportunity to examine the place of the South in contemporary black social
memory, as well as the evolution of African American cultural connections to the region from
the early 20th century to present.
Over the course of the 20th century and into the 21st, the South has existed both as the
“scene of the crime” from which one must flee and never return and as the only true homespace
for black folks. Although structurally, the turn South was facilitated by civil rights gains,
Southern modernization, and deindustrialization, its longevity is very much a product of the
veritable culture industry that has arisen in service of the Southern turn. The cultural products of
the turn South in black arts and letters, music, and film work to accomplish region—which in
this case is spatial, racialized, remembered, and epistemic—through the syncretistic combination
of racialized experiences of place and shared and inherited worldviews. These products, and their
producers, assume certain constants that unify their accomplishment efforts, despite their
distinctive methods, genre, and foci. Broadly, these constants are: (1) the South has a decidedly
rural nature, despite and because of its recent modernization and urbanization, that influences the
way the region is lived by residents across lines of difference; (2) the South is a/the site of
authentic, privileged black experience; and (3) the South is a/the site of redemption across lines
of difference. While the South has been remembered and immortalized in black arts and letters
with a reflective and bitter fondness—witness the aptly-borrowed title of Louisville, Kentuckynative Houston Baker’s latest autobiographical reflection, I Don’t Hate the South (2007)14—
Turning South 48
contemporary attempts to remember and accomplish the South in black culture both sanitize and
muddy these memories, creating a “new” black Southern landscape that utilizes a combination of
earthy, atemporal authenticity and the convenience and perils of modernity to privilege a
Southern black life over other regional black lives.
Intellectuals on either side of the Hurston-Wright debate have assumed the same
dichotomies that many of them wish to deconstruct. Specifically, critics of Wright have imagined
the “folk” as separate from modernity in certain ways, and critics of Hurston have imagined the
“folk” as non-existent in modern contexts. Both of these positions obscure the urban South and
the process of Southern urbanization that the “folk” underwent in the century following the Civil
War. That is, the “folk”—rural folk—have continued to exist in urban space—Southern cities
and metropolises beyond the region. The numerous storefronts in the historically black
communities of any major Southern city are reminiscent of rural-town Main Streets in the
Mississippi Delta. After all, it was arguably a folk aesthetic that undergirded and propelled the
Civil Rights Movement. In the next four chapters, I turn and return South. I turn to an analysis of
rural folk in urban space, focusing on Southerners “through and through”: folks currently living
in the South who can trace their regional heritage back several generations. I return to the
tradition of Southern urban ethnography, scarce even in the heyday of sociology in and of the
South and virtually non-existent since WWII. In each chapter, I demonstrate how black
Southerners sometimes endeavor to accomplish a Southern identity, tying racial authenticity to
regional authenticity to privilege not only the black Southern experience, but also the experience
of Southerners “through and through.” I also attempt to highlight how attention to regional
articulations of race, class, and gender identities nuances current understandings of those
Turning South 49
identities and concomitant behaviors.
Post-Soul Southern Blues 50
Olu Dara, father of hip-hop icon Nas, released his solo album, In the World: From Natchez to
New York, in 1998, on the eve of Southern hip-hop’s meteoric and hence unchallenged rise to the
top of both music charts and black consciousness. The cornetist adds guitar and vocals to his jazz
repertoire to produce a sustained reflection on black Southern life. With tracks titled “Zora,”
“Okra,” “Natchez Shopping Blues,” and “Harlem Country Girl,” From Natchez to New York
traverses time and space through a blues migration from the rural South to the urban North and
back. Southern hip-hop intra-regionally echoes these movements between the rural and the
urban, drawing on blues, jazz, funk, and gospel traditions to narrate what I call a post-soul
Southern blues. Aesthetically and culturally, post-soul Southern blues is the musical and bodily
lexicon of black Southern life in the post-Civil Rights era. Politically, this post-soul Southern
blues is a set of performative narratives utilized to navigate the contemporary contractions of the
South, e.g. the simultaneous existence and spatial proximity of pastoral, plantation-reminiscent
homes and the sprawling government housing projects that still dot Southern urban landscapes.
Dara’s artistry captures these tensions, even as its primary mode of delivery conjures up old,
rural South visions.
Despite bluesy, harmonica-laced collaborations with his father, it is New-York born Nas,
the son of the migrant from Mississippi, who proclaims hip-hop dead once it returns “home to
the South.” This generational difference between father and son is exemplary of the contested
Post-Soul Southern Blues 51
nature of hip-hop practice as the thirtysomething genre experiences the growing pains of age,
expansion, and increasing corporatization. Nas’ 2006 album, Hip Hop Is Dead, drew criticism
from a number of Southern artists, who read the title of the album, as well as the album content,
as a direct critique of the region and its prominence in hip-hop. Indeed, just as Southern hip-hop
gained traction in the record industry, rappers from the two coasts, particularly those from the
East Coast, moved to shore up the boundaries of authentic hip-hop. The East Coast contingent
released several pro-New York songs, including the Rza’s 1998 “NYC Everything,” Ja Rule’s
2004 single “New York,” Busta Rhymes’ 2006 collaborative effort “New York Shit,” and most
recently the Alicia Keys and Jay-Z urban anthem, “Empire State of Mind” (2009). The VH-1,
MTV, and BET networks hosted a number of hip-hop honors-themed awards shows where they
brought back East Coast hip-hop “pioneers” to remind young audiences of hip-hop’s “true”
origins, as well as to construct and reify a hip-hop historiography that centered New York as
both the birthplace and ongoing manifestation hip-hop music and culture. As Southern artists
continued to dominate the hip-hop soundscape, reconfiguring the geography of the genre, folks
on the ground in New York created t-shirts narrowing down the birthplace of hip-hop to one
particular corner—that of Cedar Park and Sedgwick Avenue in the Bronx, New York—to ensure
that some artifact of New York’s progenitorial status in hip-hop endured. In addition to claiming
the East Coast, and by proxy the West Coast, as the authentic homespace of hip-hop, the
narratives that emerge from the battle against hip-hop’s “third coast” (Sarig, 2007) point to more
fundamental regional differences. In addition to the usual critiques of Southern hip-hop as
lyrically bereft, emphasizing the physical—namely, booty, beat, and bass—over the cerebral,
recent critiques of Southern hip-hop by East Coast artists have gone further. Rza, actor and
Post-Soul Southern Blues 52
member of New York-based Wu-Tang Clan, said in a 2007 interview:
How has the South dominated hip-hop for the last four, five years without lyrics, without
hip-hop culture really in their blood? Those brothers came out representing more of a
stereotype of how black people are, and I think the media would rather see us as ignorant,
crazy motherfuckers than seeing us as intelligent young men trying to rise and take care
of ourselves.1
Here the Rza rehearses typical objections to Southern hip-hop, which as I will suggest below,
are, at best, misconstructions of the region’s contributions to hip-hop. In fact, underground and
highly visible Southern artists see themselves broadly as providing the musical and cultural bases
for hip-hop music. Further, Rza’s comments indict Southern artists for perpetuating stereotypes,
despite the fact that the Wu-Tang Clan’s corpus contributed directly to stereotypical notions of
African American men as angry and violent, sexually and otherwise. In a 2006 MTV interview,
Rapper 50 Cent criticizes the lack of creativity in Southern hip-hop, despite the fact that many of
his own songs are indistinguishable from one another in rhythm and instrumentation. Arguing
that the genre needs new releases from his G-Unit record label because of this lack of creativity,
50 said:
A lot of the music that comes out of the South is kind of simplified and I think it’s kinda
‘cause they just wanna have a good time . . . They don’t wanna think about what [they]
just said. ... They really didn’t make sense, but they made sense in a way and they just
wanna hear something while they’re actually partying and it works for them. But when
they don’t take the time to make it the highest quality possible, it hurts the actual hip-hop
[genre]. People wanna make music they can get away with as opposed to the best
possible music they can make.2
Clearly, however, 50 Cent “gets away with” the same mediocre-quality music as he accuses his
Southern counterparts of making, given that his song list is characterized by less-than-stellar,
sex-drugs-violence lyrics. Perhaps the most telling and caustic critique comes from Ice-T in 2008
Post-Soul Southern Blues 53
on DJ Cisco’s Urban Legend mixtape. Directing his anger directly at Soulja Boy, who has come
to epitomize the so-called death of hip-hop, the cop-killer-turned-television-cop says,
Fuck Soulja Boy. Eat a dick. This nigga single-handedly killed hip-hop…Soulja Boy, I
know you’re young enough to be my kid, but you single-handedly killed hip-hop, man.
Know what I’m saying? I can’t fucking front, man, all that – that shit is just garbage, you
can’t do that man. We came all the way from Rakim, okay? We came all the way from
Das EFX, came all the way from motherfuckers flowing like Big Daddy Kane and Ice
Cube, and you come with that Superman shit, that shit is garbage. And Hurricane [Chris],
take them fucking beads out your fucking hair, kid. Come on, man up, you niggas, stop
bullshitting. You niggas is making me feel real fucking mad about this shit. We took it all
the way to khaki and straps, and you niggas looking happy, man, that shit is whack. But
get your money man, I ain’t tripping…3
Ice-T’s rant, which was parodied in a Season 3 episode of The Boondocks4, with fictional rapper
Thugnificent prompting a with the Soulja Boy stand-in, Sergeant Gudda, points to a number of
salient issues in the interregional hip-hop debate, which escalated in the last few years of the
2000s. Foremost, Ice-T lays the blame for hip-hop’s death—although Southern artists would
certainly beg to differ as to the mortality of the genre—solely on Soulja Boy; there is no mention
of the broader corporate forces that control the hip-hop industry, or the broader shift in black
culture in the late 1990s that indicated fatigue with the whole notion of “the ‘hood.”5 Secondly,
by referencing hip-hop icons, e.g. Rakim and Big Daddy Kane as fundamentally distinct from
Soulja Boy, Ice-T delegitimizes the latter as an artist and erases some of the problematic aspects
of the works of the former. In admonishing Hurricane Chris, a New Orleans-based rapper, to
remove his hair beads, Ice-T is reflecting the anxiety black urban non-Southerners have about
signifiers of black inferiority. That is, in referencing Hurricane Chris’ beads in the context of a
critique of Soulja Boy, Ice-T is criticizing what he implicitly sees as minstrelsy: dancing,
“nigger” hairstyling, and moreover, “looking happy.” It is fundamentally difficult for Ice-T to
imagine a context in which Soulja Boy, whose official video for his debut single “Crank Dat
Post-Soul Southern Blues 54
Soulja Boy” had been viewed over 85,000,000 times on YouTube in October 2010, might
actually be both popular and reflective of a legitimate culture.
Taking the critique of Southern hip-hop as minstrelsy to new heights, rapper Nick
Cannon and comedian Affion Crockett team up as “Shuck” and “Jive.” Donning blackface,
dreadlocks, multiple gold chains and gold teeth—with the latter three all being references to
Southern hip-hop artists, and Atlanta-based rapper and producer Lil’ Jon in particular—Shuck
and Jive perform “Eat Dat Watermelon,” in which they do a hambone dance, smile, play banjos,
and hide from “massa.” At the end of the approximately minute-long routine, Nas, who gives a
public service announcement at the outset of the video, says, “…and if that [kind of
performance/cooning] don’t stop, hip-hop is dead.” Minstresly functions as a particularly
powerful trope to highlight the dire nature of the situation. The message is that Southern hip-hop
is cooning and buffoonery, and that real hip-hop suffers because of its prevalence.
I read these critiques as misguided and hypocritical attempts to address a discursive
power shift in contemporary hip-hop culture and the effects of the turn South more generally.
Many of the critiques launched by non-Southern artists could quite easily be lodged at the East
and West Coasts. However, these artists engage in a strategic transference that distances the
problematic nature of their work from that of Southern artists. Further, by conflating Southern
hip-hop with negative tropes of black Southern racial complacency, namely shucking, jiving,
watermelon-eating, and hiding from “massa,” such critiques obscure the relative legitimacy of
Southern artists’ claims to hip-hop culture and history. In many ways, non-Southern hip-hop
artists’ reaction to the rise of the South reflects the conservative backlash to the modernization of
the South—that is, just as Southern hip-hop emerges as a formidable and viable force in the hip-
Post-Soul Southern Blues 55
hop industry, mainstream hip-hop both gains a conscience about the effect of hip-hop on
representations of black folks and conveniently forgets its participation in the shaping and
framing of those representations.
Southern artists respond to these critiques by both affirming their craft and position and
by jockeying for position and launching epistemological critiques of non-Southerners arguments.
As early as 1994, amidst boos from attendees at the Source Awards when the Atlanta-based rap
duo OutKast took the stage to receive their award, André 3000 contended famously: “The South
got somethin’ to say.”6 Several responses to Ice-T’s rant in support of Soulja Boy are on
YouTube. The most notable of these responses is a 2008 cartoon parody that had been viewed
over 2,000,000 times in August 2010. The video prominently features a clip from Ice-T’s early
career of the rapper popping, locking, and breaking—better known as dancing. Lil’ Wayne,
perhaps the most outspoken critic of critics of the South, frequently admonishes the industry as
well as artists. On “Shooter,” a collaboration with throwback-soul-sound crooner Robin Thicke,
Lil’ Wayne insists that non-Southern artists, radio stations, and record labels “Stop being rapper
racists, region haters…this is Southern face it/if we too simple, then y’all don’t get the basics.”
The New Orleans native spends eight bars on what has become his political position in Hip-Hop
music and culture—eradicating the denigration of Southern music, culture, and urban realities by
“region haters,” rappers wed to the traditional hip-hop historiography that begins in New York
City, takes a violent detour in Los Angeles, and ends in New York City. Wayne challenges not
only the absence of democracy over the airwaves, but also the negation of black Southern culture
as backward, country, rural, and “too simple.”
Post-Soul Southern Blues 56
This chapter examines the ways in which Southern artists lay claim to hip-hop history,
and black identity broadly, through aesthetic and political practices that blend old and new South
cultures and sensibilities. It chronicles the turn South in hip-hop culture through attention to both
Southern artists and Southern hip-hop films. Further, I draw on ethnographic data collected on
Memphis’ hip-hop scene to contrast hypermedia representations of Southern hip-hop culture
with the on-the-ground culture work of Southern hip-hop practices. I demonstrate that
Southerners draw on African American musical traditions to legitimate their position as both
creators and inheritors of hip-hop’s legacy. For these local artists, as well as their hypermedia
counterparts, it is only fitting that hip-hop has come “home to the South.” And, despite what Nas,
Ice-T, and 50 Cent may believe, these artists demonstrate that hip-hop is very much alive—as
alive as the blues, funk, jazz, gospel, and soul from which it sprang.
The thing is—and I believe this man—rap is coming back home to the South. Because,
this, this is where it all began. Heavy percussion, repetitive hooks, sexually suggestive
lyrics, man it’s all Blues brother! “Back Door Man” to “Back That Ass Up,” it’s all
about pain and pussy…and making music, man, with simple tools, by any means
necessary. You got to get what you got to say out. Because you’ve got to! Every man has
the right—the goddamned right—to contribute a verse!
-Shelby, “Hustle and Flow” (2005)
Shelby, played by Nashville, Tennessee-native D.J. Qualls, says this monologue between drags
on a marijuana joint, and is exemplary of the accomplishment logic Southerners use to lay
epistemic claim to hip-hop. Engaging both a regional privileging and exceptionalism, Shelby, the
young, hippie white guy, representative of eclectic and liberal Midtown Memphis, argues that
black culture, specifically rap, is returning home, migrating back, to its original roots, and further
that everyone has the ability and the right to participate in this cultural production renaissance.
Post-Soul Southern Blues 57
This “home” that he signifies is both a Southern home and a Memphis home, which is intimated
by Memphis and Stax Records’ characterization as the place “where it all began.” This
monologue is representative of the reclamative nature of Southern hip-hop culture. It is also
representative of the accomplishment processes that Southern culture producers set in motion to
draw distinctions between the South and other regions. While regional differences in musical
sound are influenced by differences in regional and place histories—Washington, D.C. go-go
music is a distinctive local product influenced by the funk styles of guitarist Chuck Brown in
much the same way that Seattle’s grunge is rooted in blends of punk rock and hardcore
alternative rock—in film, writers, directors and producers must deliberately endeavor to
accomplish a regional distinctiveness. As deliberately and typically self-consciously constructed
social text, filmic representations of distinction are useful analytically because their stylization—
from diegeses to cinematography—clearly highlights processes of accomplishment. Films not
only reflect the intent of their producers, but also a particular zeitgeist that can be analyzed to
uncover temporally-specific social trends as well as changing narratives over time. Norman
Denzin (1991, 1995) has established the significance of cinema as social and sociological text in
a postmodern context of signs, symbols, and hypermedia, unpacking representations and the
represented, the seers and the seen, in contemporary American cultural life. Following the spirit
of Denzin’s work and embarking on an interdisciplinary analysis that puts sociology and cinema
into direct conversation, Dudrah (2006) reads Bollywood films within the complex and
intersecting context of film texts, popular Hindi culture, diaspora, and identities. He illustrates
how Bollywood emerges as both a distinctive global phenomenon, but also as a site in which
intracultural distinctions—space, place, gender, and sexuality—are fashioned and signified.
Post-Soul Southern Blues 58
I argue that these intracultural distinctions are operating in Southern hip-hop and Southern hiphop films as Southerners draw their own boundaries around hip-hop and blackness that privilege
rurality as a spatial formation and the South as a place to lay claim to a more authentic and more
sincere version of black life. Three films in particular—Hustle and Flow (2005), Idlewild (2006),
and ATL (2006)—accomplish a distinctive regional reality and situate hip-hop as an organic
product of that regional distinction. I review each of these films in their fictional chronological
and geographical orders—Idlewild, then ATL, then Hustle and Flow—to highlight the ways in
which these films suggest an alternative hip-hop historiography.
Re-writing Hip-Hop Historiography
Southern hip-hop artists engage in the epistemological project of not only highlighting the
myriad ways in which the South makes hip-hop possible—for instance, the majority of samples
in contemporary music come from the myriad soul albums of Memphis’ Stax Records—but also
writing a history that justifies Southerners place in hip-hop culture. I read Idlewild as the
retrospective anticipation of ATL and Hustle and Flow in that Idlewild is set in the 1930s in an
all-black Southern town that is clearly a center to and through which rural populations travel. As
such, the fictional Idlewild, Georgia prefigures contemporary Atlanta and Memphis.
Idlewild opens with alternating stills and moving shots of the Southern black middle
class—babies, women, men, young girls and boys—and institutional artifacts of the black
community, including barbershops and churches. Accompanying the film’s opening is classic big
band music laced with trumpet solos performed by Arturo Sandoval and interrupted by hip-hop
scratches. This temporal incongruence characterizes the entirety of the film, as hip-hop and big
band jazz, rural and urban, modernity and history collide as clock hands turn backwards and
Post-Soul Southern Blues 59
forwards at high speeds, eighth notes dance on sheet music, and a rooster engraved on a whiskey
flask becomes animated and tells one of the main characters, Rooster, what to do. The diegesis
follows the two main characters, Percival and Rooster, played by Atlanta-based hip-hop duo
OutKast, who also are co-producers and music supervisors for the film, to a moment that
becomes pivotal in both of their lives. Percival, a mortician’s son, is a quiet, “eccentric,” pianist,
engulfed more in his music than in the social world, a throwback to rural morality, who falls into
an ill-fated romance with a woman who blows into Idlewild posing as a famous singer. Rooster,
introduced to the bootlegging and number running businesses as a child, performs in a juke joint,
aptly named “Church,” and spends his time after work bedding women from Church while his
suspicious wife and numerous children await his return. After Rooster witnesses a double
murder, the diegesis barrels forth through bootlegging, Church performances, and a blossoming
romance towards a climatic gun fight, an accidental shooting, an attempted suicide, and a
resolute exodus of the main characters from Idlewild on a train to Chicago to start a new life
after tragedy.
Self-consciously writing a history not only for Southern hip-hop music and culture, but
for Southern urban culture as well, Idlewild functions to fill in the gaps of what was happening in
the urban South after the waves of African American migration from South to the North. While a
number of black films set in the South in the 1930s imagined the South as “the scene of the
crime” and the North as a space of freedom, or conceptualized the South as a rural home-place
and the North as a space of violence and loss of some vital cultural essence, Idlewild presents a
Southern town—not quite the big city, but beyond agricultural subsistence and not mired in the
poverty associated with rural existence in the South. Idlewild is a representation of the urbanized
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spaces to which many African Americans migrants moved as they exited rural towns on their
way to the urban North. It exists in a liminal space between the “idyllic” (Massood 2003) spaces
that populated black-cast films of the early 20th century and Northern urban centers. While the
dialogue in three places makes reference to the “bright lights” of Northern urban centers—
Chicago, New York, and Harlem in particular—as places where the characters could start anew
and effectively maximize their creative talents, Idlewild is not necessarily a hindering space. The
life circumstances in which the characters find themselves—an overbearing father stifling
Percival’s creative desires beyond taking over the family mortuary business, singer Sally
Shelly’s desires to further her career in the big city and travel the world—necessitate a new
beginning in a new place. That is, despite the fact that some of the characters leave the South, it
is obvious that a rich life continues, a fact not so obvious from sociological research on the South
during the Great Migrations, in the region.
New Georgia, New South
The post-soul, Southern-city inheritor of Idlewild’s legacy, ATL, released in 2006 as a
“new American story” and penned by Antwone Fisher, is the narrative of four friends preparing
to graduate from high school and confronting more critical pivotal moments in their lives. It tells
a coming of age story that has all of the urban trappings of what Paula Massood (2003) terms
“ghetto chronotope”—drugs, guns, cars, violence—but these signifiers of black-urbanness are
operationalized differently in this, a deliberately Southern, black film. As the main character,
Rashad, Atlanta native and rapper T.I., narrates the opening of the film and tells the audience
that, “down South, we grew up quick,” the sampled voice of Ray Charles sings “Georgia.” Yet,
as we are introduced to shots of the city, objects of the South, and artifacts of black culture, a
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heavy-bass break-beat drops and the voice of Atlanta-rapper Ludacris picks up the speed of the
tune. The key shifts from a mellow major key to a relatively ominous minor key with string and
piano chords and timpani at the marking the beginning of the beginning of each bar. Yet, as the
hook, or chorus returns, the key returns to major. The varying keys in the song, as well as the
simultaneous signifying on contemporary and historical musical moments—contemporary hiphop and Ray Charles’ bluesy, country voice—is illustrative of the film’s attempt to present a
decidedly urban story mediated through Southern culture and to engage in the production of a
post-Soul Southern blues aesthetic. Thus, just as Charles’ “Georgia” frames contemporary hiphop verses, Southern sensibility frames, and drives, this urban narrative. The film begins as the
foursome prepares for Skate Wars, an annual competition at the skating rink, which serves as the
social center of the lives of the black, predominantly working-class, youth in the city. Ant, the
protagonist’s younger brother, is unfocused in school and quickly distracted by the lure of
making fast money working for the neighborhood drug dealer, played by Antwan Patton of rap
duo Outkast. These parallel narratives, one of coming of age and confronting responsibility—the
protagonist Rashad is set to take over the family cleaning business after high school—and one of
fast cash and fast trouble, drive the diegesis. As Rashad and his crew prepare for skate wars,
Rashad manages a romantic interest and his younger brother’s troubles. While Ant’s “dope boy”
aspirations get him shot by the drug dealer, he is only wounded. He straightens up in school,
ceases to smart-mouth the teacher, and the audience is implicitly invited to imagine a bright
future for him. Further, while the endings for the foursome may not all meet normative
standards—upon graduation, one becomes assistant manager at a fast-food restaurant, another
opens up a shop where he makes gold, silver, and platinum teeth for customers, the “book-smart”
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friend enters the Ivy League, and the protagonist draws comics for the local newspaper—they are
certainly not the bitter endings of most ‘hood films, in which life must go on after death, a long
prison sentence, or the main characters remained “trapped” in the neighborhood, unable to
escape to something better.
ATL is a direct response to the 1990s ‘hood films, as it narrates male coming of age in a
neighborhood context complete with the lures of the urban environment, e.g., “hustling,’” drugs,
and fast money. The landscape of the urban environment is conspicuously absent, save for brief
clips of Atlanta’s downtown skyline and expressway, between scenes. The film skillfully
navigates contemporary class and heterosexual relationship politics in the black community, yet
with particular attention to how those politics operate in a Southern city. Unlike ‘hood films, in
which there is rarely intraracial class conflict—as a consequence of these films’ almost exclusive
concentration on the “ghetto poor”—or sophisticated attention to the heterosexual relationship
dynamics of black youth, ATL endeavors to present a complex reality about black life that
imagines black people as more than an undifferentiated group, or as more than a reaction to
white racism and conditions in the inner city. This reimagining of black life is evident not only in
popular culture, but as I will demonstrate in the next three chapters, in the ways in which black
Southerners articulate race, class, and gender politics as well.
Home of the Blues, Home of Hip-Hop
West on I-20 and Highway 78 from Idlewild and Atlanta, Memphis, a historically black
urban center in the South, serves as the setting for a story of pimps, hos, hip-hop, and
redemption. Hustle and Flow begins with the protagonist-pimp D-Jay, played by Terrence
Dashun Howard, waxing philosophical to one of his prostitutes, Nola, in his rusty blue-with-a-
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purple-hood-and-front-quarter-panels Chevrolet Caprice Classic as the two work the track in
downtown Memphis. The opening sequences in the film have the audience ride along with Nola
in D-Jay down various main throughways in the city—six-lane streets lined with various chain
stores, local shops, fast food joints—to the twang of a rock ‘n roll electric guitar. Essentially, the
diegesis follows D-Jay’s hustles—pimping and selling drugs—and his rap flows as he struggles
to have his voice heard and represent an authentic Memphis. The film ambles towards a climax
the audience is prompted to anticipate in the first scene of the film—a Fourth of July party at
which Skinny Black, an underground Memphis Hip-Hopper turned successful hypermedia
rapper, played by Atlanta rapper Ludacris, will be in attendance—and follows the trials of an
underground rapper trying to complete a demo tape, from equipment mishaps to noisy neighbors
interfering with recording. Although the film ends with the protagonist being arrested and jailed
for assaulting Skinny Black, he enters the local jail with a hit song on radio and buzz around the
city. The audience can be confident that he will emerge a renewed spirit and make a life with one
of his prostitutes and her daughter.
As the first released in this series of films, Hustle and Flow brings hip-hop “home to the
South,” as if hip-hop, like Northern black populations, had forebears to leave the South for the
North generations ago, but is now “returning home” to its roots and new cultural opportunities no
longer available in the sterile urban centers of the North and West Coast. Though not explicitly,
like Idlewild, but certainly intentionally, unlike ATL, Hustle and Flow re-writes hip-hop
historiography through a Southern lens. The soundtrack, filled with old blues cuts, new sounds
by premium Memphis soul band the Bo-Keys, and contemporary Southern hip-hop songs, roots
hip-hop in blues and soul music, implicitly rejecting the idea that four guys on a corner in the
Post-Soul Southern Blues 64
Bronx just created it one afternoon. The battle between “platinum” and “gold” in the film is a
battle for an authentic representation of hip-hop, but also for the throwback authenticity of the
“golden” South. The urban space of Memphis, absent shots of the “new” bridge across the
Mississippi and the downtown skyline, and devoid recognizable shots of the downtown
entertainment space, grounds hip-hop in an old-fashioned home, full of ruralness and tension,
ease and violence. Ultimately, the urban South is situated as the proper home of hip-hop music,
and as such the proper home for younger black generations.
Memphis’ local hip-hop artists mirror the narratives set forth in Southern hip-hop film and the
arguments made in defense of Southern hip-hop by highly-visible artists. Local artists draw on
the legacy of soul music to re-create a post-soul sound grounded in place and regional narratives.
Witness the narrative on “901 Area Code,” a track on local hip-hop collective Iron Mic
Coalition’s debut album The 1st Edition:
I’m from the city of blues and booze and bad news/
gangland feuds and throw away twenty-twos/
three o’clock-road block, time for curfew/
the children is growing up gone bizerk too/
but that’s one aspect, here’s another/
these fly girls raised on cornbread and butter…
“901 Area Code” is the Iron Mic Coalition’s contribution to the plethora of rap songs that draw
upon specific place references to present a place-based narrative that highlights both the
specificity of a particular place and the shared relationships between places. The music for “901
Area Code” consists of a slowed-down sample of a wailing Gladys Knight, a break beat with
concomitant Memphis high-hat, pioneering Memphis rapper 8-Ball’s scratched and sampled
voice saying, “Memphis, Tenn, that’s my muthafuckin stompin’ ground,” and another male voice
Post-Soul Southern Blues 65
answering 8-Ball saying, “Real Memphis.” Over these elements, rapper Daralik gives a lyrical
introduction to Memphis, articulating its simultaneously urban—“gangland feuds and throwaway twenty-twos”—and Southern—“fly girls raised on cornbread and butter”—existence. “901
Area Code” and a number of other popular songs on Memphis’ underground hip-hop scene
accomplish the South as not only distinct from the urban North, Midwest and West, but also as a
legitimate contributor to and rightful owner of hip-hop.
I am at The Spot, a sparsely populated restaurant by day and lively hip-hop spot by night,
when I first hear “901 Area Code” performed live. As Gladys Knight’s sampled wail forces its
way through the half-working speakers on either side of the stage, signaling the opening of the
song, the crowd of approximately 70 people—typical for one of Memphis’ “underground” hiphop shows—rushes the stage, arms raised and waving. The club’s engineer, rail-thin in an
oversized white t-shirt and crisply starched jeans, shifts the lighting to flood the stage and the
floor in red, black, and green. The smallness of the club, coupled with the haphazardly placed
and shifted metal roundtables and chairs that dot the club’s landscape, makes the crowd seem
decidedly larger. I attend a number of these shows, located throughout the city but concentrated
mostly in the midtown and downtown areas, and easily spot newcomers and regulars. By the
second recurrence of the chorus, all crowd participants, new or old, catch and chant the 8-Ball
sample in rhythmic, call-and-response fashion. When Daralik highlights the other side of
Memphis, “the fly girls raised on cornbread and butter,” women regulars on the scene, including
me, shout the lyrics and shake our hips—despite the fact that many of us were more than likely
not raised on cornbread and butter—as the emcee extends the microphone to the audience and
cups his ear. After “901 Area Code” the lights turn an electric white, and emcee duo Fyte Club
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launches into a heavy metal version of “Eat Some Chicken,” a crowd favorite despite the chagrin
of the most “conscious” folks in the audience.
Drawing upon the historicity of the city, culture entrepreneurs collectively create and
invest in a social and socialized memory of Memphis based in soul politics and civil rights
struggles. Native Memphians learn early in their lives, through various means—elementary
school lessons and field trips, from parents, grandparents, and extended family—about the
legacy of soul music in Memphis. “Cowbirds” (Griswold and Wright 2004)—persons who move
from one region to another and attain varying levels of knowledge about regional authors, and
hence, regional culture—are socialized into this learning and knowing, and thus participate in the
construction of Memphis hip-hop as a post-soul phenomenon. The notion of post-soul, a concept
borrowed from black cultural studies that theorizes the economic, social, and political existence
of black Americans after the decline of soul and the black aesthetic movement (see George 2001
and Neal 2002), is essential to the creation of hip-hop in Memphis for two reasons. First, it refers
generally to the cultural and demographic movements of black Americans since the 1980s.
Second, post-soul denotes a moment in the city’s history—as well as the history of the South—
that exists quite literally and chronologically after the soul—the closing and selling of Stax
Records, institutional harbinger of the black soul sound; the continued languishing of Beale
street as a result of abandoned urban renewal efforts from the 1960s; and the ever-present
lingering of the stigma of being “the city that killed King.” In this way, Memphis, and its
articulation of Southern culture, sits at the temporal intersection of soul and post-soul to create a
post-Soul Southern blues. Further, it serves as the site of the reconciliation of these two historical
moments, a resolution its culture producers accomplish with a strategic mix of local and regional
Post-Soul Southern Blues 67
sensibilities. The examination of this process of history and memory reconciliation illuminates
the continued production, workings, and significance of region in the social memories of local
actors. I examine here the processes through which blacks in Memphis, native Southerners and
migrants, situate Beale Street as a historic site of black cultural production to both historicize and
legitimize Southern hip-hop production.
Down on Beale
Memphis’ Beale Street, once hailed the “Harlem of the South” and “black America’s main
street,” was a bustling black place from Reconstruction through the assassination of Martin
Luther King, Jr., complete with blues, juke joints, churches, jazz, gambling and politics and
deemed a site of authentic black cultural production by persons from and outside of the black
community. Urban renewal projects razed an all but abandoned Beale Street after the death of
King, and the once vibrant space went unused for a number of years. Recent gentrification and
downtown revitalization efforts in Memphis, similar to those occurring in neighborhoods and
mid-sized city downtowns across America, have rectified the emptiness and disuse of the space.
However, most study participants contend, in one way or another, that the authentic placeness of
Beale Street, signified now only by four-foot stone and slate historic markers, has been covered
over. Rather than black America’s main street, Beale Street has become, they contend, a Main
Street, America, complete with generic tourist spaces, from bars and restaurants to knick-knack
shops, differentiated only by the particularity of its commodified “fantasy city” theme (Hannigan
1998): barbeque, Elvis, music, and soul. Yet, the social construction of Beale, based on its
historicity, coupled with the phenomenology of Beale as a black place in collective memory,
persists as an active element in black lived experience in Memphis, despite the demise and
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eventual destruction of “that” Beale—the Beale where black juke joints and black Baptist
churches faced one another—that began nearly a century ago. There are postmodern
manifestations of “that” Beale, such as the Beale Street Flippers, who transformed the 1980s
acrobatic pastime of black Memphis’ children into a small-scale entertainment enterprise, and
the various street performers—from trumpeters to singers—who attempt to recreate a separate
cultural space physically outside of what some study participants deemed “cookie-cutter” blues
clubs. Yet, in each instance, the incompatibility of such post-Soul manifestations of “that” Beale
with the contemporary presentation of Beale as a sanitized tourist draw effectively excludes
these productions from dominating present-day Beale.
One such instance of the incongruity of “that” Beale and the contemporary Beale is the
perceptions and memories of participants concerning the Beale Street Flippers. Reanimating the
street performer tradition of Beale, the Flippers began with small black audiences comprised of
friends and family and rapidly gathered onlookers. They became an integral element of the
experience of Beale for black Memphis residents. However, as “tourists”—both those from out
of town and whites from the Memphis and surrounding area—came to make up the majority of
the Flippers’ audiences and downtown Memphis shifted more definitively into an urban
entertainment destination, the Flippers took their show on the road, performing at various
festivals and NBA halftime shows across the country. Memphians, black and white, uniformly
contend that, “white folks ran the Flippers off,” with “white folks” variously signifying the
police, business owners, the increasing presence of white tourists, and the ubiquitous “man.”7
Hip-hop shows, while rarely taking place at venues on Beale, are often held in spaces in
close proximity to Beale Street, and more significantly, in close proximity to the historical
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production of black Memphis music, including Sun, Stax, and Hi-Records. This spatial proximity
to historical places of black music production is both a historical consequence and deliberate
endeavor. The use of spaces for the recording, production, and performance of music is often
passed from musician to musician, so that spaces, of historical consequence, maintain the same
utility even if ownership changes. Yet, beyond the lingering manifestations of de jure
segregation and the historical location of music spaces, Memphis hip-hoppers deliberately
choose to inhabit spaces in close proximity to the original production of soul music, sometimes
competing for access to those spaces when spaces in other predominantly black areas of town are
open and available for use for a comparable fee. Further, this spatial proximity arises out of an
active association of contemporary Memphis music production with historical Memphis music
production, as well as a concerted attempt to recreate music spaces in order to authenticate and
legitimate contemporary hip-hop production and performance. Thus, the centrality of Beale as
the locus of black music, with soul studios located just to the east and south, is essential to the
situation of Memphis hip-hop, and by extension Southern hip-hop, as authentic hip-hop.
Section Title
While Beale Street provides a spatial and geographical legitimacy to local hip-hop production,
soul music and soul artists provide the historical legitimacy. Juice, a hip-hop producer, college
student, and self-defined “self-loathing intellectual” articulates this connection to historical
culture producers and the legacy of Memphis music in contemporary hip-hop.
It’s like, when I write, I hear the connection to Memphis soul, and that’s why I’m
always sampling on Al Green, you know… his voice, [sings] “yea!” and that band’s
back there thumping, you can feel the Memphis, the soul, the South pulsating. [Taps
on the table in rhythm.] It’s like [Al Green] and the others saw all of this coming, you
know? And they left us the tools to create a new sound through their old, well not old,
you know, timeless, sound.
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Juice, who attends the local historically black college, deliberately demonstrates his connection
and homage to Memphis soul in each of his beats, as he frequently samples Southern soul music
in his work. Yet, this practice is not limited to Memphis or even Southern artists. In fact, the
catalogue of Stax Records is the most sampled in hip-hop music generally. Thus, in many ways,
Southern artists have an empirically legitimate claim—most hip-hop draws on Southern soul
samples to articulate a post-Soul black American experience. J-Knight, a deejay for another local
group, has the same sort of intentional relationship to soul music. We meet for an interview at a
shop that he and his wife manage near the local public university. The shop carries everything
from varieties of incense, trinkets and accessories, to wall-sized Jimi Hendrix posters and funky
drapes. I indulge in some heavy browsing while he talks to me about how his group came
together, about Memphix Records, the Memphis-based underground hip-hop collective and label
that he co-founded in 2000, and about Memphis soul. I ask him how he thinks about Memphis
soul music in the beats that he produces.
J-Knight: I’m totally conscious of the legacy. You know, it’s like the hardships of
the city throughout the years brings out the worst in you and puts you in the worst
situations to bring out the best things you can do. Takes tragedy to make soul; takes
getting let down. It’s kinda hard to find your soul if you haven’t had it hard. So, if I
feel the same hardships that they did, the sound that gets produced is the same sound.
Zandria: What are those hardships?
J-Knight: You’re from Memphis, right? Just being in Memphis is a tough place to be
from all the race issues and stuff like that. Growing up [in Missouri] I was taught to
treat everybody equally…It was divided, but it wasn’t nothing like here.
J-Knight’s comments highlight most migrant sentiments about Memphis and about soul
authenticity. He situates his experiences growing up in small-town Missouri, just on the other
side of the Mississippi, as racially “divided” but nothing like Memphis. When I ask him about
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the hardships that he is referring to, both his and those of the women and men who produced
Memphis’ soul music in the 1960s and 1970s, he returns with, “You’re from Memphis, right?”
Many respondents, particularly migrants from other parts of the South and migrants from outside
of the South, assume that I know precisely to what they are referring when they talk about “how
crazy Memphis/the South is,” “all the race issues,” “how corrupt things are,” and “how hard it is
growing up/just being in Memphis/the South.” Most statements about authenticity in Memphis
are linked directly to these relatively vague statements that sketch a crazy Memphis marred by
corruption and racial problems. I ask respondents who give me the “you’re-from-Memphis-youknow-how-it-is” spiel to explain what they mean as if I were not from Memphis. After some
resistance in each instance, I get the following responses:
Heru: I mean, there’s police brutality [in Brooklyn] and all of that. All of the
problems you have in a city where there’s a bunch of people of color. But these
people here are so beat down.
Zandria: By the police?
Heru: No. So beat down by the history. It’s like, I came here, and all of the black
folks were walking around like they were still depressed about [the assassination of]
King. Like they were responsible or something. But, you know, because of that same
history, the [black] conscious community here is probably one of the most serious
ones I’ve encountered.
Grace: Jersey is like “whoa” with the racism, but things aren’t so black-white. Here,
things are so black-white. It’s crushing. When you go out in public places where there
are whites and black people, it’s like a war. I mean, you can’t even get a latte without
them just staring at you. For me, it’s like in the everyday interactions—the grocery
store, the Starbucks, the gas station—that I feel like, “wow, Jim Crow.”
Zandria: Jim Crow?
Grace: Yes, girl! It’s like, segregation isn’t legal anymore, but, we still don’t want
you coons in our store, or our space or whatever, so we just gon’ look at you and
make you feel dark. Uncomfortable, like, out of place. [She imitates the look.]
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Even Sara, who is from Mississippi, seems to think that Memphis’ racial history affects the way
people, especially black people, experience the city.
Sara: And y’all [Memphians] make fun of us [people from Mississippi] like we got it
the worst. Jackson ain’t nothing like this.
Zandria: Why do you say that?
Sara: Because, black people are all angry all the time here. I was down at the
[National Civil Rights] museum and that woman was down there with her signs
accosting people.8 And I know the story and all that, but there’s so much tension
centered on that one thing. And the tension kinda radiates out to other things, so that
then turning on the news and seeing brothas and sistas committing all sorts of crime is
like, this is a city that’s still got some serious problems. Unfinished business.
Still, hip-hoppers contend that it is this placed-based struggle, and the legacy of that struggle,
that lends their hip-hop cache. Artists see themselves as finishing the “unfinished business” of
the Civil Rights Movement and the soul music movement through the use of Memphis soul.
Spatial Authenticity
While like most hip-hop, Memphis rappers situate an urban locale—in this case Memphis—as
the site to represent, place more often moves beyond urban boundaries to regional ones, which
expand the accomplishment discourse to include the South more broadly. I arrive at a show
between sets to take over the door for Grace and walked up on a conversation she and Milk, an
emcee, were having about Memphis being an appropriate—and hence authentic—place for an
underground conscious hip-hop movement. As Grace straightens and counts down ragged bills
and hands over a wad of orange wristbands to me, Milk, a Memphis native, gives Grace a
Southern history lesson. I interrupt his lesson.
Milk: You know, it’s bigger than the city of Memphis…you know. Memphis is a
Delta place, always has been. A Southern place.
Zandria: What do you mean “a Delta place”?
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Milk: Where is yo’ mama from? Yo’ daddy? Yo’ grandma? All from Mississippi,
Louisiana, something like that right?
Zandria: Something like that. Mississippi, small-town Tennessee…
Milk: All of us here is from the Delta in some kind of way. We all have these Delta
tendencies. It’s so country here. Especially the old black neighborhoods, like in North
Memphis. You go down Hollywood [Street] and the storefronts all look like Delta
storefronts. You can’t tell if you in Mississippi or Memphis except for the paved,
four-lane roads.
This assertion of authenticity, particularly in the context of the hypermedia co-optation of
Southern places—Atlanta, Houston, and Miami especially—is contentiously reproduced with
historical constructions and racialized notions of authenticity. As black people migrated to cities
in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, authentic blackness was drawn along the lines of city and
country, rural and urban. Many early black films depict this tension between rural and urban,
antebellum and post-war, black authenticity and existence (Massood 2003). With the rapid
disappearance of areas that can be constructed as rural and the replacement of those areas with
suburban spaces the historical link between authenticity and that which is physically or
geographically “rural” is in flux. The notion of “rural,” “country” blacks as necessarily and
aesthetically authentic is being replaced with the contention of the inherent authenticity of
“Southern,” “urban” blacks. Recent re-situations of the American South as a homespace—as
well as critiques of the turn South—address this shift in spatial authenticity. The recent surge of
“Southern Crunk”9 music in hip-hop culture and popular culture more generally is not solely the
creation of corporate, multinational record labels, although such labels certainly have contributed
to its pervasiveness in hypermedia outlets. It is a Southern, urban musical form, dotted with rural
signifiers—an authentic presentation of Southern black expressive culture. Despite the
hypermedia battles over regional aesthetics and authenticity, as I have pointed out, Southern rap
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has garnered a considerable amount of mainstream attention in the past decade. Further, not all
non-Southern rappers are like Ice-T, the Rza, and 50 Cent, some because of their sense of
cultural democracy and others out of a sense of economic necessity—it makes good money sense
to collaborate with Southern artists, given their popularity, to sell albums. There is, indeed,
defense of Southern hip-hop by rappers from more “traditional” or “original” hip-hop places, like
New York City, which keeps the doors to regional diversity and acceptability in the rap industry
open despite contestation. Since in black music forms, and hip-hop in particular, “authenticity is
staked on an innovation whose closure is its commodification—that is, at the moment it becomes
identifiable, its modes reproducible, it dies,” syncretistic reinvention of the form serves as its
“inbuilt resistance…to such a death” (Potter 1995:72). While Nas and others might argue that
this is the precise kind of death that has occurred with hip-hop because of Southern rap, local and
highly-visible Southern artists insist on constantly reinventing the soundscape and bodily
vocabulary of hip-hop, thereby resisting death by reproducibility. Although many local artists
joke that they should come up with a dance for their songs to get radio play, they simultaneously
acknowledge the complexity and creativity of Southern dance, the innovation that drives the
Southern rap subgenres, like snap crunk, forward. While some underground Southern rappers
might take aesthetic issue with crunk and other now-commodified Southern hip-hop music, they
recognize the ways in which the inherent creative purchase of Southern rap is what makes it
possible for them to continue to make and legitimate their own music, even if it never reaches a
broad popular public.
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I have taken this detour into the last 15 years of hip-hop culture to illustrate how the turn South is
continuously contested and negotiated both “underground”—local hip-hop artists in Memphis—
and “overground”—Southern hip-hop film and highly-visible Southern artists. From the Iron Mic
Coalition’s “901 Area Code” to David Banner’s “Mississippi,” Southern artists have carved a
distinctive space and place for themselves in the hip-hop industry and in black culture. However,
this space is contested because of generational and spatial divides. While Ice-T readily admits
that Soulja Boy is young enough to be his child, implying that he is old enough to be his father,
and by some stretches of the imagination the Baby Boomer is old enough to be Generation Y
Soulja Boy’s grandfather, he does not imply that his beef with Soulja Boy is generational, but
rather artistic and aesthetic. While Nas clearly relies on Southern-originated soundscapes—blues,
jazz, and funk—for his work, and while he is the son of a migrant from Mississippi, he fails to
see the connections between “old” Southern sounds and the new post-Soul Southern blues
embodied in Southern hip-hop.
Essentially, a majority of the critiques of Southern hip-hop stems from the anxiety about
the place of black folks in contemporary American society. There are several facets of this
anxiety. First, as Madhu Dubey and Adolph Reed argue, some folks, black and white, are
invested in maintaining a static notion of the South that situates the region as rural, backward,
and unchanging. By drawing on tropes of minstrelsy and asserting that black Southerners do not
have hip-hop “in their blood,” mainstream hip-hop artists not only deny the history of black
music, but they also deny the contemporary reality of the black South, and black Southern cities,
in particular. By fixing the South as rural, backward, and unchanging, Southern artists are
effectively placed outside of the urban crises of East and West coast rap, despite the fact that
Post-Soul Southern Blues 76
common rap subject matter—gangs, drugs, and violence—is as germane to the “Dirty” South as
it is to other regions. Second, the generational divide in hip-hop culture is reflective of the
generational divide in Southern turn reclamation efforts. That is, while a number of black folks
still hold fast to the South-as-scene-of-crime trope, a number of younger black folks, as well as
some nostalgic baby boomers, are interested in reclaiming the region as an African American
homespace. Finally, in a context in which the intraracial fissures in black identity are both more
often publicized and public, politely denoting the boundaries of authentic blackness, either
through historical or cultural justification, emerges as a strategy for intraracial distinction. Thus,
the notion of “fly girls raised on cornbread and butter” becomes more than an articulation of
regional culture; in fact, it evolves into a strategy for intraracial distinction that privileges a
Southern experience, real, constructed, or imagined, over a non-Southern experience.
In the next three chapters, I explore how black Southerners accomplish a distinctive
regional identity through regionalized articulations of race, gender, and class identities. While in
the presentation of these data I adhere to the “holy trinity” of social science, I also am attentive
to how talking about one identity dimension means one is always already talking about, or at
least signifying, the others as well. I examine the ways in which native-born Southerners who
have never left the South, experiencing their own anxiety about the changing migrant landscape
around them—increased Latino migration, increased migration from black folks from “the
North,” and increased Caribbean immigration—shore up the boundaries of Southern culture to
situate themselves as having the “best” black cultural existence in modern America.
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Keep ‘em out yo’ face, keep ‘em in your prayers
Either that or keep ‘em in the crosshairs
Better still keep an even dose of each
‘cause until you get justice, you won’t get peace…
-Mos Def, “Revelations”
I am at a city government public service facility that, like many local and state government
service offices, predominantly employs African American women, who make up a growing
segment of the black middle class across the country, but particularly in the South. As employees
of the government’s service sector, these four women interact with a cross-section of city
residents and face the challenges of their race, perceived class, and gender statuses as they work
as agents of local government. I have used this particular branch of this government service
facility each year for three years and remember and recognize the women employed there, as
they do me. This year, the office has moved to a new space in the same shopping plaza, a space
far nicer and roomier than their previous location. There are even chairs in this waiting area,
whereas previously customers stood in heat and anguish waiting for their number to be called.
The office is empty save for a woman rustling papers in one of the new chairs, and I do not have
to pull a number. I walk up to the middle window and after exchanging catch-up pleasantries, I
comment about the new space. “This sure is an upgrade from where y’all were,” I say to Ms.
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Jefferies, who is busily typing away and frowning at her computer screen. She is a stocky,
heavy-chested woman, with a cropped haircut as no-nonsense as her varied facial expressions.
As her co-workers nod, bow their heads, wave their hands up to God and mutter “amens,” Ms.
Jefferies bucks her eyes and slams her hands down on the counter in front of her, leans forward,
and shouts through the plexiglass, without pushing the speaker button:
Ms. Jefferies: Oh, honey, that is an understatement! An understatement, I tell you. That
other office was horrid. They had us in there, chile, we was all so sick, Ora [gesturing to a
co-worker] suing the city for what they done to our health. There wasn’t room to do your
own work without touching the other person, and when we tell ‘em about it, they say,
here are some gloves to keep down germs. Some damned gloves? Then they had the
bathroom about 5 feet from the break room where we ate! Where we ate! That means
there was just shit and whatever else you got to do in the bathroom right across from
where we ate! And the germs, we was in way too close proximity!
Zandria: Well, so y’all complained or what?
Ms. Jefferies: Hell yes, we complained, but them white folks don’t care. Because it’s us
up in here,” [she says vigorously rubbing the back of her hand to signify that “us” meant
“black people.”] Well, there was that one little white girl that work with us, but hell she
may as well been black she was from the wrong side of the tracks, honey, and she had a
nigga child and a nigga baby daddy and had them ol’ nigga hairdos all the time. I’m
telling you, you can’t trust white folks to do right nowhere, no how, when money’s
involved—and it’s always involved, girl—and when doing right by colored folks is
involved. Especially these good ol’ Dixie boys ‘round here.
Zandria: So how did you get this new place?
Ms. Jefferies: Honey, we started shutting this office down. We told them. We told them
white folks, but they wouldn’t listen. I said, we can’t work under these conditions and we
are not going to. So we shutting the office down. The office supposed to be open 8 to 5?
We’d shut it down on lunch, or we’d shut it down at the other peak time, from 3:30 p.m.
on, when folks getting off work. Then when the white folks called the other white folks
complaining this office wasn’t open, because you know this is like the center of the city
so lots of people come here rather than going to the offices further out, oh look, they
bought us a bigger nicer space, but it was with they teeth gritted the whole damned time.
I tell you these white folks ain’t no good nowhere.
Ora, her colleague who has been “mmm-hmmm”-ing the entire time, interjects and playfully
chides her: “Aw, Ms. Jeferries, nowhere?” she says with a laugh that anticipates a rise out of her
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long-time co-worker. “Yes, I repeat,” says Ms. Jefferies, cutting her eyes to her right to Ora.
“No-WHERE. ‘Cept maybe in heaven. And they cheated to get in there. Anything else I can do
for you today, Ms. Robinson?”
Ms. Jefferies, who has been working for the city for 17 years, tells me in an interview a
few months later that the new office was just one small step forward, as she and other co-workers
were putting together a petition for all manner of other concessions, from a raise to updated
software that would decrease time-per-customer by two minutes. The experiences of Ms.
Jefferies and her co-workers undoubtedly mirror the experiences of disadvantaged service
workers across industries, and their ability to resist and win some conciliation for their working
conditions is rooted in activist and Civil Rights traditions. Yet, in the South, these experiences
are particularly racialized as indicative of the continued manifestation of old South racism,
whose prominent features include whites intent on not treating blacks fairly or equally and
middlemen blacks who are granted some political and economic power in exchange for
managing the black working class.
I ask Ms. Jefferies how these new negotiations are going, and she sighs and cocks her
head to the side, half looking at me, half looking off:
You know, I have been praying a lot about how it’s gon’ go, praying for the white folks
to find some act-right in them, somewhere. But you know, I told my sister the other day,
I’m gon’ stop praying for these whites folks. A white woman supervisor came into our
location the other day and talked so crazy to us that Jesus must’ve glued my mouth shut
and the Holy Spirit must’ve bound up my fists. After I felt my pressure rise up, I said,
you know what? I can’t be studyin’ them. I can’t be studyin’ them white folks.
Ms. Jefferies sentiments are representative of those of many folks I talked with,
especially working class and lower middle class thirty- and forty-somethings. “Not studyin’ them
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white folks,” at very least, meant supplanting “emotional” reactions to everyday racialized
injustice, whether a slight in service during a restaurant visit or a blatantly discriminatory
employment outcome, with indifference. Respondents demonstrate neither surprise nor regret
when “good” white folks go bad, nor do they demonstrate or express gratefulness or surprise
when “bad” white folks do good. Belying this indifference are sincere attempts to reconcile the
continuation of “Old South” racism with the race and class promises of the New South. That is,
as Ms. Jefferies tells me, “that ‘the South done changed’ mess done got in all our blood, even
mine, because it has changed. But it’s still the same.” Everyday racial realities in the
contemporary urban South counter hegemonic discourses about African American experiences in
the region, even as they signify and affirm complex racial pasts that seep into the present and
threaten the future in distinctly “post-racial” ways. While the South has come to represent and
embody an invidious, torturous racism that fundamentally and systematically denies black
humanity, it has also come to represent and embody a racial paradise, one in which black
political and economic power trumps forms of racism for which the South is most infamous. My
respondents are differentially affected by post-racial interaction norms because as Southerners,
they carry with them the intergenerational collective memory—as well as, for many of them, the
first-hand accounts of their parents and grandparents—of “old” South white racism, the specter
of “old” South white racism, and the contradictions of “new” South black racial realities,
including unprecedented wealth for some and continued impoverishment for others.
In this chapter, I explore the interplay of the specter of old South racism and new South
black realities in interracial interactions and black folks’ theorizations of race and racial futures. I
review contemporary race theory paradigms, traditional perceptions and conceptions of black-
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white race relations in the South, and present data on black Southerners’ everyday negotiations
of race. I sort through my respondents’ intergenerational and media-shaped collective memories
of the South—both stories of Southern horrors and tropes of Southern horrors—and reconcile
them with their reported experiences and realities. Further, I highlight the deceptively simple
racial calculations black Southerners make to navigate the racial terrain in the modern South.
The simplicity of these calculations, I argue, is the accomplishment ruse: that is, while
contemporary black Southerners may have intimate folk knowledge of whites, first-hand and
inherited, and may draw on this knowledge to anticipate and explain white racism, new South
promises engender a hidden disappointment when whites misbehave—even if black folks expect
them to do so.
In Sociology and the Race Problem (1991), James McKee meticulously and thoroughly
demonstrates a key epistemological flaw in sociological research on race for most of the 20th
century: that it focused almost exclusively on white attitudes and very little on black attitudes
and narratives about—and as independent and exclusive of—whiteness. McKee argues
persuasively because dominant sociologists believed blacks to be inferior, the discipline was
unable to anticipate, or perhaps even imagine, the massive organizing and protest that constituted
the Civil Rights Movement. That is to say that sociological research on racial attitudes typically
focuses on the attitudes of whites towards blacks and other minority groups: what percentage of
whites think blacks are lazy, what percentage of whites do not want their children to attend a
school a predominantly black or other minority school, what percentage of whites think black
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people complain too much, etc.
This epistemological flaw—or, studyin’ white folks—continues to be central to some of
the most provocative and well-intentioned social scientific research on race. Whiteness studies
scholars work diligently to unpack and make visible whiteness, its privileges and powers.1 For
inequality scholars, the audit study has become a convincing experimental methodology for
demonstrating, relatively unequivocally, that the economic and social consequences of racism
are real.2 Social psychologists interested in race have used various experimental designs to
demonstrate that on a cognitive level, whites are at best uncomfortable with blacks and lose some
executive function after interracial interaction.3 Micro-level interpersonal studies of race attempt
to take account of the ways in which racial experiences are lived, particularly by minorities. A
significant body of research chronicles African American negotiation and management of race
and racism—critical race narratives of experiences of racism, coping strategies for dealing with
racism, racial socialization of children.4 Cumulatively, these literatures highlight the continuing
significance of race and racism and the persistence of inequality despite the overall economic
and social gains of minorities in the post-Civil Rights era.
Few African Americans would be surprised by the outcomes of academic research on
race, and many share experiences of race and racism similar to those highlighted in research on
black folks’ self-reports of racism. Several scenes of American racism are familiar to African
Americans: the elevator scene, in which a white woman tenses, clutches her purse and/or moves
as far away as spatially possible, when left alone on the elevator with a black man; the street
scene, where whites cross the street when blacks approach or where blacks are passed up by an
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available taxi; the retail shopping scene, where blacks are followed and/or routinely ignored; and
the restaurant scene, where blacks receive sub-par service and/or are routinely ignored, leading
to the chicken-or-egg conundrum of black folks’ tipping practices, i.e. do black folks never have
any intention of tipping, or do servers, white and black, anticipating that black patrons will not
tip, give them poor service? These narratives are part of African Americans’ collective
experiences of racism, so much so that they are regular fodder for black comedians and serve as
points of reference in everyday conversations about racial experiences. High-profile blacks’
experiences of racism—Danny Glover’s inability to get a cab in 1999, Oprah Winfrey’s
experiencing denial of entry at a high-end boutique in Paris in 2005, and more recently, the 2009
arrest of Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates’ in his home—also become part of this collective
experience of racism. Similarly, “regular” black folks’ experiences, whether the elevator or
restaurant experiences, or the more disturbing incidents, such the police killings of Sean Bell,
Oscar Grant, and Tarika Wilson, are sobering reminders of the impact of race on everyday life,
particularly in confrontations with power structures.5
Because of the gravity of race and racial perceptions, and the disproportionate power that
whites can exercise over black lives, knowledge about what black folks think about all of this,
may seem unnecessary. That is, beyond acknowledging black agency and coping strategies,
black attitudes towards white folks and whiteness may not seem as empirically or theoretically
important because those attitudes do not or cannot translate into the widespread, mechanized,
and destructive forms of discrimination that white attitudes can. Further, as bell hooks points out
in a 1992 essay, “Representations of Whiteness in the Black Imagination,” black social scientists
have not gotten together, as it were, and conducted systematic studies of whiteness as both
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cultural and structural phenomenon. Yet, black attitudes towards race, racism, whiteness, and
white folks are an important measure of the contemporary contours of race in America for
several reasons. Black attitudes point to chinks in the armor of diversity, well-intentioned
whiteness, and multicultural ideologies. Further, black racial attitudes highlight the mechanisms
behind increasing intraracial bifurcation along lines of class. In the American South, a region that
has attempted to re-make itself “anew” despite a particularly maligned historical memory of race
and racism, race exists as specter, spectacle, and reality. In Memphis in particular, where
institutions like the National Civil Rights Museum exist as living, present memories of white
racism and black struggle, black folks’ negotiations of race are always already embedded in the
unfinished and ongoing strivings for freedom and equality, impeded by the assassination of
Although public gaffes linking biology and ability certainly surface and re-surface in our
hypermedia 24-hours news cycle—witness the musings of Harvard President Lawrence
Summers about the biological origins of the gender gap in math and science in 2005 or the
publicized e-mails of a third-year law student about African American genetic deficiencies—
biological notions of race, popularized in early American pseudo-science, have largely been
replaced by cultural notions of race. Race is now widely recognized as a social construct, as a
category that has been constantly modified by legal, political, and discursive means to maintain
power arrangements. Further, race as an ontological or metaphysical fact—that is, that there is
some sort of racial essence or being that is in one’s blood or spirit—has been dismissed as well,
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with some philosophers contending that, in fact, race is not “real” beyond the meanings we
ascribe to it. Yet, “real” or not, the socially constructed nature of race does not diminish its
structuring power. Further, the simultaneously fluid and fixed nature of race, charges of reverse
racism, and denial of continued racial inequality—all hallmarks of the “post-racial” Obama
age—make difficult work of navigating the realities of race in modern America. Although my
respondents, like Ms. Jefferies, are generally “racially sure,” there is an uncertainty in their
assuredness that characterizes the changing contours of race. John L. Jackson highlights this
veritable lack of empirical racial surety, coupled with declarations of racial assuredness in his
most recent text, Racial Paranoia: The Unintended Consequences of Political Correctness
(2008). Jackson draws on comedian Dave Chappelle’s abrupt departure from his wildly
successful show as illustrative of the major organizing principle for race relations in post-Civil
Rights America: racial paranoia. Chappelle, a critical race theorist in his own right, left the show
during the taping of its third season, eventually citing a colleague’s inappropriate laughter as the
reason for his departure. The colleague, Chappelle contended, was laughing at him, in a racist
way, during the taping of a sketch in which Chappelle plays a black-faced pixie. Jackson argues
that while Chappelle could not know—in a “non-falsifiable fact” sort of way, the way that we
now know that blacks were grossly mistreated in the Tuskegee Experiment or the way we know
that blacks were lynched, hosed, and discriminated against during Jim Crow—that his colleague
was laughing at him instead of with him, he felt, intuited, or sensed that the laugh was improper,
that it was a laughing at rather than a laughing with, and promptly walked away from the entire
endeavor. While Jackson’s argument is that this sort of intuition, while possibly founded, is not
as empirically true as pictures of a lynching, for example, later, when Chappelle appeared on
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“Inside the Actor’s Studio,” he was, in fact, that sure—as sure as the bite of a police dog on the
calf of a peaceful black protestor—of what he sensed. De cardio racism, as Jackson calls it, is
this “racism [that is] attributed to the hearts of other-than explicitly racist actors” (78), and draws
on “tools that allow us to see past what [whites] say, or even do, into their very hearts” (87) to
determine whether or not they are racist. Highlighting the results of psychological studies on the
effects of perceived racism on blacks, Jackson argues that “perceived racism leads to higher
levels of nonclinical paranoia among African Americans specifically because such perceptions of
hidden or subtle racism are more difficult to confirm unequivocally than they were in the past…”
(94). For Chappelle, that laughter was proof enough of not only his colleague’s racism, but also
of his white audience’s inability to “get” his racial satire in a way that would push interracial
conversations about race forward, rather than facilitate further racial harm and distance. Further,
whether markers of racism are present, ubiquitous, absent, or in question, black folks continue to
have to function as metaphysicians of sorts, predicting and anticipating white behavior to protect
themselves from harm as well as to defend themselves when harm is inevitable. Perhaps black
people do “know,” incontrovertibly, that they are being followed in the store, that they might be
followed in a store, that the white woman will clutch her purse on the elevator, that at some point
their good, well-intentioned white colleague will laugh at them.
Milwaukee-based Afrocentric rap and singing group Arrested Development, who gained
popularity in the early 1990s with a string of feel-good, introspective hits, including “People
Everyday,” and “Mr. Wendal,” is probably most famous for its hit “Tennessee.” The single won
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the group a Grammy Award for Best Rap Performance by a Duo or Group in 1993 and
undoubtedly contributed to their win for Best New Artist that same year. The black-and-white
video for the song, shot in Georgia despite the song’s title and subject matter, features the group
outside of a solitary, presumably rural, shack interspersed with shots of rural landscapes and
Southern railroad lines. The song’s chorus, punctuated by synthesized horns, is “take me to
another place/take me to another land/make me forget all that hurts me/let me understand Your
plan.” That other place and land is embodied by Tennessee—and by extension, the South more
generally, given that Georgia is the stand-in for Tennessee in the song’s music video—a spiritual
and historically rich refuge, where one can commune with God and the ancestors, “walk the
roads his [or her] forefathers walked,” and “climb the trees his [or her] forefathers hung from.”
In the narrative, God, or the Holy Spirit, encourages the narrator to drive deeper into to the South
through Tennessee, “past Dyersburg, into Ripley/where the ghost of childhood haunts me.”
Through this Lord-led journey, the narrator understands the origins of African American
problems. He laments, “Now I see the importance of history/why my people be in the mess that
they be/many journeys to freedom made in vain/by brothers on the corner playing ghetto games,”
implicitly referring to the waves of migration to the urban North and the concomitant cultural
and historical loss precipitated, in this narrative, by that migration.
“Tennessee” is representative of the reclamation of race—an authentic blackness in-tune
with African American history as well as black American’s African roots—through region that is
central to African American reclamation and accomplishment of the South. “Tennessee”
imagines the South as undifferentiated and historical, but simultaneously historically fixed. It
draws on the trope of Southern horror—lynching—to both signify and gesture toward unjust but
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nonetheless divine sacrifice, squandered by “brothers on the corner playing ghetto games.” In
fact, part of the authentic experience of race and region is to “climb the trees [my] forefathers
hung from,” communing with a historicized and glorified racial violence while implicitly
ignoring similar perpetrations of violence—police brutality just one form of such violence—
contemporaneously done to black folks all over the country. Yet, this trope of Southern horror is
a powerful function of regional reclamation, and is called upon both to signify how far African
Americans have come, in and outside of the South, as well as to mark some forms of racial
violence as particularly heinous relative to others. For instance, the outpouring of outrage and the
massive convergence of black folks on Jena, Louisiana in 2007 was fueled by the spectacle of
Southern horror—nooses were reportedly hung in the school courtyard, which allegedly
instigated the violence of the Jena 6 against their white compatriot; the small, racially-divided
and therefore backward Southern town; and an all-white jury. Attention to Jena was also
intensified by the chance to engage in “real” Civil Rights protest, hearkening back to the
“heyday” of black activism. Radio personality Michael Baisden called on listeners to “head
South” to “let them know they cannot do this to us in 21st century America.” Ultimately,
thousands of people converged on the town to witness the horror and engage the spectacle of the
South. Through the spectacle of Jena, black folks were able to affirm and reclaim their blackness
by connection to the roots of an ongoing, unfinished struggle against white power structures.
Ida B. Wells’ 1892 publication, Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All Its Phases, was a
sophisticated, critical race and legal theory analysis of the perpetration of lynching and the rise of
a newly vicious form of segregation in the early post-Reconstruction period. At its core,
Southern Horrors was an analysis of institutional racism and violence, and therefore a seminal
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piece of research that prefigured later analyses of racism as embedded in the institutions of
education, health, politics, employment, housing, and so forth. Yet, in post-Civil Rights America,
Southern horror is not embodied as the institutional racism of which Wells wrote; rather, it is
situated as the remaining signifiers of particular horrors. Thus, rather than protesting
contemporary forms of institutional racism, e.g. the prison industrial complex and unjust and
disproportionate incarceration of African Americans and Latinos, blacks seem to respond most
definitively to the signifiers of Southern horrors—nooses, small Southern towns, all-white
juries—and a desire to affirm their racial authenticity through common regional spectacle.
The romanticization of Civil Rights Movement-style protest, from sit-ins to marches to
large-scale gatherings, has been roundly criticized, and is a symptom both of the hegemony of
Civil Rights narratives in post-Civil Rights black understandings of race, power and protest, and
of the increasingly complicated machinations of power over black folks, e.g. institutional racism
and charges of “reverse” discrimination, in contemporary America. Still, this romanticization
also functions as regional reclamation, as Southern horrors and black responses to them help to
define the boundaries of blackness. The narrative is that authentic black folks, those that
remember and respect the Civil Rights struggle, should be outraged by Jena, should not use the
“n-word,” and certainly should not, as rapper André 3000 did, wear a belt with a confederate flag
Yet, how are Southern horrors lived and remembered by black Southerners, those who do
not necessarily need a bus trip through the South and some selections by the Fisk Jubilee singers
to perform or exude an authentic blackness? As Ms. Jefferies and others’ narratives I present
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here suggest, many black Southerners “ain’t studyin’ them white folks,” in much the same way
that Zora Neale Hurston contended that black folks’ racial and cultural lives are not solely made
up with responses and reactions to white racism. My respondents reported conspiracy theories
that upset the grand narrative of the Civil Rights Movement, that challenge prevailing
investigations of racial attitudes, and that force us to question the racial verisimilitude of regional
reclamation efforts.
Most respondents, on first glance, purported to give every white person the benefit of the doubt,
a sort of “innocent until proven guilty” position on whites and racism. And as the Mos Def
epigraph for this chapter suggests, most attempted to keep white folks “out their faces and in
their prayers.” Yet, similar to the ways in which John L. Jackson’s Harlemites ascribed
performative class and race meanings to certain ordinary behaviors, like walking and talking,
black Southerners named racists through attention to physical and behavior characteristics,
though with decidedly less empirical muster than Jackson’s informants.7 Michael, a lanky 37year-old from Memphis who works as a financial analyst for a private firm, contended for much
of our first interview session, which was conducted over a Labor Day barbeque, that he did not
think about race “in that way” on a daily or even weekly basis. A graduate of a historically black
institution, Michael recognizes race, racial/cultural difference, and racial inequality, but has not
experienced the “Jim Crow” inequality signified by the trope of Southern horror. He and his wife
LaShaun live in a well-to-do former suburb of Memphis that has been gradually incorporated
into the city limits over the past decade where the median household income is $125,000. He
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talks at length about his veritable racial neutrality:
You know, I give everyone the benefit of the doubt when it comes to whether or not they
are a racist. I know that some whites, especially in Memphis, are brainwashed by racism
and that they simply can’t help it, but there are those who were just raised different, and
in either case, I’m completely okay until something goes wrong. But I’m also not really
looking for something to go wrong. I’m just trying to do my job, do my work, pick up my
kids from school, get my dry cleaning, minding my business, you know.
Many respondents who were younger and employed in professions where they regularly
interacted with whites both as superiors or subordinates were more likely to see themselves as
giving everyone the benefit of the doubt, but acknowledged to varying degrees the probability
that they would experience some level of racism, racial discrimination, or “racial resentment” as
one respondent calls it, as they go about their everyday lives. Throughout our session, LaShaun
is buzzing about, clearing plates, assisting Michael on the grill, and making beverages, and she
pauses several times during his monologue to give him a “Negro, please” look. A teacher at a
predominantly white county elementary school, she remains verbally silent, even when Michael,
unable to ignore her any longer, blurts “What?” in response to one of her looks. I follow up with
an interview with her several weeks later, and she describes Michael’s racial consciousness as
very different than he let on at the barbeque.
LaShaun: If I had a nickel for every time that man came home and relayed to me a
situation from work or wherever that was clearly a matter of race, but that he took as a
matter of something else—“just people” he says, “that’s just people, Shaun”—I could
quit teaching little white children the FOIL method and sit at home.
Zandria: Why do you think he might think those situations are not race related?
LaShaun: Because he’s racially naïve. But I don’t understand why…He grew up here
just like I did, spent summers with grandma in Mississippi and all of that. He ought to
know these white folks better than that. I think it’s playing golf with his co-workers. He
thinks if you play golf together and listen to old school hip-hop together then it’s all
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For LaShaun, Michael’s racial naïveté is inexplicable, given that she assumes that he, and by
extension other black Southerners, should be so keenly aware of race such spotting racist
situations is second nature. Indeed, her assertions are similar to a host of black scholars’ critical
analyses of whiteness, from W.E.B. DuBois to Zora Neale Hurston to James Baldwin. However,
she sees Michael’s “denial” or refusal to see race as willful.
I receive a phone call from LaShaun around the Christmas holidays later that same year,
and she invites my daughter and me to come over for a small gathering. She encourages me to
arrive early and make “extra certain” that I bring my recorder. “You have just got to hear what
Mr. Happy Race has to say,” she says with a knowing air. When I arrive, I am not sure what
LaShaun has told Michael about my visit, but I am greeted at the door by their two daughters,
four and six, who hastily speak and just as quickly grab my daughter and dart off to a playroom.
Michael is over the stove tasting and re-tasting some sauce and welcomes a break from
agonizing over what is missing from it, and LaShaun gives me a big grin from the kitchen table.
After exchanging pleasantries and catching up, she demands that Michael tell me what had been
happening at work. Michael sighs and dutifully obliges:
Michael: We [he and his white co-worker] were on this new project, and I was amped
about it ‘cause it was going great, we were working well together, you know. I put in a
lot of work to this thing, though, working at home and whatnot. And we golfed a lot, had
drinks a lot, really working this thing. And LaShuan told me…[pause].
LaShaun: Uh-huh, don’t stop now! LaShaun told you what?
Michael: She told me that that guy was no good.
LaShaun: And what else? Tell her what I said specifically.
Michael: We had him over for dinner a few times, and after the first time, she said he had
a sneaky racist look in his eye. [LaShaun nods.] I said, “you can’t look in someone’s eye
and know they’re a racist, plus we’ve been working good together.” I thought we were
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going to present our results together. I come to find out that he had been submitting them
to the boss as his. His alone, you know. Man, when I found out, I kind of confronted him
like, and said, you know, “hey man, why did you do that?” He said he didn’t know why I
was upset because I was black and I was going to get promoted anyway because I was
black. You know, not because I did all of this work. He told me, “I need this, Mike.
You’ll be fine.” And I felt silly. I felt like Pollyanna or somebody with her bubble just
In LaShaun’s calculation, all it took was one look, one interaction, one dinner, and she
had already predicted Michael’s racial fate on the project to her satisfaction. LaShaun draws on
much the same racial logic that Chappelle attributes to black folks in “Jury Duty,” a sketch from
the second season of Chappelle’s Show that recreates voir dire for several high-profile cases. In
one particular instance, Chappelle-as-potential-juror for the O. J. Simpson trial declares that
“Furman” is a racist name, and that “As a nigga that says nigga a lot,” he could conclude that
Furman “says nigga all the time” and that he was “probably a racist.” I ask her to describe the
look in his eye.
I don’t know. I can’t say exactly, you know, or do it for you because I don’t have a racist
look in my eye. But I do know one when I see one. I know. And if you think about it, you
know, too. Like an old sheriff or something in one of those Rosewood-type movies, just
not acting racist. Sneaky like. He was just too good to be true. He was white, wasn’t he?
What else is there to it? He was white, and he wasn’t as good or swift as Michael, so he
was going to use him to get ahead.
LaShaun’s inability to describe or pinpoint the look or feeling is in line with Jackson’s
notion of de cardio racism, but she takes the math a step further and simplifies it. His whiteness
a priori meant, for her, that something was not right about him; the “sneaky racist look in his
eye” solidified that claim. His characterization as racist was solidified once LaShaun determined
that he was not “as swift as Michael.” Many respondents shared LaShaun’s methodology. In
addition to the “racist eye,” which was by far the most commonly reported way that black folks
ascertained who was racist, folks in various occupations, from fast food worker, to dental
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assistant, to lawyer, pinned racist white folks down on walking like a racist, speaking (or not
speaking) to them like a racist, and even eating like a racist. Brianna, 19, says that she knew her
boss at a chain retail store in a suburban mall was going to be a racist when she walked in the
company orientation. “Everything about her said ‘racist,’ down to the way she walked. I just
knew she was going to be a pistol.” When I asked Brianna, a tiny young woman with a piercing
glare, just what “everything” was and what about her walk said “racist,” she replied, matter-offactly about her declarations:
I mean, she just looked at us like she hated us. The chairs we was sitting in was like this
close together [she gestures with her hands a space about two feet wide], and she just
moved and waddled all between them, bumping into us, talking to us about all the things
that would happen to us if we stole stuff. She had this walk. Like she was bigger than the
world. But it wasn’t like she was confident or anything. It wasn’t an “I’m the shit” walk.
It was like she was scared of us and wanted to walk all over us. And she tried to, too. I
ended up complaining to the district manager because she thought we were her slaves…I
wrote that in the complaint, too.
Brianna was eventually promoted to manager of that location, and her manager was transferred,
although Brianna was not sure whether she requested a transfer or was transferred by the
company, shortly after her complaint to the district manager. Brianna insists that she tried to
warn the other young women about her, “to watch [their] backs and count and recount [their]
drawers,” but that many of those who began working at the company around the same time she
did were sabotaged by the manager with the racist walk.
Even outside of the workplace, where respondents may be more likely to view superiors
as racist, people marked everyday exchanges, such as speaking, as racist. Although greeting
strangers is one of the main differences that folks highlight between the South and other regions,
with Southerners supposedly greeting everyone they meet on the street, this is, of course, like
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many tropes of the South, a carefully accomplished distinction that does not always happen in
everyday Southern life, particularly interracially. Jimmy, 27, a construction worker with a local
home building company, admits to being especially ruffled when white folks do not speak to
him, particularly when he speaks first:
Jimmy: My Mama taught me to speak to people when you’re passing them on the street,
or if you’re somewhere else and you’re in a position to make eye contact and speaking is
appropriate at that time. I’ll be walking down the street, and I’ve learned now to make
sure that I make eye contact, and sometimes I even smile. If I go through all of that, and
you look me in the eye, or even if you don’t look me in the eye, and you don’t speak, you
are clearly racist.
Zandria: Have you ever thought that everyone you speak to that doesn’t speak back isn’t
from the South, and that maybe that’s what’s going on?
Jimmy: Oh, come on…Even if you aren’t from here, even if you’re uncomfortable with
speaking, you know the rules, and you do it regardless. No, I’m sure these folks are
racist. If you don’t speak where everybody speaks, you’re a racist. I mean, I guess you
could be sexist, too, like, you could be scared of me because I’m black man…but that’s
why I smile sometimes, just to give them that extra comfort like I’m not trying to rob
them or ask them for spare change. And they still don’t speak.
Yet, sometimes the Southern implicit requirement to speak leaves other respondents wishing
white folks would not even bother. Steven, a self-described “starving artist,” a painter who has
recently graduated from the local art college, is just as ruffled as folks like Jimmy are when
whites speak to him. Steven spent his early childhood in Atlanta, and then lived in Detroit with
his father until he was 15, when he came to Memphis to live with his grandmother after “testing
his dad one too many times.” Now 24, Steven says he far calmer now than he was in his pre-teen
and early adolescent years, running with the “street niggas” and trying to make some extra cash.
For our interview, I feed him and another “starving artist,” Raymond, who tags along with him.
Like several respondents, Steven equates what he reads as white folks’ phoniness with racism.
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Steven: See you’re walking, and you’re minding your business. And I don’t necessarily
speak to white folks on the street. I speak to all the black folks, but not necessarily the
white folks unless I’m feeling especially kumbaya like if I got paid for a piece or
something. But boy, they see me, looking like a hippie, and they’re just a speaking, “Hi!
Howareya!” [He bucks his eyes and leans in close to Raymond for dramatic effect]. And
I’m like, “Hi, white person. Don’t use me to fill your I-spoke-to-a-black-person-so-I’mnot-racist quota.” They still racist. Any time a white person speaks to you with that much
enthusiasm, they are a racist. They probably just called somebody a nigger on their job
and are trying to atone for it.
Raymond concurs.
Raymond: Exactly. Especially around here [midtown Memphis]. I’m on my skateboard,
the other day, and white woman stops me and says, “Hi, how are you? I’m Jenny,” or
whatever she said her name was. Did you know that some non-profits are trying to get the
city to build some skate parks?” She was an older white lady, too, like she was in her 50s
or something. I told her, “yeah, I heard about that.” And she commenced to wanting to
have a conversation, like I was her best black friend. She said she hadn’t seen many of
“us” skating. The very next day…or maybe it was a few days after that…anyway,
whatever, it was shortly after that, I saw her again at [a midtown café]. She was sitting
with a guy, and I spoke to her. She acted like she didn’t know me. I reminded her of who
I was, that she’d seen me outside of [the art college] and stopped me while I was skating
and all of that. She was like, oh, I’m sorry, I don’t remember. It was the same woman.
She had the same voice, same hair, same white woman shoes and everything.
Zandria: Well, maybe she wasn’t supposed to be out that day like she was, and then you
were outing her in front of a male counterpart, who could or could not have been her
boyfriend or anything.
Raymond: Well, whatever. She was all “let me speak to this black guy” one day, and the
next, she’s all like “I don’t know this black guy at all why in the world is he speaking to
me.” She is R-A-C-I-S-T. Or maybe she was just an opportunist, or maybe somebody
dared her to talk to a black person.
Steven: Come on, man. Like she said, there could have been anything going on.
Raymond: Well, explain to me this. Why was she eating racist?
Zandria & Steven: What?
Raymond: She was tearing that food up, just ripping into that bagel with her teeth, like
she was taking out all her pent-up racist anger on it.
After demonstrating “Jenny’s” eating style on some of the cornbread that accompanied our
meal—and making a mess—Raymond resumed “regular,” non-racist, eating. Regardless of the
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circumstances that precipitated “Jenny’s” not speaking the next day after initiating the
conversation with Raymond, the latter interpreted “Jenny’s” ignorance, feigned or not, as racist.
Although many of these and similar declarations were in jest, like Raymond’s, there was
a hint of sincerity in their expression, such that most people wanted to prove to me, and any
skeptics, that their calculations, however lacking in empirical replicability, were accurate. In the
New South, racism is both specter and reality, and in most calculations, white racism is lurking
just below the surface of everyday interactions and behaviors.
Whether race is a specter or reality, some black folks “ain’t studyin’ them white folks,”
regardless of the circumstances. I have been following Mae, a 76-year-old woman who does inhome nursing care and also works in a nursing home part-time, for a few days, going with her
from home to home, as well as to her job at the nursing home, located in a formerly-white and
now all-black neighborhood with a predominantly white clientele. Mae shares a number of racial
skirmishes, which she says are just part of black life in the “New Old South.” She says that she’s
“a good person, so no matter what they do, [she’s] going to do her job.” She has been engaged in
this kind of nursing care since she was in her early twenties, and although her daughters, 54 and
40, both lawyers, have encouraged her to leave the profession over the years, she insists that she
enjoys the work, although she does not always enjoy the clients. I ask her to estimate how many
clients she has had over the years that she would call “racist.”
Oh, I done had plenty of racist ones, so I don’t really think about it. That’s who they are,
bless they heart. But this new one [patient], she takes the cake with her meanness. She’s
94, and she’s a feisty heifer, she can get around pretty good, but she’s got Old Timers
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[Alzheimers] and needs constant watching ‘lessen she’ll be down the street. But whether
or not she’s having an Old Timers episode or she normal, I’m always some kind of black
Sal, some kind of nigger, colored, whatever she want to say. And she don’t want me to
touch her. When I need to bathe her, she be just a’ hollering. I smile at her and say, come
on Ms. Jamison, and sometimes I calls her out her name, too. Not a mean name, no, never
a mean name. But I call her Ms. Scarlett or Ms. Mary or something. She say, “don’t you
touch me with your filthy black hands!” and shake a finger at me like this here [she
shakes her index finger at me], and I told her that I was gone care for her like I’m being
paid to do whether she like it or not. I told her she wasn’t gone be neglected on my
watch, no matter what she said.
Mae is determined to simply do her job and come home, and insists that she likes to care for
people, and that this is what she is called to do. She invites me to come with her to meet Ms.
Jamison as she does her shift from 2:00 p.m. to 6:00 p.m. on a Wednesday afternoon while Ms.
Jamison’s daughter runs errands. Ms. Jamison is indeed feisty, and begins barking orders with a
remarkably strong voice as soon as we enter the house. When she realizes I am there, she rises up
a bit in her chair, and leans forward, squinting.
Ms. Jamison: Well, what is this you’ve got here with you, Mae?
Ms. Mae: Why, this is a young lady that is doing some graduate work. She’s working on
her PhD, and she’s interviewing me.
Ms. Jamison: That [affirmative] action let’s y’all get whatever kind of schooling these
days, when really y’all aren’t suited for higher thinking.
Ms. Mae: Well, just like my daughters are lawyers, she’s going to have her PhD, and you
still gon’ be sitting right there in that chair.
Ms. Jamison: Oh, hush it, Mae you ain’t raised no lawyers, no you did not. And what
that gal want to talk to you for anyhow? Your black self don’t know nothing [laughs].
Ms. Mae: Is that so? Well, I know it’s time for your bath, and boy I know you ain’t gon’
like that none too much. So, I guess my black self does know something, huh?
Ms. Jamison sits back and is tight-lipped for the rest of my time there, which Ms. Mae tells me
after we leave is very unusual for her save for when she is having an Alzheimer’s episode. When
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she is not as well behaved, Ms. Mae says Ms. Jamison will bite, spit, kick, and fight. I ask her,
like I am sure her daughters have on a number of occasions, why she stays, especially when this
woman is particularly mean relative to her other clients. She responds:
I figured God done put me there with that woman in order to give her one more chance to
get into heaven before she makes that long walk. You know we always have to save
white folks from themselves. I know God wants me to get Him some more souls for
heaven. You can’t really think too much about what they’re saying or doing. They’ll be
taken care of in the great hereafter. Or they’ll burn up in it. One or the other.
Keisha, a singer on the local neo-soul scene, expresses similar sentiments as Michael’s wife,
LaShaun. She argues that trying to understand white people “will make you crazy.” She says she
thinks of them like “scenery,” like a tree or a parked car. “Girl, I don’t be thinking about these
white folks. You can’t. It will make you insane. You just have to give that over to God and keep
stepping,” she tells me on the way to a rehearsal for a set the next day. In our second interview,
which occurs shortly after the Jena 6 controversy, she tells me that nothing white people do
surprises her. She gestures towards CNN’s coverage of a new development in the Jena 6 case on
the large screen behind me.
Keisha: I don’t know why all those folks went down there to protest like they were
shocked or outraged or something. If a white person hangs a noose, or calls you a nigger,
or checks your e-mail while you’re away from your desk at work, you cannot let those
things phase you. They are trying to get under your skin and get you off your game so
you’ll be so busy thinking about their next move that you don’t make any of your own.
Other respondents echoed Keisha’s sentiments, but went further to make intraracial
regional distinctions about “studyin’ white folks.” Across age and generational differences, black
Southerners widely accused “so-called” race leaders, such as Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton, as
well as non-Southerners, of being unnecessarily outraged at white folks’ behavior, and not
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outraged enough about everyday and institutional injustices black folks experience. Marcus, a
street hustler who sells bootlegged DVDs, amongst other things, says that black folks outside of
the South do not really care about what is going on in the South. “Kanyé [West] say George
Bush don’t care about black people? Hell, black people don’t care about black people!” When I
ask him to say more about what he means, he says that black folks are focusing on the wrong
things and are “getting up in arms” about things that will “get them on television.”
Marcus: Okay, like that thing that happened in Louisiana with the dudes and the nooses.
Yeah, they probably whipped that white boy. Yeah, the jail sentence or whatever might
have been unfair, but that happens every day, everywhere, to black folks everywhere.
You can’t really focus on what they do, because they gon’ do what they gon’ do to you.
Plus, ain’t nobody came down to 201 [Poplar, the address of the county court and
jailhouse] and protested for me and all the other cats when the folks [police] got us
hemmed up on some unfair shit. I guess it’s ‘cause there wasn’t no nooses or nothing like
that. Next time I get hemmed up on some bullshit, I’m gone have my white partner burn a
cross outside my apartment. Then Jesse ‘nem will come get me out of jail.
Marcus reports being the victim of police brutality and receiving unfairly long jail sentences for
“petty mess.” He argues that folks like Al Sharpton only come to the South when “it’s something
about rights” and “being up in white folks faces to get some of that government money.” He says
My baby, my first baby, he…he…you know, he died, you know. He was six months. My
sister baby died, my cousin baby died, and this other girl stay down the street, her baby
died. All of them, they babies was born early. They all live over there by [a chemical
plant], too. Where is the Good Reverend Doctor Al and Jesse then, to protest [the
chemical plant]? The white folks can hang a confederate flag and [nooses] all through
[my neighborhood] if don’t no more of our babies die like that.
Marcus’ sentiments hint at intraracial anger of both the class and regional varieties.
Foremost, while he might think that Kanyé West’s critique of Bush is sound, Marcus might
argue that Bush’s not caring about black people is to be expected; after all, white folks “gon’ do
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to you what they gon’ do to you.” For Marcus, class and regional distinctions between African
Americans constitute the important issues. Throughout our interview, he condemned “bougie
niggas looking down on us,” as well as the Al Sharpton’s, who, in his view, exploit the
occasional occurrence of Southern horrors while not addressing ongoing Southern problems.
Discursively, black folks draw both authenticity and sincerity boundaries, judging one another’s
racial realness through behaviors, personal style, neighborhood and school choices for children,
and a host of other factors. While authenticity of any sort has often been characterized as a
dichotomy—that is, either something is authentic or inauthentic—authenticity is of course
experienced and ascertained on a far more nuanced scale in everyday practice. Most of my
discussions of race with respondents were not about white folks at all, but about these intraracial
distinctions between more or most authentic black folks and less or least authentic black folks.
As a result of the Southern turn and the anxieties of an aging Civil Rights generation, the South
has been frequently appropriated as the site of authentic, back-in-the-day black life. This regional
appropriation amounts to intraracial spatial distinctions—urban vs. rural, North vs. South—
significant because of the range of agendas they are operationalized to support. In early 20th
century American cinema, for instance, a self-conscious and racist Hollywood promoted an
antebellum idyll that privileged the simple, rural black life of slavery—or at least of rural black
servitude to whiteness—over the evils and temptations of the city.8 This juxtaposition of the
simple and pleasant rural life with the evil city served not only to allay white fears of a
blackening urban core, but also allowed whites to reminisce about a happier time in which
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“Negroes knew their place.” In other representations, the city is the saving grace of African
Americans in search of an escape from poverty, white violence and oppression, and the persistent
reminders of slavery and manifestations of Jim Crow. In these formulations, the country is
demonized and the city is valorized, challenging white desires to maintain control over African
Americans, at least in the traditional rural context.
In the last 20 years, however, filmic representations of the desirability, if not the outright
preferability, of a rural black life over a black urban life have been prominent. In these films,
which include Julie Dash’s Daughters of the Dust (1991), Maya Angelou’s Down in the Delta
(1998), and most recently Tyler Perry’s Meet the Browns (2008) and Malcolm D. Lee’s Welcome
Home, Roscoe Jenkins (2008), rurality is a catchall for the South and Southern-ness, which
obscures the South as modern, urban and changing in much the same way that Madhu Dubey,
Adolph Reed, and others argue the turn South does more generally. Collectively, these films
articulate a more authentic, more grounded blackness that is rooted squarely in black Southern
tropes—family, feminine power, the land/earth and community. To establish this “better”
blackness, many of these films actively juxtapose the urban, embodied most often by the
Southside of Chicago, with good rural blackness, most often epitomized by a maternal home on
sprawling and lush Georgia land. Down in the Delta and Meet the Browns in particular both take
a dysfunctional black family from a dysfunctional Southside Chicago ghetto to re-center them—
providing them spiritual healing, closure, and lessons in morals and the importance of family and
community—in and through the rural South. In Down in the Delta, the Sinclairs, headed by
unstable matriarch Loretta (Alfre Woodard), escape the violence, drugs, and chronic
underemployment of the urban North and move South, where they find peace, work ethic, and
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familial love, but also more tangible quality of life improvements like employment. In fact, the
Mississippi Delta, coupled with the protagonist’s family and community there, is so powerful
that Loretta’s autistic daughter, who has never before spoken words despite her age, speaks for
the first time. In Meet the Browns, single mother Brenda Brown escapes the violence and
disadvantage of the urban North and heads South for her estranged father’s funeral. There she
not only finds family and belonging, but also wealth—in the form of a house—and a man—in
the form of hometown boy Harry, played by former NBA star Rick Fox. These films tout and
reinforce a blackness that is heteronormative and communal, shunning focus on individual selfinterest and promoting selflessness. Yet, even in films that are set in the urban South, such as
Idlewild and ATL, that present urban violence, the protagonists are ultimately saved from ruin.
For instance, in the former, mischievous Rooster is saved from a surely fatal gunshot wound to
the chest by a small Bible in his breast pocket. An elderly black woman he encounters on a rural
back-road, played by Cicely Tyson, has given the Bible to him. Similarly, in ATL, teenage
Anthony, who in his desires to be a “dope boy” has found himself in a skirmish with a drug
kingpin, is shot. Yet, unlike drug-related skirmishes in the more familiar ‘hood films, like South
Central (1992) or Juice (1992), Anthony survives, in tact, and is reborn, focusing on getting an
education rather than getting rich quick through the drug trade.
These representations are no doubt reflections of increasing African American moves to,
rather than from, the South. Calls to a regional and ancestral “home” as Stack (1996) points out,
were contextualized by a desire for a return to simpler, more fulfilling lives—lives that were
implicitly distinct from those many re-migrants left behind in the urban Northeast, Midwest, and
West. When African Americans privilege this rural life, whether in Down in the Delta’s reel life
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or Call to Home’s real, ethnographic life, they are inherently privileging a Southern life, over and
against a Northern or other regional life. Yet, while this discursive change of labels of the “scene
of the crime” from the South to the North occurs in the context of a broad and far-reaching
demographic shift, such authenticity constructions are not made in reference to reverse migration
alone. Indeed, Southern-born blacks make similar authenticity claims, based on at least some of
the same dimensions of intraracial spatial difference. These distinctions are sincere, performed,
and sincerely performative in their articulations. Further, these distinctions arise often, but
especially when participants are critiquing the local or regional black community. Recall Keith,
who “schools” café worker Hasan and me on the Southern roots of black culture. He arrives at
our midtown Starbucks meeting location frowning and flustered and starts talking before I can
click on the recorder. When he catches his breath and settles a bit, he looks me directly in the eye
and says, “These Southern chu’chfolk are making me lose my Jesus.” He relays to me that his
attempts to start a condom basket—“a discrete one, mind you, in the counseling office,” he tells
me—at the predominantly black high school where he works have been thwarted by “some rabid
Bible thumpers.”
These ain’t no Southern belles we talking about here, some white girls who marry rich
and young and have babies young. These are young girls in my class who may or may not
be able to finish [high school] now because they’re knocked up, and who might—just
might—use a condom if we talked about them and made them available. But oh, no, your
goody Southern chu’chfolk won’t hear anything of it, talking about “pray over the kids.”
I mean, other cities, up North, out West, they got condoms for teenage kids. And those
programs do help some to keep down teen pregnancy. But these folks would rather keep
their Southern morals than to acknowledge these children’s Southe’n sexuality.
I teasingly suggest that he take his “liberal” condom campaign to a city up North or out West,
like Chicago or New York or Los Angeles, to live out his Lean on Me (1989)-style urban
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education fantasy, to which he quickly responds:
And get further away from God? You know God isn’t as close to Chicago as he is to
Memphis! While the chu’chfolk do get on my nerves with their backwardness, every time
I visit [my cousins] in Chicago, the devil gets after me. No, it’s Heathenville up there,
and I think I ought to stay right here.
I press him beyond this obvious jest.
Zandria: Heathenville? What about all of the heathen-ness going on around here? Is our
proximity to God, as you say, going to keep us from going to hell? And aren’t the
chu’chfolk, in your case, not doing enough to stem what you see as a very serious
Keith: Okay, seriously, though. No and yes. But, foreal, black life is different outside of
the South now. Or, should I say, black life for the average black person. This is not the
Chicago heyday or the Harlem heyday. You have to have money, good money, or you
can’t live a good life. Obama got a million-dollar house in Chicago. Oprah got who
knows what. When I visit [my cousins], even the ones that are school teachers and all of
that, it just seems they don’t have that quality of life. In the South, you can still not have a
lot of money, but be connected to other folks in a way that is valuable in your life.
This notion that black life is “different outside of the South now” is echoed in many respondents’
sentiments, as folks contend that the grand North of the Great Migration disappeared sometime
around the 1970s. Will, a 65-year-old Vietnam Veteran now employed at the local Veterans
Administration hospital as a medical assistant, attributes the decline of black folks other places to
drug trafficking. He tells me,
Heroin started it, see. At one time, all the niggas was wearing zootsuits and the finest furs
and all of that. Then, wasn’t nobody but the dealers wearing it because everybody else
was on drugs except for the goody-goodies, and they were busy trying to take care of the
folks on drugs. Meanwhile, we [Southerners] were the ones helping funnel the dope up
there. All of that “go to Chicago, go to Detroit” stuff was over because it was just a
dopehead wasteland. Then niggas was getting high and rioting and whatnot. Then that’s
when they started all coming back here, trying to get clean. I had two cousins, twice
removed, went North talking about they gon’ get an education away from us. They Mama
always thought she was better. They came back here with an education all right. An
education in dope.
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I ask him if he knows people who began to use drugs around the same time in the South as well,
and if he was familiar with their outcomes. Between drags on a cigarette, which he eventually
puts out on the cement table we are sharing in a South Memphis park, he insists that the South
was different.
The effect of dope in the South wasn’t like the effects was up there, never has been, never
will be. The South in a certain kind of way…it kinda, it protects you from evil. I mean,
I’m not saying evil things don’t happen down here. What the kids say? [This is the] Dirty
South. I’m just saying that everything always works out, see.
Several respondents express familiarity with a relatively mystical South that heals them—like
Loretta’s daughter is “healed” from autism in Down in the Delta—and/or shields them from
harm—like Anthony survives his gunshot in ATL—particularly respondents who have returned
South. Rebecca, who works in administration at a local university, returned South after having
lived in Detroit since she finished college in the South. She grew up in Coldwater, Mississippi, a
few miles south of Memphis. Although she remembers her 24 years in Detroit fondly, she insists
that she feels more “at home and at peace” in the South.
Well the life there is different because it’s not where our [African Americans’] roots are.
Lots of folks there, their grandmothers and great grandmothers came up there, you see,
but they are disconnected from the values here. This is where real black values are
formed. That’s why so many of them still send their kids down South for the summer, or
if they’re acting out. They come back acting right, I tell you that much. And it’s not just
because they’re with family because they got family, you see, wherever they are, Detroit,
Chicago, Milwaukee, New York, wherever. But this South, it gets them right, spiritually,
mentally, everything. Every black child who hasn’t been South should come South.
I ask her where children who are acting out in Memphis are sent.
Rebecca: Further down South, down in the Delta somewhere, Coldwater or Greenville or
the like. If that doesn’t get ‘em straight, then you have to send them to the backwoods of
Georgia or those Carolina Islands.
Zandria: And if that doesn’t work?
Not Studyin’ Them White Folks 107
Rebecca: Then it’s back to the Delta with ‘em, this time to Sunflower County [laughs].
Zandria: It’s to the penitentiary for them if they don’t get right?
Rebecca: Exactly. They’ll be model citizens or fit for the electric chair one when they
come out of there [laughs].
I surmise that Rebecca is only half-kidding about sending wayward Southern children to the
Mississippi State Penitentiary if they cannot be “healed” by any other part of the South.
However, her sentiments suggest that, for many African Americans, the South’s healing power is
“real,” although it is not empirically clear whether it is the power of collective memory, different
community formations, or the concentration of energies on the wayward subjects—the Browns
of Meet the Browns surround Brenda and her children with love, Loretta’s uncle does the same in
Down in the Delta, and children who are sent South are more than likely given special
attention—that is behind this healing power. Ruth Ann, a 32-year-old server at a Cracker Barrel
and returning college student, feigns annoyance at my line of questioning because she says I
know all of the answers to these questions and am just trying to be “scientific.” Popping her gum
and carefully placing her hair behind her shoulder, she sums up many respondents’ sentiments
simply: “We just do things better, down here, you know. Bigger. Better. Better hair. Better
loving. Better singing. Better churching. Better cooking. We look better. Just better. We just all
around better black folks.”
John Shelton Reed (1982) argues persuasively in One South: An Ethnic Approach to Regional
Culture that despite distinctions of race, class, religion, and ethnicity, Southerners share a
regional culture that can be reasonably conceptualized as an ethnicity in itself. Certainly, a thing
Not Studyin’ Them White Folks 108
that might be deemed “Southern culture” functions as an umbrella over a proliferation of
Southern cultures—in much the same way that “black culture” functions as an umbrella for
national, gender, sexuality, and class distinctions within black culture. Further, Southern culture
functions as an organizing principle such that however one’s culture varies from the dominant
paradigm, it follows certain ordering principles that render it recognizable to insiders and
outsiders alike. E. Patrick Johnson’s (2008) Sweet Tea illustrates this point thoroughly,
demonstrating that those that our outside of Southern culture proper in terms of race, sexuality,
and in some cases class are simultaneously very much a part of the norms and mores of that
culture, participate in that culture, and in fact, are co-creators of that culture.
I suggest here that black Southerners imagine themselves as distinct from African
Americans in other parts of the country, in both the ways they construct and respond to race and
racism as well as on quality of life measures, tangible and less tangible. While Southerners were
open to criticizing their regional culture, e.g. Keith’s disagreement with the “chu’chfolk” over
teaching safe sex practices, they moved quickly, and often performatively, to position the South
as better than other places, and consequently, Southern blackness as better than other
manifestations of blackness. My respondents clearly shared the underdog spirit inherent in much
of Southern identity—that is, because the South is often maligned in all sorts of contexts as
backward and less than, Southerners often respond by glorifying the very traits that others find
problematic—but supplement their analyses with “proof” of the region’s superiority. However,
this desire to performatively and discursively affirm and privilege a black Southern existence
belies ongoing interracial and intraracial tensions that black Southerners may be unwilling or
unable to reconcile. For instance, Ms. Mae’s relatively cheerful endurance of Ms. Jamison’s and
Not Studyin’ Them White Folks 109
other elderly white people’s racial scorn has taken years of careful construction, as she tells me
on several occasions that when she was younger, her tongue “cut deeper.” Further, the
privileging of Southern blackness over and against a specifically Northern blackness might point
to some class-inflected tensions stemming from interpersonal encounters—Keisha details once
with some palpable bitterness a summer visit from her cousin in Chicago that left her feeling
“poor and dirty”—which I explore more extensively in Chapter Four. In this formulation, upper
middle-class blacks, “bourgie” black Northerners, and white folks are subsumed under one
category not to be studied. Finally, across self-reported measures of religiosity, respondents draw
on decidedly religious and/or spiritual language to navigate race, class, and regional tensions,
contending that a divine power orders their interracial and intraracial steps. In the New South,
then, Old South methodologies of negotiating race and racism—avoidance, “giving things over”
to a higher power—prevail, although the work of performing these negotiations has become
more deliberate and perhaps more difficult.
Belles and Guls 110
It is a pretend-winter Saturday morning, and I am in a beauty shop, or “salon,” as I am corrected
twice while on a personal call letting the person on the other end know where I was, in a
Memphis suburb. I am waiting for Miriam, as I have agreed to meet her here and give her a ride
back to her apartment in North Memphis for our interview after her hair appointment. Although I
believe that I have timed my arrival perfectly, my Black-Woman-in-the-Beauty-Shop-on-aSaturday-Morning clock is off, as Miriam has just gone under the dryer when I enter the shop. I
settle in for the wait, sitting perpendicular to the dryers and across from the row of black leather
chairs, all occupied, in front of a row of mirrors, all reflecting the backs and sides of the clients’
various coiffures. The pungent smell of oil sheen and burning hair is thick in the shop air. Kim,
the head stylist, is putting the finishing touches on a client’s wrap. As she flat-irons a few stray
pieces and sprays the client’s hair with a finishing spray, Kim invites the client to shake her hair.
The client yelps with glee at the first shake, and Kim encourages her, “Go on, shake that hair,
girl!” Kim then invites the other stylists and clients to watch her client “shake her ‘do.” Above
the “ooooohs” and “ummmm-hmmm that’s nices,” Kim says, “Now, see? That’s some real hairstyling right there. That is some real hair-styling. I need to take this on the road, take it up to the
White House. I’d have Michelle’s hair right. This ain’t no Chicago styling right here, no ma’am.
This is some down-home Southern styling, some ‘go get your man’ hair-styling up in here!”
Belles and Guls 111
A couple of hours later, when Miriam and I are on the expressway heading for her
apartment, she fills me in on what she says was an hour-long conversation about Michelle
Obama’s hair—the length, the texture, how her stylist should be shot or at least have her
cosmetology license revoked, and the like. Mrs. Obama had been on television in some postelection press the ladies were watching in the shop that morning. According to Miriam, Kim had
remarked that she hoped that Michelle “got herself a new stylist” when she got to the White
House and left behind “whatever non-hair-styling Chicago wench got her looking chickenheaded.” Even second-hand, the conversation smacks of gendered intraracial distinctions based
on performances and articulations of the black Southern belle. Thus, I arrange to talk with Kim,
interviewing her over lunch on one of her Monday “me-days.” She owns the salon, which has
recently moved to its suburban location after several years in a predominantly black
neighborhood in southwest Memphis. She rehearses the monologue in question in even more
fantastical form than Miriam had allowed in her retelling. Afterwards, she says, very matter-offactly:
We did a hair show in Chicago about five years back…And the guy that got us into the
show was going on and on and on about how we were going to have to come with it, how
this wasn’t any “country” hair show. And of course, honey, I was offended…But I will
admit, I was a little intimidated. I mean, you see the books, the videos of shows…but we
had only done Southern shows: Atlanta, Birmingham, Jacksonville, somewhere in the
Carolinas. To make a long story short, we get there, and I am hot that I have gotten
myself all bothered and flustered for nothing. I’m looking for the glamour, the poise, the
fashion. When I tell you these girls were sending some of the most ungodly styles out…I
mean, it was a downright travesty…And of course, we won the competition part and all
of the Chicago girls were just shocked that we were styling like we were…I told one of
[the stylists from Chicago], what we do is important. We put care and effort into our
work. It’s art. And it’s people’s lives. She looked at us like we were crazy.
Although most certainly a majority of hairstylists take their craft quite seriously, Kim is
especially careful to distinguish their craft from that of the other women at the hair show. She
Belles and Guls 112
tells me that Southern women are more purposeful about their hair because there is more at
stake. I ask her to say more:
See, not everybody can be Michelle Obama, the First Lady. You can’t go around
chicken-headed and get a man like Barack, or any average man for that matter. The
average woman out here has got to win on looks, looks first, then charm, then smarts, not
the other way around. And the crowning glory of a Southern woman’s looks is her hair,
whether she bought it or grew it. It is what gets and keeps the men, because if your hair is
super-nice, the brother might miss or overlook your less-than-model face, and he might
overlook some other things, too. And believe me, these girls coming in are looking to get
men and the rest of them are looking to keep them. A lot of men come in and pay for
their woman’s—or [laughs] womens’—hair like clockwork on the first and the fifteenth.
Hair is only one of the dimensions along which black folks draw intraracial, gender-based
distinctions. As the article on Southern belles from the August 1971 issue of Ebony suggests,
Southern black folks are seen and in many cases see themselves as qualitatively, and
consequently quantitatively, distinct from non-Southerners in gendered presentations of self.
Because gender is more likely to be viewed as a “natural” category—women simply “do” this
and men simply “do” that—respondents typically saw regional distinctions in gender
performance as enshrined and relatively immutable. However, as I demonstrate in this chapter,
even the strictest adherents to normative gendered presentations-of-self contest and challenge
white regional gender requirements. From blues women and pimps to the ladies and gentlemen
of debutante balls, black Southerners have forged a relationship to the gender norms and mores
of the region and have, as much as possible, intertwined them with their racialized experiences of
exclusion and marginalization from those norms and mores to create a distinctively black and
Southern cultural articulation of gender work and play. Working with and against constructions
of belles and gentlemen, black Southerners both reconfigure and reinforce racial and regional
gender norms.
Belles and Guls 113
I consider the ways in which African Americans in the South think about, represent, and
perform gendered behaviors in a broader context of public discourse about heterosexual
relationships between African American women and men. While marriage has declined overall
since the 1970s, African American marriage rates are disproportionately low compared to their
white counterparts. Yet, while black men are more likely to marry interracially, black women are
less likely to do so, which has an effect on overall marriage rates. Explanations for this
phenomenon, which has been translated in public discourse as a veritable crisis for black women,
and by proxy, black children, abound. Some argue that African American women are unable to
attract, keep, and marry African American men because of their fierce independence and
relatively high educational, and in some cases income, attainment. The corollary of this argument
contends that black men, emasculated by racism and shut out in some ways from full
participation in patriarchy, need to be able to exercise control over a woman, rendering them
therefore unable to accept black women’s alleged independence. Others argue that black
relationships have been broken since slavery and that subsequent systems of power, including
Jim Crow, the welfare system, and the prison industrial complex have deterred black folks from
marrying. Still others argue that the uncertainty in black people’s lives, and women’s lives in
particular, preclude marriage as a prospect because of a host of poverty-related disparities
(Burton and Tucker, 2009). No matter the argument, public discourse—from Sanaa Lathan’s
Something New (2006), intended to encourage black women to look for love outside of the race,
to the countless news stories on black women’s dismal marriage prospects—turns up the volume
on the clamoring from the “how to find a man” columns in Essence magazine and the chatter of
married mothers and girlfriends—if, indeed, there are such things in the black community.1
Belles and Guls 114
This chapter highlights how regional and racial discourses are gendered, as well as how
racial and gender discourses are regionalized. I highlight how black Southerners employ
regionalized gendered scripts to accomplish a distinctive regionally-inflected gender
performance and identity that has implications for family and relationship outcomes. I focus on
black Southern women, because as Tara McPherson suggests, the figure of the lady is the center
around which so much else about the South and Southern identity pivots.2 I suggest here that it is
in and through gender work and play that the Old South meets the New South in black Southern
experience, and it is there that region and race are most intricately intertwined.
SoapNet, the network for soap opera fans to catch episodes they missed during the day,
introduced its new reality series, Southern Belles: Louisville, in spring 2009. Chock full of the
usual antics we expect from reality shows, particularly those featuring single young women
looking for men, Southern Belles features a black Southern belle, Julie, who is seemingly
divergent from her white counterparts. While Julie certainly shares the physical location and
some of the same Southern woman attitudes as her white co-stars, she is also very much
representative of a certain segment of black womanhood—she keeps her hair straightened, is
single, and is concerned about finding “a good [black] man.” Julie’s character often appears as
an afterthought, as her narrative is often quite separate from that of her co-stars, and she is
conspicuously absent at key events documented in the show at which all the other belles—the
white belles, that is—are present. Although reality television is obviously a deliberately
constructed and manufactured product, Julie’s relative invisibility in the show highlights the
tenuous relationship of black women to the belle archetype.
Belles and Guls 115
Julie’s outsider within status on Southern Belles is not, in itself, surprising, given that
black and white Southern women always operated under different sets of constraints that
influenced their gender performance possibilities. More often than not, black women had to
contend with systems of power that not only denied access to any construction of femininity, but
access to humanity as well. In the Jim Crow South, black women strived in extraordinary
circumstances to cultivate respectability and womanhood (Higginbotham, 1994). While white
gender archetypes were erected against constructions of black gender archetypes, black folks
managed to appropriate categories from which they were excluded—lady and gentleman, for
instance—and participate in a racialized version of regional culture that wrested some dignity
through performance. As Tara McPherson (2003) argues in Reconstructing Dixie, relative to
white women, “Black women marshaled the figure of the lady into more imaginative formations,
alternatively laying claim to the rights of ladyhood and acting out against the rigid world of
southern manners over which the ‘lady’ presided” (20).
Still, tenuous relationship and maligned history aside, many of the women in my sample
define themselves as belles and adhere to many of the gender norms of the belle archetype.
Indeed, there is some level of “acting out” against normative gender requirements, but more
often, racialized versions of white Southern gender performances re-inscribe the gender
hierarchy and reinforce patriarchy and heteronormativity. Again, I focus primarily on women
because it is in and through the policing of women, from hair textures to skin color, and the
policing of femininity and feminine performances more broadly, that the cultural dimensions of
gender norms emerge.
Belles and Guls 116
Valencia, a 24-year-old nurse, is representative of respondents who self-identify as Southern
belles. These women tend to be upwardly mobile, educated, and from middle-class backgrounds.
Valencia—light-skinned, very pretty, petite, and with a dainty bounce and her short-cropped hair
always done—blew into our second interview session at an East Memphis café late. As she
bustled around setting down her bags—an oversized bag and a smaller clutch—she said, half to
me and half to herself, “This one just has to be fired. Just got to be.” When I ask her, “who, what,
when, where and why,” she apologizes and flashes her usual toothy smile. She pauses and then
declares, “He doesn’t understand me. I am a true Southern Belle. I like men, money, and
manicures. He couldn’t hang with any of that. So he’s in the fired pile. Fi-yered.” She goes on to
talk about how this man, a young lawyer who I later contact for an interview, was “insecure”
about her number of “suitors” and frequently expressed frustration with her seeming
unwillingness to “sit down and actually tend to his needs.” For his part, David, 28, did not
She had a number of guys that would call her, and I was wanting her to really try to see
where we could go. She didn’t want to stop talking to them, like she wanted to have all of
these, like, suitors, and I wasn’t going for that. I asked her about it, and she said that she
liked men. I told her, “I like women, but I’m not calling or going out with or accepting
gifts from them while we’re supposed to be trying to be exclusive.” She told me she was
supposed to get gifts from different men until she had a ring on her finger.
Valencia’s expression of her desires for “men, money, and manicures,” might in other contexts
put her squarely in the category of the much-maligned “gold-digger.” However, men, Southern
and non-Southern, respond to her desires. David did not see or frame Valencia’s desires as
“gold-digging,” contending that, “women should have nice things, whatever they want, if they’re
good women.” He explains further:
Belles and Guls 117
As men we are supposed to not just provide and protect, but give women what they want.
If she says she wants that bag or shoes or whatever, you’d better get it, or if she has her
own money, which is what most women have these days, you had better let her get it,
encourage her even, or you’re going to be in trouble.
I ask about the supposed abundance of women there are for black men, and why a man—
particularly a young, childless, relatively handsome lawyer who loves his Mama—simply would
not move on to the next woman who might demand less and give more. He responds:
That’s not necessarily true about there being a bunch of women…Well, I see what you’re
saying that there are a lot of women, but not these kind of women. These women are
educated, beautiful, keep their hair and nails done, and are willing to let you take the
David’s statement confirms some prevailing ideas about men wanting to feel like they are taking
the “lead” in the relationship, financially and otherwise, and reflects the sentiments of most of
the men in the sample with at least a college degree and above median income. “These kind of
women” are in high demand, and men see them as the perfect combination of the gentility of the
belle and the domestic and remunerative labor of Southern black women. Some women, both
those who self-identify as belles and those who identify otherwise, see this as a problematic
formulation, given that it imagines a woman who has a “good” job, is traditionally beautiful,
performs housework, and is relatively deferent to her partner. Michelle, a 37-year-old director of
a non-profit organization, highlights these, and other, contradictions:
I certainly see myself as a Southern belle and always have, particularly when I’m
traveling outside of the South. But wherever I go, Atlanta, Chicago, Los Angeles,
Charlotte, the men see that…they find out I’m from the South…and are like…“Ooooh,
she smiles, she’s not loud-talking, she cooks and cleans, and she works for a living.” So
they want you, because you aren’t some woman sitting and fanning herself all day or
shopping all day or whatever, but you aren’t all hard and mean. So, it’s like the best of
both worlds. For them. You have to be superwoman, but do it quietly.
Valencia argues that this is simply gender work.
Belles and Guls 118
I think most women make men think they’re in control in the relationship, but Southern
women go way beyond with it. That’s why we keep men. I say, ‘oooh, baby, can you help
me open this, can you do this for me I just am not strong enough, can you go out there
and chop that firewood?’ [Laughs.] Men want to feel like they can do something that you
can’t do, and you have got to do that work and play that role. You can walk right over
them as long as you play it right. It’s really hard for me, too, because I’m not like that at
all. But I just laugh and kee-kee-kee, and say, ‘oh, thank you so much honey,’ and he’s
grinning from ear to ear, especially a country boy.
Other women echo Valencia’s sentiments. Rose, a slender, brown flight attendant, insists that
men are quite often caught up in the spectacle of the Southern belle.
The boys, they get caught up in the show, the glamour. They want you to flip your
hair…and they want it long and they want it to be yours…smile and laugh, and touch
them on their arm, give them that Southern accent, things like that. And it blows them
away. They’ll give you whatever you want. Especially the ones from up North. I just
keep playing that role.
Still, others are critical of the belle ideology for what the archetype implies about standards of
beauty and gender-appropriate behavior. Kalesha, a stay-at-home Mom active in a collective of
stay-at-home mothers of color, is resistant to the belle, highlighting childhood battles with her
“red,” or lighter-skinned, cousins:
When we were younger, they would call me black, midnight…when they would play
dress up, they would say I was the maid and they were the princesses. I just thought it
was mean at the time. Now I know they saw me as, like, a mammy or something…it was
because of my skin tone…So now, anytime I hear someone say “I’m a Southern belle,”
or I see that on somebody’s FaceBook page or something, I’m like…“ugh.” Not
everybody can be hazel-eyed and light-skinned.
The hazel-eyed, light-skinned belle or Southern lady is certainly an archetypal instantiation of a
trope of black Southern womanhood. Welcome Home Roscoe Jenkins plays on this archetype and
colorism in the black community to erect two kinds of women—the first, a non-Southern, brownskinned golddigger concerned with material things and keeping up appearances, and the second,
a Southern, light-skinned, hazel-eyed nurturer who bakes and has her own small business. While
Belles and Guls 119
certainly women who identify as belles are a range of skin colors, the Beyoncé-like belle serves
as the quintessential formulation of this figure.
While skin color is certainly one of the ways that the belle stratifies black women, the
belle is also challenged on structural grounds. Wanda, a daycare instructor, says she “sho’ ain’t
no belle,” telling me in our first interview:
Belles are white, straight, no children, um, you know, young and carefree, and got a rich
man or some riches from they daddy. They ain’t no black, no poor, or gay, old, or got a
bunch of kids to feed, and they certainly ain’t got the problems we [African Americans]
face. And most of the black folks I know do got problems, and most of them fit into one
of those groups...broke, got some children and a baby daddy, you know. Them gals
running around calling themselves belles [said with a Gone With the Wind-reminiscent
accent and several blinks of her eyes] need to get a wake-up call. Because if they think
about it, and they honest, they fits one of them things that makes them not be a belle at
Wanda’s sentiment encapsulates several respondents’ structural critiques of the belle and
representations of the belle, although most women did not completely situate the belle as an
inaccessible performative terrain as a result of their membership in status categories that “[made]
them not be a belle at all.” In fact, most women who self-identified as belles reject these
categorical exclusions: they are single mothers with baby’s daddies, many are working class, and
most lead lives that could hardly be characterized as carefree. However, by drawing on the belle,
these women test the structural limits of contemporary black womanhood while operating
squarely within those limits. Rose readily acknowledges the contradictions:
So, I am a belle, that’s what I am. But I also put it on a little bit, if you know what I
mean, like, to make sure that I’m getting what I want. I mean, not money,
necessarily…but like, at work. When we’re having meetings, they’re scheduling us for
which flights and whatever, I make sure that I am dressed, heels on, smile on, voice on,
everything. So, it’s not fake because that’s who I am, but I am very aware of what I’m
doing because that’s how I get ahead of everyone else, women and men. I know it’s kinda
messed up that I have to, like, use it to get ahead, but that’s how it is.
Belles and Guls 120
I ask her to tell me about some other times when she “[puts] it on”:
Always with a man. Always. Especially when I’m not in the South, like when I have a
layover in Chicago or we do a run to Los Angeles. But I can’t even say especially outside
of the South…even when I’m home, too, I have it on, because these chicks out here are
good, honey, syrupy sweet good. It’s harder in the South, too, I would say because it’s
not hard to compete with the other girls [from other regions]. But these chicks know the
games just like we [Southern women] do, some of them even better, and so it’s a constant
competition to be the best Southern belle.
Any number of how-to guides, from Deborah Ford’s (2004) The GRITS (Girls Raised in the
South) Guide to Life to Ronda Rich’s What Southern Women Know (That Every Woman Should):
Timeless Secrets to Get Everything You Want in Love, Life, and Work (2000), tout the
distinctiveness and superiority of Southern women’s experiential knowledge; however, these
books are overwhelmingly written by white women for white audiences. Further, the “downhome” advice administered in these guides may cause wholesale feminist cringing.3 However,
African American articulations of regional gender knowledge reimagine the line between
performance and sincerity. While many respondents, like Rose and Valencia, thought very
explicitly and carefully about their regionalized gender performances, including thinking of them
as regionally distinct and inspired, still others, like salon-owner Kim, do not explicitly claim
regional distinction as a performance, even when pressed. That is, for Kim, her Southern
hairstylist contingent was simply better than the Chicago hairstylists because, “that’s just the way
we do down South.” For respondents like Kim, the care and deliberate planning that go into hair,
nails, and clothing are standard practice, and Southern accents, wide smiles, and batting eyes are
unrehearsed and unconscious. Even Rose contends that some women are “natural” Southern
Rose: Some women don’t even put it on at all. They don’t have to. They are just naturals
because that’s, like how they are, how they were raised, cornbread, pig feet, that kind of
Belles and Guls 121
Zandria: What makes them naturals? How are they raised differently from you were?
Rose: I mean, we didn’t eat those kinds of things…we had Sunday dinner, but Ma’dea’
and Mama did most of the cooking, so I’m finding that I need to learn how to cook those
things. I be in the kitchen every Sunday now, watching. And some girls are just born
looking that way. You know, pretty, thick, brown eyes. I’m just glad that skinny is in
now, too, because I’ve always been tall and lanky. I couldn’t compete with these pig feet
butts if skinny wasn’t in!
Valencia, also, contends that some women are naturals, counting herself amongst them.
However, she also is quite conscious about her performance of the belle. Still, she argues that
some women “don’t even know it, or at least they pretend not to.” She tells me about her friend,
Shay looks the part. Big booty, small chest, big smile, country talking, all of that. But she
doesn’t even know it. The dudes fall all over her, girl, I’m telling you. Some man is
always buying her something, she doesn’t even have to ask or tell him what her
expectations are. I’m serious! Her nails done, hair done, everything, she got a car, and
everything. I tell you what she is, though. She is a country girl. A country girl. That
trumps a belle any day.
Like many respondents, Valencia draws a distinction between belles and country girls, or
“Southern guls,” essentially situating the belle as the performative Southern black woman and
the country girl as the sincere Southern black woman. She explains further.
A country girl is one that really actually knows about the country. They might have
planted something before in their life, or picked cotton, or killed a chicken, they know
how to clean chit’lins and all of that. They are wide-eyed and kind of slow, but I don’t
mean they’re dumb. Just, like, they’re country, so they ain’t trying to get the latest shoes
and bags. I don’t know about no country. I’m a city girl. And me? Killing a chicken?
Girl, no. Never. Mama tried to take me down to Coldwater (Mississippi) where she grew
up and tried to show me how to kill a chicken when I was seven or eight. I was
traumatized. Foreal. I knew back then I would have to be Southern in another way.
Although Valencia editorializes her “chicken experience” in Coldwater as a pivotal moment in
which she decided—in childhood, no less—to be a belle, her narrative points to a class and
experience distinction in Southern black life. Migration from parts of the rural and small-town
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Mississippi Delta continues, and African American Memphians—Memphis is often referred to as
the biggest town in North Mississippi, much to the chagrin of many Memphians and
Mississippians alike—have close ties to the Delta. Although some like Valencia resist the
country life their parents attempt to introduce them to, others grew up shuttling back and forth
between Memphis and the Delta, the city life and the country life. I track down Shay to get her
perspective on Valencia’s assessment of her as a “country” girl. She is traveling back and forth
between Memphis, Greenwood, Mississippi, and Dallas, where she is getting her teacher
licensure for special education. I meet her at her South Dallas apartment, where she and her son,
age 7, are living while she finishes a fast-track six-week course towards her licensure. When I
tell her what Valencia has said, she laughs heartily.
That’s just Valencia. She thinks there’s some magic to it. She’ll have her makeup, her
little heels, her little clothes, girl, and she walks into the room, like, “Come to me, men, I
am Valencia.” I’m just me. And I will say she is right about the country part. I don’t
know if that’s what the guys like or are attracted to with me or not. Since I’ve been here,
a lot of guys have come up to me and actually said, “Ooooh, where are you from? You’re
not from Dallas, are you?” So, I’ve thought that was different. And I guess there is
something about it. But I’m not just country. Even though I went to Greenwood a lot, I
grew up in Memphis, went to college in Memphis, and now I’m in the big big city. So, I
think guys maybe like that I’m somewhere in between. I’m a country girl, but I’m a little
citified, a little belle, too. Like Erykah say, I’m a [sings] “Southern gul!”
While self-identified Southern belles do not employ tactics that are in themselves distinct
from what all women, and black women in particular, are taught about the requirements of
gender work and play, the deliberate execution of these tactics is regionally inspired. However,
as Shay’s narrative and those of other “Southern guls” suggest, regional differences in some
gender articulations are not only implicit standard practice, but also sincere forms of gendered
African American life. I turn now to an examination of these two points on the continuum of
authenticity to sincerity, from performance to naturalness. On the first point, I consider the debut,
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an Old South tradition that African Americans took up and made more than a white debut in
black face. African American debutante balls wrested a performance of gender and class from
which they were excluded by whites, forming the debut into a tradition that still reigns, albeit
tenuously in some cases, as a social networking space for middle class parents and their children.
On the second, I consider a different articulation of the Southern black woman through an
examination of the drum majorette. If the debutante allows for some reformulation or
challenging of the belle, the majorette pushes the boundaries of respectability and allows the
belle to get low and get loose—all in a choreographed, manicured, and highly-styled fashion. In
Southern football halftime shows, majorettes take center stage as the spirit of a band and its
institution, just as much, or in some cases even more so, than any drum, brass, or woodwind
section. These two formulations of African American Southern women’s gender being and
performances not only shift back and forth between authenticity and sincerity, but also challenge
old and white Souths, even as they affirm those Souths in distinctively black, distinctively new
Perhaps the most infamous scene from the 1997 film adaptation of John Berendt’s Midnight in
the Garden of Good and Evil occurs when the “female impersonator” The Lady Chablis arrives
at the Savannah African American debutante ball and disrupts the uptight black middle class
tradition with her gender-bending and distinct performance of “the lady.” The Lady Chablis is
juxtaposed with the Southern ladies at the table to which she invites herself, parents of the young
belles and gentlemen waltzing at the ball. In many ways, she is more of a black steel magnolia
than her more conservative counterparts, Southern embodiments of a politics of respectability
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that reserves comment in favor of politeness. Throughout the film, The Lady Chablis serves as a
foil for Southern womanhood, black and white. However, the film in many ways equalizes
Savannah’s black middle class—through the debutante ball—and its white middle class,
although the former undoubtedly challenges and violates Southern traditions of gender, race, and
class in more ways than are made visible in the film or in the novel.
In my second interview with Wanda, I gain some more perspective on her indictment of
the belle as a regional gender formulation unavailable to most black women. Although it does
not come up in our first interview, Wanda’s niece, Tara, has been preparing to be a debutante,
with her debut scheduled for the spring. Wanda says that she had been “mentally blocking” it out
of her mind during our interview the previous December, “hoping that the child would change
her mind.” Our second interview takes place a few weeks before her debut, and Tara has not, in
fact, changed her mind. Further, Wanda has reluctantly been roped into making her gown, since
“her mama ain’t got it to buy her one like all the other gals.” However, as might have been
expected, she is critical of the process, a vestige of black middle class communities in general
and Southern black middle class communities in particular. Up on the fitting pedestal, Tara, a
gangly ginger-colored girl, fidgets as Wanda adjusts and pins the waist. She begs for the third
time for a bathroom break, and Wanda acquiesces, mumbling to herself. She turns to me and
You know about these things right? These balls? Well, they have to raise money, you
know. And [Tara’s mother] can raise some money, sho’ ‘nough. But she and Tara need to
face that Tara is not the cutest thing to ever walk the planet, she ain’t no belle, and she
ain’t no doctor’s child like these girls. She can pretend all she want, but she just ain’t.
Wanda glances towards the hall down which Tara has disappeared. Satisfied that she is not
returning yet, she continues:
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I just don’t agree with it, you know. It’s a fantasy. We are just simple working people.
But [Tara’s mother] always wanted more. Fake it ‘til she make it. But she ain’t never
made it. So now she’s trying to use Tara to get in with these people. They laughing at her.
Those other people aren’t asking for money from church members. They just plopping
down the $10,000 right there. And what’s gone happen after she “come out”? She don’t
need no dresses, manners, and etiquette like that. She got plenty of what she need. She
gone get a basketball scholarship. Ain’t no lawyer’s son gon’ be marrying and taking care
of her.
Her last words are in a rushed, hushed tone, as we both hear Tara bounding back to the sewing
room. She hops back on the pedestal, recounting her triumph of “peeing with the hoop on.” For
her part, Wanda continues working, glancing back at me knowingly. After she finishes, she joins
me in the kitchen, where I ask her about her experiences with debutante balls.
All I know is, they are full of these bourgie black folks, these rich Memphis folks, and
they let Tara in because they can’t just turn someone down. They think they’re going to
make her into some kind of lady. They don’t know anything about poor or working black
folks. And I know what [Tara’s mother] has been going through. You can bet the rest of
them ain’t having to jump through such hoops because they just got the money like that.
Plus, they all know each other. Tara just an outsider, trying to get in. They had to assign
her a boy to be her escort, and none of the boys there volunteered to do it. Because, like I
said, she ain’t no belle, see.
Although guest tickets for the ball are prohibitively expensive, I contact the debut’s coordinator
and offer to play my violin as prelude music as the guests are arriving, a prospect at which she is
extraordinarily excited. She tells me breathlessly over the phone, “Oh, we’ve never had such at a
debut! The parents will be so pleased. How rare!” She tells me the color scheme for this year’s
debut, and asks politely if I might wear something to complement the black, maroon, and gold.
I arrive early for the spring event, held at a downtown Memphis hotel, slightly selfconscious about my simple performance black, but relieved that I blend in as background help
amidst the buzzing hotel caterers, decorators, and audio-visual technicians. As I set up across
from the ballroom platform, a fair-skinned woman in a white skirt-suit, white hat, and white
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pumps whisks up to me and hugs me tightly, introducing herself as Mrs. Williams-Spate, the
debut coordinator, and thanking me for offering my services. She looks me over, and I think I
have met her approval: she asks, “Did you ever debut?” I reply, “No, ma’am,” to which she
responds, “Well, it’s never too late to be involved! We could use you on the board!,” and whisks
away as quickly as she came politely ordering the decorator to place the centerpieces “directly in
the center of the table, not slightly off-center.”
Parents and guests begin to arrive, and my prelude performance is frequently interrupted
by their questions and comments. Like Wanda has assumed, many of the parents are members of
Memphis’ black middle class, as politicians, lawyers, doctors, and business people. When Tara’s
mother arrives, smiling, speaking, and waving, in her fuchsia skirt-suit and matching fuchsiasequined hat with flowing fuchsia mesh—an outfit that Wanda had bet me $20 in our second
interview that she would wear to the debut—the woman talking with me does a double-take and
says, “Ooooh, Jesus. That must be Tara’s mother.” She quickly adds, “Lovely speaking with you,
and be sure to give me your card,” rushing over to her assigned table and leaning over to her
counterpart, glancing relatively conspicuously towards Tara’s mother, but refraining from
pointing and prolonged whispering.
The ball proceeds as most balls I have attended do, and when Tara emerges from behind
the curtain and onto the platform, Niecy taps her husband, lets out a small but audible squeal, and
quietly claps her hands, then clasps them together as she stares up at the platform. Tara is quite
lovely, and Wanda’s craftsmanship renders her dress a distinction and higher quality than most
of the other store-bought dresses to come down the platform. Tara beams somewhat nervously
but proudly and her escort manages a bit of enthusiasm as well. At the end of the platform, Tara
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curtseys to the front, left, and right, losing a bit of balance on the curtsey to the right, but the
nonetheless continuing her winning smile, uninterrupted. Tara’s usually braided hair has been
relaxed to perfection and swooped up into a crown of curls accented by a glittering tiara, which
Wanda has also prepped me, without a wager, to expect. At other tables, parents and guests
exchange looks and a few stifle smirks.
While Wanda was skeptical that Tara could “pull it off,” for the most part, she did. She
waltzed with more ease than some of her counterparts, and her response during the question and
answer portion, while spoken in a Southern-black talk that caused more stifled smirks and looks,
was more well-reasoned and thorough than those of her counterparts, winning her an award .
Further, ultimately, Tara, through Niecy’s diligence and persistence, had raised more money than
her counterparts, and received special recognition for her efforts—which also raised some
eyebrows. She gave a practiced wave as she received her plaque, that I could not discern whether
it was a mocking wave, a genuine performance, or some combination of both. After the
presentation of the girls to “society” and the close of the ball, Tara came up to me, beaming
craftily, during the post-debut mingling. She had taken off her dainty walk and returned to her
usual bow-legged, basketball walk, which nicely betrayed the hoop-skirted gown she was still
Tara: How did I do?
Zandria: You did good, girl, you did it! Congratulations!
Tara: I told Auntie I could do it! Ha! I put it on! She didn’t think I could be a belllle [bats
her faux eyelashes] but I did it. Academy Award, please? [Holds her hand out, giggles,
and fans herself.]
Although I did not formally interview Tara, the few interactions we did have as I spent time with
Wanda made clear that she was not a cultural dupe doing her mother’s bidding, although
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pleasing Niecy and going along with her was certainly part of Tara’s motivation. Her comments
to me after the debut indicated that she was well aware of the performance and took pride in her
performative capabilities, although being a belle—or doing the belle—is more than likely not the
terrain she wants to travel. Further, she may or may not have access to the “powers” of the belle,
but she may not want the “men, money, and manicures.” Still, her ability to “put it on” and defy
it, even if only a bit, despite doubts about she and her mother’s class(ed) “place” in the debut,
speaks to the malleability of belle as a performative category— despite Aunt Wanda and Scarlett
Beyoncé’s wildy popular video for “Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It),” which won, among other
awards, Best Choreography and Video of the Year at the 2008 MTV music awards, spurred a
number of parodies, imitations, and spoofs, perhaps the popular of which featured the singer with
Justin Timberlake and two male cast members in pumps and black leotard on the November 15,
2008 edition of Saturday Night Live. For younger black Southerners, Beyoncé’s choreography,
while admirable, was nothing new. In fact, such dancing could and can be seen readily at the
halftime show of any black Southern college football game. Called J-Setting, after Jackson State
University’s majorette squad, “The Prancing J-Settes,” the dance-style emulates the ladies of that
squad, and black majorette dancing in general, and has been taken up by black gay men and
popularized further in black gay clubs across the South and beyond. As reported in a February
2009 Vibe magazine article, “J-Setting Beyond Beyoncé,” choreographers of the “Single Ladies”
video presented the singer with YouTube videos of black gay men J-Setting, and the singer went
with it. These Southern guls, from Jackson, Mississippi to Nashville, Tennessee, set Southern
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dance agendas, and through their affiliation with hip-hop culture, set dance national dance trends
through Southern hip-hop.
Wanda expressed once that if Tara wanted to be a “pretty girl like that,” then she should
just be a majorette—something that Wanda could stomach much more easily than a debutante.
Now immortalized in black marching band film Drumline (2002), the majorette is a
contemporary archetype of black Southern womanhood with as much resonance in Southern
black communities as the belle in Southern white communities. Whether twirling batons, leading
a band across a football field, or marching in parades, the highly choreographed stylings of
African American majorette teams are an explicit example of African American rearticulation of
cultural forms—cultural production from which they may have been racially excluded that they
then take and fashion into something that both challenges and affirms its original form and
invigorates it with new cultural meaning. Beyond marching in front of a band, carrying its
banner, twirling a baton, and smiling, black majorettes, and Southern ones in particular, are an
integral part of the band performance experience. Their outfits and costumes, from boots to
gloves to hair adornments, as well as their choreography, are distinct from all other majorettes in
their attention to detail and their articulation of a regional aesthetic.
To be sure, majorettes are a reimagining of the belle—or at least her alter-ego—and most
majorettes might self-identify as belles. Long hair and light skin are certainly visible and present
across Southern majorette lines, although diversity in skin color and body shapes are also
increasingly present. Squad tryouts are rigorous and there is no shortage of women longing to
participate. Just as there are junior debutantes—girls being presented at age 5 or thereabouts—
there are junior majorette squads, operating alongside middle school bands, as part of community
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centers, or independently. Pretty and smiling, curvier or thinner, majorettes are distinguished by
their performative dance capabilities and styling. Although most adult majorettes are associated
with colleges, and therefore have social capital relative to women unable to attend college, the
majorette is certainly a form of black Southern womanhood more readily available and desirable
to a broader cross-section of African Americans than the debutante. Further, whereas the
debutante is confined in movement—waltzing and curtseying being the broadest movements
available to her—the majorette is expected to move. While majorette moves and costumes might
be viewed by most as sexually suggestive, as are the moves in Beyoncé’s “Single Ladies” video,
this sexual suggestion is controlled by “ladylike,” as opposed to “trashy,” choreography and
clothing. Through the majorette, black women engage in dancing that might, outside of the squad
line, be seen as unacceptable video-vixenry. However, the choreography and styling
themselves—the effort, the elitism, and the distinction—imbue the majorette with all of the
qualities of a lady and the front-and-center liberties of a blues woman.
I do not wish to suggest here that the majorette is somehow a completely liberated
formulation. Majorettes are still, in many ways, despite their front-and-center status, accessories
to a mostly male or mostly masculine band, and they function as somewhat scantily-clad,
gyrating feminine objects for a sea of gazing subjects. However, they also function as a direct
challenge to the belle’s austerity, black and white, and offer up gender performance possibilities,
for women and for gay men, that challenge traditional black notions of respectability.
In the reasonably hot summer of 2008, I volunteer with a local community organization,
mentoring a group of 11 young women who are transitioning to college. Rooted in a historically
black neighborhood, the organization serves children of all ages from diverse class backgrounds,
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though most of the students are first generation college students. Of my group—which I meet
with for two hours every weekday for six weeks to answer questions about college, to talk about
the life skills needed to survive the first year and beyond, and to discuss all manner of other
things 18-year-olds want to talk about on summer afternoons in the South—five girls were
majorettes at their respective high schools, and all of them want to be majorettes at their college
destinations—Jackson State University and Tennessee State University. On college visits the
previous fall and spring, they admit to lurking around the majorette squads, watching the girls
exercise and doing their own reconnaissance about what it might take for them to make it on the
college level. For all of the girls, being a majorette at JSU or TSU is a goal closely linked to their
conceptions of femininity and womanhood.
Trina: I have been a majorette since I was a little girl, like five years old, so that’s
something that I want to do until I’m too grown for it. For me, it’s like, you’re a real
woman, a real college woman when you make it to that level.
Marva: I like to express myself. And when you’re a majorette, even when you’re doing
the same moves as all the other girls, you still have the certain way you do it that makes
you different, that makes you you. I can’t wait to do some choreography so I can express
myself, like, with my own body but through other people’s, too.
Colleen: My mother was a J-Sette, so it’s like a legacy she’s passing down, and it’s
something I’ve wanted to do as well. She is so pretty in those yearbook pictures, and I
want to be like that. I want to look as good as she does now when I’m her age, too. She
says that being a J-Sette taught her what it means to be a real Southern lady. I’m already
a lady, though, because she taught me. So, I might be teaching the other ones to be ladies
who don’t already know [laughs].
Heather: I was squad captain at [a historically black high school] so people see me as,
you know, that chick. And I’ve got the look. You know how a lot of majorettes can be
with the long-hair and the light-skin and the big booty. And I like to be on stage [field],
too. I’m superwoman up there. Plus, I gets all the boys [laughs, Colleen rolls her eyes].
LaKeitha: There are lots of pretty girls that can dance, but not all of them can be a
[TSU] Sophisticated Lady. I’m a sophisticated lady. [Sits up straighter.] I’ve been
traveling all over, even to Europe, with the concert choir. So I feel like I represent that
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because I am that. When its time for me to try out, I know I’ll make it. I am a
sophisticated lady already.
From legacies to booty, the range of articulations of these young women’s relationships to and
reasons for desiring to be a majorette is broad, but in general, they are rooted in expressivity and
performance of a certain kind of femininity, which is informed by race and region, although
Colleen is the only one to refer directly to region in her narrative. Further, while being a
majorette certainly comes up frequently as a topic of discussion, particularly in mid-July when
tryouts are being held at JSU and LaKeitha’s older cousin is auditioning, most of our
conversations around gender are about how to maintain “good girl” or “lady” reputations with
the temptations of college, leaving behind high school boyfriends, and finding new, marriageable
college boyfriends. Not unlike many Southern women, then, they were concerned with
marriageable men, and thought about their gender performances, amongst other “assets,” as key
to their ability to attract and key marriageable men. Although they insist that they are not looking
to be “strapped down” by marriage, marriage frequently comes up in our discussions as a endgoal in the not-so-distant future. Heather insists:
Right now, I’m just trying to have fun. This first year, I’m going to be about my business,
but I’m going to have fun. I’m going to charm as many boys as possible. I’m going to be
the best Southern girl they have ever seen. I’m going to get all the boys that come from
up North. But, I’m going to settle down with the best one by the time I’m a junior, be real
serious as a senior, and then we’ll get engaged senior year, and then we’ll get married.
But no babies until 28 or 29. Before 30, though. Don’t want to be old when my children
go to college. Married at the latest by 25, and baby before 30.
The other young women agree with Heather’s time line, but Colleen tells Heather that the latter
is lucky that they will not be at the same school—Colleen will follow her mother’s footsteps as a
Jackson State J-Sette and Heather is headed to Tennessee State—because in fact, she asserts, it is
the “lady” who gets the “gentleman.” She says, half to her other colleagues and me, but mostly to
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Well, I don’t have to charm all of the men. I’m sure there will be many that will be
interested, but I don’t want the reputation of keeping a lot of men around. A good man,
you know, a real gentleman, will rise to the top quickly like the cream. I’m a lady, so I
deserve a gentleman, and I’ll have one.
Marva is the least interested in marriage, but “keeps a boyfriend.”
I’ll keep [my current boyfriend] for visits home, but I’ll have a couple of others at school,
so I’ll keep pimpin’ the boys to get one or two good ones to keep me company. I’m not
trying to keep a lot of men around and be all out with it like that, but I don’t want to get
tied down with no one boy. That’s when they stalk you and be trying to kill you and hold
you hostage in the dorm and all of that. I always let them know, I like you and all, but
this might not be forever-ever. When I find that one that I’m going to marry, he’s got to
have some sense about him and not be crazy.
“Ain’t nobody stalking you, Marva,” says Trina, who has gone to school with Marva since
daycare. Marva shoots back, “Yes, they have, and you shouldn’t be talking, how your Mama put
that restraining order on [Trina’s ex-boyfriend of three years].” Trina looks sheepish, then says:
He was just crazy. He had a problem. His mother had died. I think that forever is okay,
even though I’m young…we’re all young. It’s just that you have to make sure you choose
the right one, and you have to attract the right one. I think sometimes when you, are like,
real attractive to boys, you have to turn it down a bit, or act mean, because they will try to
own you. You can’t own me. I think if I didn’t have my hair done, makeup done, and all
of that, they wouldn’t harass me.
Heather retorts, “you mean if you look like LaKeitha?” to which LaKeitha shoots back in her
best Southern accent, “I will not dignify that with a response. You know that my makeup and
hair are always better than yours. I am a sophisticated lady, beautiful inside and out, and never
have a problem getting a man.” Trina and Marva both fan LaKeitha vigorously, and the young
women burst into laughter. Even Heather laughs at the reply.
Although these young women’s gender performances and perceptions will undoubtedly
change because and in spite of their college experiences, they are already informed by
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formulations of black womanhood that are Southern-inspired. While there are discussions of
ladies and belles, the majorette is both a transgression and affirmation of these forms of Southern
black womanhood, and it is to the majorette that these young women are looking most
immediately to reach their implicit and explicit relationship and gender performance goals. To
conclude, I turn now to a discussion of the Southern gul, a formulation that encapsulates the
majorette and other transgressive forms of black Southern womanhood, from white-toothed
majorettes to gold-toothed girls on the corner. I suggest that the Southern gul expands the
possibilities of Southern womanhood further beyond the lady and the belle by broadening the
scope of who can participate in Southern womanhood, or as Wanda might say, who can be on the
In Frankie Beverly and Maze’s 1980 hit “Southern Girl,” the girl is object and helpmate: the
narrator could not have made it without her, and salutes her for her contributions to his life, as
well as for, of course, her fineness. Sampling and signifying “Southern Girl,” Erykah Badu offers
this reinterpretation of the Southern girl that situates her as subject on her single, “Southern
Gul.” Through it, we are invited to the Southern girl’s interiority, moving beyond her
relationships to men.
I’m from the South, I’m a Southern girl
Home of the burnin’ church, don’t know much about the world
Home of the pocket stones, home of the booty songs
Home of the fingerwaves that last all night long
Home of the on and on, home of the dominoes
Home of the two-piece and a pepper, home of the teeth that’s gold
Home of the never miss(ed), home of the platinum hits
I’m a Southern gul, (Southern gul)
Countrified: everything I eat is fried
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Got a Southern drawl, I’m so country y’all
Well, that’s way down South, and that’s way down low
Check my Southern-fried style, check my Southern flow (Southern gul)
Countrified: I like my tofu fried
Got about a hundred friends that ain’t caught on to trends
Don’t know about the Internet, don’t know about the radio
Don’t know about the television all they know is ‘bout my flow
My kinfolks sent me out to make money for the house
Hooked up with my boy Rahzel, ‘sho hope the record sell
Southern girl and I rock your world
Fly as a bumble bee (buzz), can’t nobody fuck with me
I’m a southern girl from way down South
Got a dirty way ‘cause I got a dirty mouth, dirty South (Southern girl)
The cover for the single for Dallas-native Badu’s “Southern Gul” features a close-up of the
singer’s mouth, which has the letters B, A, D, and U in obviously-faux gold across the front of
her teeth. As a manifesto on black Southern culture that is both accomplished performance and
sincere cultural product, “Southern Gul” conjures all sorts of Southern blackness: dominoes,
two-piece chicken meals with a jalapeño pepper or two on the side, fingerwaves, booty songs,
and gold teeth. Yet, there is also some accomplishment: that “everything” she eats is fried is
more than likely an exaggeration, as is the notion that she “don’t know much about the world”
and has “about a hundred friends” that either do not know about or are extraordinarily skeptical
of the Internet, radio, and television. Further, the Southern gul’s South is more problematic than
that of the belle, lady or majorette—or at least the Southern gul acknowledges this sketchiness,
even if the other black women reside in this South, too. There are burning churches, drug
trafficking (pocket stones), gun violence and general shadiness, swearing, and relative poverty—
her kinfolks send her out to make money for the house. The only statement of prowess, sexual or
otherwise, is in the final lines of the song, and it is as matter-of-fact as most of the rest of the
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As a performer, Badu herself offers up various articulations of black Southern
womanhood and femininity, ranging from the earthy, black-conscious hippie to a woman
struggling to make ends meet running, and supporting a partner who runs, dope. She offers up
what might be conceptualized as a blues women’s epistemology,4 rejecting dominant forms of
gendered life and crafting her own rules. After all, frying tofu requires a transgressive courage
that bespeaks of at least one step outside of the box. For women for whom the traditional forms
of black Southern womanhood are not available, in sincerity or as a performance, or just plain
undesirable, the Southern gul facilitates a regionalized formulation that allows space for nonheteronormative dreams and outcomes, non-heterosexual lives, and alternative interpretations of
feminine performance that do not include gowns or glittery costumes.
Moreover, the Southern gul opens the space for cross-class participation. One of the most
common critiques of the belle, and to a certain extent the Southern lady and her grown-up
version, the Southern woman, is that those forms facilitate the same sorts of exclusionary
practices that whiteness does, only in the form of intraracial class warfare. I turn now to a
discussion of class(ed) collisions amongst black Southerners in real and reel life with attention to
what class perceptions and accomplishments indicate about the increasingly complex yet
remarkably constant boundaries of blackness in modern America.
The Not-So-New-Limits of Black Solidarity 137
Building on E. Franklin Frazier’s (1957) now-classic The Black Bourgeoisie, recent social
scientific research on black communities has endeavored to reveal the complex contours of race,
class, gender, and sexuality, problematizing prevailing ideas about a unified or singular black
community (Cohen, 1999; Pattillo-McCoy, 1999; Pattillo, 2007; Jackson, 2001, 2005; Lacy,
2007; Johnson, 2008) even while acknowledging certain shared black political practices.1
Differences produced by varying intersections of race, class, gender and sexuality reveal
important cleavages in the fabric of black community life. As I have suggested in previous
chapters, past and present, despite the cyclical nature of black migration in and out of the South,
regional difference is one broad lens through which African Americans view categorical and
identity differences, as well as constructions of and attachments to “authentic” black
communities. This chapter argues that the language of regional difference—whether referring to
race, sexuality, gender or class—is simply a different set of clothes for the same boundaries and
limits of blackness. Like other articulations of black solidarity, regional difference is connected
to power and powerful discourses about the black community that privilege certain voices over
others. As a racial boundary, regional distinction functions successively in three ways. First,
Southern tropes—including fine women, men, and food; lush, abundant land; family and
church—erect a seemingly democratic and shared black community rooted in naturally-
The Not-So-New-Limits of Black Solidarity 138
occurring, non-material social goods. Second, through these tropes, regional distinction serves as
a marker of authentic blackness, and in some cases, “better” blackness. Third, as a naturalized
marker of authentic or better blackness, regional distinction masks class differences. Further,
through this democratic black community relatively disconnected from material difference,
regional distinction obscures anxieties about the contradictions of increasing prosperity for some
blacks and continued impoverishment for others. Thus, participating in down-home black
Southern traditions, or in many cases simply living in the South, allows more elite blacks to
maintain a connection to authentic blackness without necessarily engaging with poor or other
black communities on a sustained basis. Further, as the less-than-polite smirks and comments at
Tara’s debut indicate, elite African American Southerners can draw on forms of blackness that
exclude, or at least render unwelcomed, “the folk.”
This chapter explores articulations of class difference and distinction amongst black
Southerners with attention to the ways in which their discourses reflect and expand what we
already know about intraracial class difference and other within-race boundaries. I highlight how
Southern articulations of intraracial class difference draw on regionally-inflected tropes as well
as point to more universal class distinctions in black communities. I also draw on analyses of
films about the black South—including Welcome Home Roscoe Jenkins, ATL, and Hustle &
Flow—to discuss how popular culture imagines intraracial class distinctions and the regional
dimensions of black solidarity. The chapter concludes with an analysis of how the black South is
appropriated to advance certain racialized social and political agendas.
The Not-So-New-Limits of Black Solidarity 139
While I have treated race, gender, and class as relatively separate, as I argued in the Introduction,
these categories are always already signifying one another. Thus, embedded in the race and
gender distinctions of region explored in Chapters Three and Four are class distinctions. Whether
in Kim’s condemnation of women going around “chicken-headed” or Ms. Mae and her
daughter’s implicit differences on how race relations can and should be handled in the “New Old
South,” class is implicated in most articulations of race and gender.
At first glance, Southerners’ within-race class critiques are reminiscent of those found in
Jackson’s Harlemworld, Pattillo’s Black Picket Fences, and even the finer distinctions found in
Lacy’s Blue-Chip Black. However, discussions of class, often rooted in discussions of family—
and in particular, that family member that is a stereotype on one end of the spectrum or the
other—highlight the vestiges of Southern tradition and extend from family and local community
critiques to interregional appraisals of non-Southerners. Tommie, a journalist for a local
publication, exemplifies many sentiments about Southern class matters that begin at home. At
50, he feels he has done pretty well for himself, working and struggling to be successful at a
number of things, and only accidentally happening on journalism. Now an award-winning
journalist, the third of seven siblings is praised by some of his siblings and roundly critiqued and
resented by a loud minority. When I ask about family in our first interview, Tommie’s response
quickly turns class differences within his family:
My two older sisters, they did fine. One of them is a mortgage broker and the other has
been successful with her Mary Kay. She even has one of those pink Cadillacs. Even some
of the youngest siblings, they’re doing all right for themselves. But the sister right under
me…we’re 10 months apart, so that’s a whole set of issues right there…she has never
been anything. She never thought she had to work for anything. My parents were poor
and somehow they paid for her to go off to college, to Fisk. And she came back after that
first semester pregnant. They didn’t pay for me [or my two older sisters] to go to college,
but she just squandered that opportunity. And she never went back.
The Not-So-New-Limits of Black Solidarity 140
As Tommie continues, he stiffens, recounting for me their last family gathering.
We still try to do Sunday dinners every now and then, especially now since Mama is sick.
So, a few months ago, I had gotten [a national journalism award], and the plaque was so
nice, and I was also in this book, like a who’s who of black Memphis. I was so excited,
so I brought them both to dinner to show Mama. I didn’t get through the door good, and I
had them here in my arms like this [gestures as if carrying school books in one arm,
covers facing inward], so I didn’t come through holding them up like, “Here! Here! Look
at what I did!” Her daughter, who is just like her—had…two babies early, got two nogood babies daddies and is damn near 30 years old and has never worked remuneratively
in her life—gon’ say to me…just as nasty as she could, “Don’t nobody care what you got.
Don’t come in here bragging and showing off. You always got to show off. You gon’
upset my digestion with all of that.” Now, mind you, I’m not even a braggart. She’s said
smart stuff like that to me before. Just no respect. I told her, “I brought this for Mama, not
for you.”
When I ask Tommie to say more about what might have motivated his niece to react the way she
did, he pauses, both to search for the words and to maintain his composure.
Some people think that you think that you are better than them just because you want
better for yourself. They take that as a…as if you’re bourgie because you want better and
do better. I don’t know where her mother’s worldview comes from because we grew up
in the same house and had a lot of the same stuff because we were so close in age. She
even had a few more privileges than I did, like with Mama ‘nem paying for her college.
Just like when I left our family church because there was some ethical mess with the
pastor, and [my niece] couldn’t have been anymore than 13 or 14 then, she told me one
Sunday dinner, “our church ain’t good enough for you no more? You had to go to the big
nigga church?” Come to think of it, I should have whipped her tail a long time ago since
her mother didn’t do it.
Class-based rivalries with siblings, cousins, and other relatives dominated many discussions of
class, and Tommie’s story is not unlike so many others that I heard. Like some of Lacy’s
respondents, most folks like Tommie considered themselves “working class,” whether in jest or
with sincerity, because they had to work everyday to maintain their middle class status and
achievements, including making mortgage payments, paying for private school or college tuition,
and paying for multiple, if modest, vehicles. Further, they made distinctions between themselves
The Not-So-New-Limits of Black Solidarity 141
and better-off Southerners, many of which were cultural distinctions. Susan, a 44-year-old
accountant and mother of three young children, argues that her nearly half-million dollar home is
nothing compared to the “Jack and Jill” black communities in the suburbs or Banneker Estates, a
gated community in South Memphis home to former mayor Willie Herenton.
Oh, we do not delude ourselves. We are just working folks, working every day to make
ends meet. I mean, we’re middle class, but [our daughters] won’t be in any debutante
balls or going to some fancy private school or horseback riding or something. Those are
the real upper-middle class folks. I always wonder, what the hell do they do [for a
Susan, who moved to the South from the Northeast for a job after college and soon after met her
husband, sees Jack and Jill, debutante balls, fancy private schools, and horseback riding as
Southern traditions of class distinction to which she refuses to subject her children. She argues
that back home, although her parents were solidly middle class, there was no pretense to class
standing as there is in the South.
When I first moved here, I guess I had the traditional Southern belle look, so guys would
approach me all the time, and one of the first things they would ask me is where I went to
church. Boy, they would put on so about this social club and that social club, and their
church this and that, I would just want to puke. Once I had talked for a minute and they
realized that I wasn’t from around here, because I didn’t have that accent, you know, then
they started being suspect of whether or not I was a good catch. I had the look, but I
didn’t go to the right church or something. You should have seen how they would look
when I told them I was Catholic. I just thought everyone here was so strange and fake.
Like, really? Are you really in all of those social clubs?
Susan’s husband, Ross, attributes his success with Susan directly to his lack of pretense.
See, I’m from the country, next county over. My Mama taught me to cook, clean, and
respect. I’m down home. So, when Susan said she was Catholic, I asked her what time
service started, and told her I would be there. She was surprised, but see you get what you
see with me. Boy, I went to one of those services and when we got out like 9:30 or 10:00
a.m., I converted immediately. Haven’t been Baptist since. I don’t care what that social
standing, who-goes-to-what-church mess means. Football is my church, and if I’m home
at 10:30 in the morning, I can grill, have a beer, and get a nap before the game.
The Not-So-New-Limits of Black Solidarity 142
Ross’ down-home-ness informs his criticisms of different classes, up and down the ladder. As
local law enforcement personnel, his cross-class critiques draw on on-the-job experience. On the
lower classes, he argues, matter-of-factly:
You can’t trust niggas, and that’s why I have a weapon in my home. I mean, and I know
it’s haves and have-nots. There are poor people who can’t catch a break. But those
usually aren’t your criminals. Most of this crime is niggas not being able to say no to
ignorance. When I have them in the interrogation room, I ask them, “now, did you and
Pookie really think this thing through?”
Seamlessly, however, he transitions into a similar critique of upper-class blacks:
Ignorance cuts both ways, though, to be fair…I had a guy over, you know, one of these
bourgie “I’m-Mr.-Big-Shit” guys over. He was one of Susan’s co-workers, so I didn’t
voluntarily have him over. I had a vintage bottle of Scotch and told him to help himself,
you know, I brought it out, trying to show him I had a little class. Long story short, I
know this nigga stole my bottle of scotch. I ain’t seen it since…lives in a million dollar
house. Now what type of shit is that? Can’t trust them either, see? I told Susan I had half
a mind to get and execute a search warrant. And he had the nerve to ask me what church
we attended.
These kinds of dichotomies—critiques of two extremes and situating oneself in a relatively
infallible middle—were frequent in discussions of class. These dichotomies extended to
interregional class distinctions as well. Depending on their respective class positions,
respondents cast non-Southern blacks, whether they were currently living in the South or not, as
either insufferably “bourgie” or hopelessly “ghetto.”
Keith: But, foreal, black life is different outside of the South now. Or, should I say, black
life for the average black person. This is not the Chicago heyday or the Harlem heyday.
You have to have money, good money, or you can’t live a good life. Obama got a
million-dollar house in Chicago. Oprah got who knows what. When I visit [my cousins],
even the ones that are school teachers and all of that, it just seems they don’t have that
quality of life. It seems like even though they live in a good neighborhood, they’re
surrounded by like ghetto. It’s really like the whole North is a ghetto now. Either you’re
really rich, and there are a few that are, or it’s just ghetto. In the South, we got our
projects, you know, our ghetto spots and folks, but nothing like there.
LaShuan: I have a few cousins that live up North and Michael has some people up
The Not-So-New-Limits of Black Solidarity 143
North, too. A couple of times Michael’s people have sent some of his cousins down to
stay with us for the summer. They were rough. We spent most of that time teaching them
basics they didn’t get in school and getting that urban anger out of them. Their poor life is
much harder than our poor life. Those kids went hungry. No one would ever let you go
hungry in the South, even if you were too proud to tell anyone you were hungry. Folks
knew and helped out.
While Keith and LaShaun highlight what they see as the poverty of the urban North, still others
reversed the lens.
Batina: Niggas in the North think they’re the shit. Calling us country. Some of the most
country talking and backward shit I ever heard was when I went to Chicago to visit my
sister. And they balling, they flashing and all of that…they’re able to do all of that
because we’re here holding the family together, doing all the work.
Batina’s sentiment is both personal and general, in that it reflects a personal experience and it
also reflects her and others’ general feelings about the North as a site of abandon, and neglectful
abandon at that. Batina, 37, and the youngest of five children, is the default caregiver for her
mother, 80, who suffers from dementia and a host of other chronic illnesses. The rest of her
siblings, save for a brother in Birmingham who is in and out of jail, live in various cities in the
Midwest and Northeast, from Milwaukee to Boston. Batina sees their absence, coupled with their
grandchildren’s frequent visits down South to their grandmother—which essentially means their
visits with their Aunt Batina, since their grandmother is incapacitated—as made possible by her
They are living their lives, honey, all of them, all because I’m here taking care of Mama.
They say I am Mama’s favorite, and that Mama won’t have any of them taking care of
her. That’s not true, though, or they don’t know because they’ve never taken care of her.
It’s that they don’t want to take money out of their pockets and change their lifestyles to
care for Mama. My oldest brother has been in Detroit since he was a young man, since
before I was born, and I’ve only seen him a few times…They’ve all got money, too.
Because here’s their free nursing home and summer camp.
The Not-So-New-Limits of Black Solidarity 144
Batina’s contention is that her siblings have “abandoned” her and that despite her pleas for at
least one of them to move home to help with their mother’s care, none of them has opted to
move. She reads this “selfishness” as caused by urban Northern living.
Up North there is no community. You don’t care for your own. You like…you for self.
You put yourself before others. I don’t think they were always like that. I know [the three
middle children] weren’t like that because they cared for me when I was growing up
some. But that’s what the North does to you. Makes you forget you had a family, except
for when it’s convenient.
While Batina’s sentiments are, again, clearly motivated by the particularities of personal
experience, others characterize the North as a space of abandon as well. “Starving artist”
Raymond quips that Chicago, New York, and Philadelphia are where one goes when he or she
has run out of ideas or “drive for the South.” He explains,
People say there isn’t a market for what [artists] do here, but that’s ridiculous. But I will
say it takes some creativity to tap into your place in that market. A lot of people who go
North, like to Chicago or New York, it’s because they don’t want to work for it here. You
have to make art that speaks to the people in the South and that’s from the people, really.
In Chicago or Philadelphia, there’ll always be some bourgie black or some liberal white
that will buy your crap just to say they’re into oil [painting] and discovered some hot,
young artist out of the South.
Most local hip-hop artists echo this sentiment. Juice contends that he has an audience in the
South, but he has to use different motivating strategies to locate that audience.
It’s just like in any market. Not all folks in the South listen to the crunk-type, Southern
crunk, Atlanta-type stuff. It’s just like that group Little Brother. They’re from the South,
and they got a Southern sound, but not necessarily like that Atlanta sound, you know, or
that dirty Memphis sound. Some people say they sound more, like, New York or
whatever like they say about us. So we let the people know, hey, there’s lots of different
sounds here. You don’t have to go to Atlanta or Chicago or LA to make it as long as
you’re trying to make good music and get your artist on. If you’re trying to become a
superstar [laughs]…well, I guess you can do that anywhere, too. Three Six Mafia had a
reality show on MTV, didn’t they? [Laughs.]
The Not-So-New-Limits of Black Solidarity 145
This “you-can-make-it-right-here” sentiment, while motivated on the surface by place-pride and
experience, may also be taking into account the lack of mobility—financial, familial, or
otherwise—of many respondents. That is, it is not clear how many folks “make it happen” where
they are because they have to, because they want to, or because of some combination of
necessity and desire. Although only a few respondents couch their sentiment in economic terms,
it is reasonable to assume that relative economic deprivation may be operating both in the notion
of “you-can-make-it-right-here” and in the interregional critique lodged wholesale at “the
Still, the most salient cross-class critiques are, unsurprisingly, those directed at folks with
whom respondents come in contact with in everyday life. Respondents were most animated
about their Southern counterparts’ class accomplishments, or lack thereof. Skin color, hair
length, occupation, and clothing were the basic markers of Southern class distinctions. Jamaal, a
32-year-old manager of a high-end East Memphis men’s clothing boutique, offers a prime
example of class distinction. He tells me how, despite all of the “pretending that goes on in
Memphis,” he can always tell a class “fraud.” I ask him to say more about how he can “always
So this guy comes in the store the other day. I knew he wasn’t nothing by the hem of his
pants, or should I say lack thereof. And he was just generally unkempt…his hair wasn’t
brushed properly and all of that, you know, he wasn’t smooth. I waited on him just the
same and when he opened his mouth to talk, I understood. He was just a country boy
probably from somewhere down in the Delta or Bayou or something. He wouldn’t know
a properly-hemmed pant if it stole his chicken wing off his plate.
Distinctions between city and country abound, and many of the same critiques of slowness,
cooning, and buffoonery that non-Southern hip-hop artists lodge at the region come flying out of
the mouths of urban Southerners in discussions of their rural or country counterparts.
The Not-So-New-Limits of Black Solidarity 146
Other distinctions include the usual cross-class fare, laced with a Southern sting that
demonstrates an acknowledgement, and in some cases resentment, of archetypes of black
Southern gender and class.
Tiffany: [My employee] tried to take some days off again. She is lazy, and I think she’s
gotten her black self knocked up again. Ugh. It’s hard to find people who really want to
work for what they have instead of getting a handout.
It goes the other way as well. I meet Tiffany’s employee by accident as she is complaining
loudly about Tiffany to a someone on the phone as we both wait in the self-check out line of a
midtown grocery store. In an interview with Nicole, her narrative is mostly about class difference
and distinction, at the forefront of her mind undoubtedly because of the number of recent and
heated confrontations she has had, internally and outwardly, with Tiffany, who is only 10 years
her senior.
Nicole: That yellow wench, Mizzzz Belle, thinks she’s better than me. She’s only three
steps from being in my position. One, two, three. I work for mine, for what I get. If that
husband of hers leaves her, and he’s always eyeing somebody in a “I’mma get ‘cha” sorta
way, she gone be high and dry. Then she’s gone have to take her high-yellow ass to [a
corner where prostitution occurs] and get it that way.
Brian, a single father who works overnight at a local technology corporation, lodges a similar
critique at his younger brother.
Brian: My brother is a college nigga like that. He constantly talking about how I ain’t
shit. He doesn’t know how to talk to people like people, and only acts like he got some
sense if you got a degree or some money. That’s why I don’t hardly take [my sons]
around him no more because I don’t want them picking up that bourgie-ness from Mr.
Jack and Jill. I tell him, “Dear brother, that isn’t very gentlemanly of you to have said
that.” He don’t like when I talk to him like that.
Within the range of class discussions I engaged in with any number of respondents, as well as
those that I was privy to by participatory or spatial proxy, regionalized versions of class
The Not-So-New-Limits of Black Solidarity 147
difference emerged far more frequently than general, nationally-focused discussions of poor
black folks and middle class black folks. Region was used to mark class, as well as to make
within-region class distinctions amongst blacks. Southerners themselves are not the only folks
engaged in regionalized practices of class-making. I turn now to a discussion of how several
films, introduced in Chapter 2, bring together class and region, trading on familiar tropes to
assert a better blackness that judges only lightly and does so with the utmost manners.
Just as people have access to a range of performative possibilities, the film medium allows a
certain amount of explorative license that visually and diegetically tests the boundaries of “the
real,” the sincere, and the authentic. As I argued in Chapter II, films about the black South tell
certain narratives to accomplish the South as a distinct mode of blackness, different from Juice,
New Jack City, South Central or Boyz N Da Hood. For instance, while the South as a whole is
the most impoverished region, recent films about the black South have imagined a South in
which people are not extravagantly rich, but certainly live well, if modestly. These same films
imagine the urban North as not only a space of crime and violence, but also as a space of
poverty. Both Down in the Delta and Meet the Browns situate two impoverished mothers
attempting to raise children on the Southside of Chicago that are rescued by the relative wealth—
although this wealth is packaged as a spiritual and social wealth, as non-material goods—of their
Southern relatives. Even when spaces outside of the South are imagined as sites of financial
success, such as in the Hollywood/Los Angeles of Welcome Home Roscoe Jenkins, these places
are seen as spiritually and social bereft, and therefore not unlike the impoverished spaces of the
Southside of Chicago.
The Not-So-New-Limits of Black Solidarity 148
Here I offer an analysis of the class(ed) discourses in recent films about the black South. I
focus on ATL, Hustle & Flow, and Welcome Home Roscoe Jenkins, analyzing the ways in which
these films make seemingly subtle judgments about class and blackness that privilege a black
Southern life, and in some cases a rural or working-class black Southern life, as the most ethical
and racially responsible black life possible in contemporary America.
A Belle Being a Gul
As the unofficial home of post-Civil Rights black America, Atlanta is a prime place in which to
examine the extremes of wealth and poverty in the black community. While Atlanta has a
significant black underclass, it is also home to some of the wealthiest blacks in America, who
occupy exclusively black upper-middle class neighborhoods or are significantly present in
traditionally white neighborhoods. ATL addresses the inevitable conflict that occurs when
different classes meet.
Protagonist Rashad’s love interest in the film, New-New, or Erin, is the daughter of a
successful, self-made CEO, John Garnett, who never discusses the fact that he is from the “bad”
side of town, Mechanicsville. Erin lives in Buckhead, attends a private school, drives an
expensive car her father bought her, and by her parents’ account, is headed for an Ivy League
institution after high school. Yet, Erin lies to her parents about where she is and sneaks to the
“Southside”—a signifier of the “bad,” or predominantly black and poor, area of many urban
centers—to be New-New, a Southern gul from the ‘hood. New-New frequents the skating rink,
the overpopulated neighborhood swimming pool, and attends the graduation house party of Big
Booty Judy, doing the Southern gul. The audience encounters her at the beginning of the film as
The Not-So-New-Limits of Black Solidarity 149
New-New, swooped bang and dangling hoop earrings, and follows her budding romance with
Yet, conflict ensues when New-New’s identity as a “black American princess” is
discovered by one of Rashad’s close friends, nicknamed Esquire. As the “book-smart,” collegebound member of the crew, Esquire has Ivy League aspirations, and uses the address of the
country club at which he works to attend an exclusive, predominantly white magnet school.
Esquire has admired Garnett from afar and meets him at the country club, where he wins his
admiration by playing as his partner in a winning round of golf. When asked, Esquire lies about
where he is from so as not to alarm the elite Garnett, and pretends to live in the neighborhood
near the country club. When Esquire is invited to the Garnett home for dinner, the two worlds
collide. As they are introduced, supposedly for the first time, the plainly-dressed Erin anxiously
offers pleasantries. Esquire contemptuously but politely returns these initial pleasantries,
commenting, “It’s always nice to meet someone new.”
Setting the table for dinner and out of earshot of her father, Erin threatens to tell her
father that Esquire is from the Southside if he tells Rashad about her middle class identity. She
has worked to hide her class background from Rashad, not only through her performance of the
belle, but also by allowing Rashad to believe that she steals, rather than purchases with her
father’s wealth, the designer clothing she dons. Her father, she tells Esquire, is a “sell-out” who
hides his upbringing on the Southside and never talks to her about it. She asserts that she will not
matriculate the historically-white, fictional Ivy League school that her parents think she should.
Instead, she proclaims that she will be opt for the black college experience, and Spelman in
particular—which is middle-class, exclusive and gated in its own right, but nevertheless located
The Not-So-New-Limits of Black Solidarity 150
in the “bad” part of a Southern town. Esquire chides her for slumming, telling her that she can
“have the piss in the hallways. I’ll take the Picasso.” He shouts bitterly, “You have a Picasso on
your wall!”
While both hold their secrets, Erin’s Sunday-night skate trips are discovered when her
alibi—Holly, her white neighbor, schoolmate, tennis partner, and friend—inadvertently tells her
parents, who in turn tell Erin’s parents, where she has really been going. Garnett comes to the
skating rink in expensive tennis shoes, black slacks, and a running jacket and drags her out and
into their luxury car. Her identity unmasked, she comes to the Southside the next day—in the
luxury car, and without her New-New-ness—to attempt to explain to Rashad. Rashad feels
betrayed, not only by New-New/Erin, but perhaps also by himself for not recognizing NewNew’s performance as just that, and breaks off their relationship. Esquire returns the letter of
recommendation he received from Garnett, revealing to the CEO that he lives on the Southside
and not in the neighborhood of the exclusive school that he attends. Garnett resorts to class
stereotypes, accusing Esquire of manipulating Erin all along to get what he wanted from him.
Esquire fires back that perhaps if his daughter knew what her father’s experiences were like
growing up on the Southside, she would not have such a desire to slum, to sneak about on the
other side of town being a Southern gul.
The class-revelatory part of the film—where Rashad discovers New-New is Erin and
where Garnett discovers Esquire is from Mechanicsville—makes plain the effort that goes into
cross-class performance. While Esquire’s job as a country club caddy, and his attendance at an
elite school, afford him some access into middle-class worlds, Erin’s performance of New-New
requires a more concerted performative effort. She ventures into parts of town in which she has
The Not-So-New-Limits of Black Solidarity 151
no business—no school or job like Esquire—and dons clothes, hair, and personhood to which
she does not have apparent access. In fact, it is unclear in the film how Erin first comes in
contact with black working class youth culture, much less how she develops the New-New
persona. While naturally-occurring cross-class contact is certainly a probability, particularly
given that, overall, black middle classes and working classes are often in close spatial proximity,
such contact is difficult to imagine within the context of the film. Foremost, in the South, which
is relatively less racially segregated than other regions, the African American elite can more
readily distance themselves from the black poor or undesirable forms of black culture. Further,
while most black elites have some obvious access, familial or other, to black working-class folks
and cultures, Garnett has effectively cut off these forms of contact by not even talking about his
Mechanicsville, “Southside” rearing. Thus, Erin’s effort to logistically access this culture on the
other side of town, as well as to mask her true class identity, is significant
For the first half of the film, it is not clear what separates a Southern gul from a Southern
belle. Since the audience does not see New-New in her home environment until halfway through
the film, once we do encounter her in her Buckhead mansion and witness her confrontations with
Esquire, her mother and father, and later Rashad, ATL’s imaginings of Southern gender, as well
as class, distinctions become evident. As New-New, Erin’s hair is perfectly laid, whether
fashioned in a bun with a swoop-bang or filled with curls created with a hot curling iron. As
Erin, her hair is conservatively flat-ironed, lacking the extra-shine of her Southern gul hairstyles,
and is straight. As New-New, she dons the latest urban fashions, hence the name “New-New,”
“because [she’s] always got the new, new shit.” As Erin, she is dressed simply in jeans—of the
non-booty-hugging variety—and a t-shirt. As New-New, her dialect is black Southern gul twang
The Not-So-New-Limits of Black Solidarity 152
with concomitant gum popping, neck rolling, and, when necessary, loud-talking; as Erin, the
Southern twang completely disappears—as someone comments in the Memphis audience where
I see the film once, “Aw, mane, she talkin’ like a white gul now!” Her clothing is different, her
friends are different, and the entertainment in which she engages—skating rinks and trips to the
neighborhood pool versus tennis and elite dinners—is different. As Erin, in fact, all markers of
regional difference are removed, and she emerges as a “regular” black middle class teenager.
Through Erin, the film comments on, amongst other things, intraracial class difference
and the proper way to raise a black middle class child. The message in the film is that had John
Garnett taught his daughter about his upbringing and been proud of his cultural rearing that
influenced who he would eventually become, then Erin would not have the cross-class longings
that led to her elaborate performance of class difference. Erin’s life as New-New is regionallyspiced—her gender performance, clothes, hair, and activities are more “exciting” than tennis and
studying with Holly—and she draws on New-New to expand her performative terrain and access
parts of African American class, racial, regional, and gender cultures from which she is cut off.
Although her parents come to some understanding—they allow her to attend Spelman—and she
and Rashad get back together, it is not reasonable to assume that such cross-class contact or
cross-class happy understandings occur in the real world. As two of my upper middle class
respondents, one the mother of a son and the other a father of a daughter, told their respective
children—“you can go where you want to for college, but I’m only paying for [Morehouse,
Ladies and Tramps
The Not-So-New-Limits of Black Solidarity 153
While ATL marks class differences starkly and explicitly through the juxtaposition of the
Buckhead mansion and the modest working-class home, Hustle and Flow accesses the limits of
black solidarity through the church and supplants them through good old Southern hospitality.
Although the film de-centers the notion of an excessive black religiosity, it valorizes spirituality,
and the work of the Spirit is prevalent throughout the film text. Clyde and Yvette represent the
respectable, middle-class2 voices in the film, operating as constant signifiers of the black church,
although Yvette’s character does this work more so than Clyde’s. Yvette cooks dinner each night
and the couple sits down to dinner together at a table and pray before each meal. In contrast,
pimp D-Jay and his prostitutes, Nola, Suge, and Alexis, hungrily consume fast food on an old
sofa. Yvette is always conservatively dressed in business casual clothing, speaks with a “proper”
Southern accent, has a proper Southern job at a retailer, and is endlessly polite. The only
prostitute who is ever shown as relatively conservatively dressed is Suge, who is incidentally
several months pregnant. Whereas Clyde is drawn into producing music with D-Jay, who is an
old high school friend, Yvette is reticent about this activity, as, after all, Clyde is often over DJay’s house where at least two prostitutes are living at any given time. Yet, while the conflict
between Yvette and Clyde that is instigated by the latter’s relationship with the unacceptably
lower-class D-Jay could be read and written as simply class conflict, it does not operate in this
way in the film text. Yvette is more Southern than she is middle class, despite the contrasts
between her respectable lady-ness and the prostitutes’ unacceptable womanhood. As a good
Southerner, Yvette is polite and hospitable to all people, even the two prostitutes, Nola and
Alexis, who accompany D-Jay on an evening visit to Yvette and Clyde’s home. Perhaps the most
laugh-out-loud moment of the film occurs when Alexis and Nola are sitting on Yvette and
The Not-So-New-Limits of Black Solidarity 154
Clyde’s sofa, and like a good hostess, Yvette sits across from them in a chair, prim and
conservative, and engages them in conversation. In addition to sharing some small talk, Yvette
even defends Nola’s hairstyle—blond-weave cornrow extensions, like black women usually
wear, to match her dyed-blond hair—against Alexis’ attacks, although this is an obvious
representation of the Southern propensity to lie before offending. We find Yvette to be more
comically uncomfortable and naïve, rather than disgusted, with the prostitutes and their
profession, as her conservative politics of respectability render her ignorant of the meanings
behind the sex worker lingo the two throw about, as well as their seemingly unrestrained
As the movie proceeds and Clyde begins to spend more time at D-Jay’s to complete the
rap album that is the driving force of the film, the conflict between Clyde and Yvette escalates.
After yet another night preparing dinner without Clyde showing up to eat it and praying alone at
the table, Yvette does what any Southern, middle-class, respectable woman would do: she makes
a plate of tiny sandwiches, crust-removed, places a container of dill sauce in the center, and takes
it over to D-Jay’s house, where she is invited to listen to the recording session.
Thus, the film’s lesson is that class and morality conflicts within the black community
can be resolved by a bit of Southern hospitality, food, forgiveness, and acceptance. While ATL
imagines stark class differences—the über-rich Buckhead Garnetts versus the poor blacks from
the projects in Mechanicsville—Hustle & Flow imagines clashes between the respectable and the
non-respectable, between the lower classes and the middle classes. Although Yvette may not
have come in contact with Alexis and Nola on her own, her affiliation with Clyde, who went to a
public black high school and is still willing to be connected to lower class blackness despite his
The Not-So-New-Limits of Black Solidarity 155
respectable life. Further, as spirituality plays a critical role in the film, it is reasonable to assume
that cross-class contact might occur in and through the church, as it often does, particularly in the
South. Ultimately, Hustle & Flow argues that class differences or misunderstandings can be
overcome by some good Southern politeness, hospitality, and if necessary, lying and deception.
Class is Where the Heart Is
Welcome Come Roscoe Jenkins imagines black cross-class and interregional contact in perhaps
the most widely plausible way—through relationships between a relative that left the South and
his or her country cousins. Roscoe Jenkins, dissatisfied with his relationship with his father and
what he viewed as his disadvantaged treatment in comparison to his slicker, more well-liked
cousin, has moved to Los Angeles, changed his named to R. J. Stevens, and launched a
successful career as a television talk-show host. He has a nine-year-old son that he is raising as a
single father and has not been back to visit his rural Georgia home since shortly after the birth of
his son. He has become engaged to an overly ambitious reality television star, whose claim to
fame involves her trading of panties on “Survivor.” Roscoe, fiancée Bianca and son Jamaal
travel to Georgia for Roscoe’s parents’ golden wedding anniversary celebration, and it is there
that the cross-class mayhem, packaged in the film as regional distinctions between South and
non-South, as well as spatial distinctions between city and country, ensues.
Almost immediately, distinctions are drawn between Roscoe and the rural, Southern life
he left behind. He no longer eats meat as per the Hollywood diet that fiancée Bianca has
instituted for him, but cannot resists the ribs being grilled as part of the family barbeque. Jamaal
does not know how to play baseball, which was a family and Southern pastime, but instead plays
soccer, characterized in the film as a bizarre sport, although it is not explicitly racialized as
The Not-So-New-Limits of Black Solidarity 156
white. The most heated cross-class conversation, however, occurs between Roscoe and his
brother Otis, played by the hulking Michael Clark Duncan. The conversation begins simply
enough, with Roscoe commenting that had things been different for Otis, if he had not sustained
a knee injury, he would be in the NFL, living in a mansion, and driving a Mercedes. Otis
responds that, “it wasn’t in God’s plan for me.” When Roscoe implies that Otis is a failure, Otis
responds: “I got a great family, I live in a great community that I love and that loves me back.
You the failure.” Roscoe contends that, to the contrary, he “made it.” The conflict escalates, and
there is an increasingly clear distinction between a down-home upbringing and a city upbringing.
Otis urges gently, “Don’t let money raise your kids,” to which Roscoe retorts, “don’t let
cornbread, chit’lins, hamhocks, and cheese sticks raise yours.” The conflict ends with Roscoe
being punched in the head by Otis.
Roscoe spends the rest of the film being “schooled,” down-home, Southern-style. His
sister Betty beats him up for being high-falutin’, his trifling cousin Reggie blackmails him to
keep secret that the old family dog has had sex with Bianca’s dainty toy dog, and Bianca gives
him no rest, jealous of light-skinned, hazel-eyed Southern belle Lucinda, the object of Roscoe’s
childhood and adolescent affections, who is back in town for the wedding anniversary
celebration. There are a number of come-to-Jesus moments when Roscoe reconciles his
resentment of his father and his cousin, and ultimately, he sees the value of his Southern rearing
and family. At the close of the film, he dumps the money-hungry, shallow Bianca and rides off
into the sunset with Lucinda. He returns to his show with renewed perspective and spends a great
deal more time with “what really matters.”
The Not-So-New-Limits of Black Solidarity 157
Welcome Home Roscoe Jenkins argues that true “making it” is in the non-material social
goods that can be afforded to one through family, community, humility and happiness. Although
the class distinctions are not evident in talk or dress, they are evident in Roscoe’s attempts to
distinguish himself as “successful” relative to the unmarried and underemployed Betty, Reggie
the hustler, and Otis, the small-town sheriff. However, the film actively trumps Roscoe’s
material definition of success, which is rejected by the other characters, sometimes violently, at
every turn. In the end, Welcome Home Roscoe Jenkins situates black life at its best when it is
connected to the South, and the rural and small-town South in particular, which in this
formulation, tempers the pretention and disconnection from good family and personal values that
come from material success in an urban context.
The Limits of Black Solidarity: Still “Standing”
Most recent films about the black South erect some class distinction between regions that sees
the South as good, down-home, and rich in non-material social goods, and sees the North as
impoverished, either financially, morally, or both. This narrative extends beyond the film
medium, as anxieties about class differences and a loss of connection to down-home black values
permeate political, social, and economic discussions. I examine here one such manifestation of
this anxiety, demonstrating how these regional dichotomies signify not only class differences,
but mark who has access to power and who has the right to speak for, to, and through black
In 2008, the 40th anniversary of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination was
The Not-So-New-Limits of Black Solidarity 158
commemorated in Memphis with all manner of race conferences, gospel concerts, speechifying,
and celebration. Amongst those present at the various celebrations throughout the city were
journalist Tavis Smiley and Princeton professors Cornel West and Eddie Glaude, Jr. At a Hugh
Masekela concert in July of that year, at which Smiley was present, the journalist was given the
microphone to inform the audience of “something special” that he, West, Georgetown professor
Michael Eric Dyson, Glaude and others were doing in the city in the coming months. In May of
the following year, audiences were introduced to this “something special” on African American
cable channel TV One. Smiley had gathered together his “soul patrol,” as he called them—
which, in addition to the journalist, included Smiley’s assistant, Raymond Ross; Glaude, West,
and Dyson; West’s brother, songwriter Cliff West; gospel artist BeBe Winans; actor Wren T.
Brown; comedian and writer Dick Gregory; and two high school students from Memphis,
cousins Daron Boyce and Robert Smith—to re-capture an age when black men “stood” for
something as well as to understand, in the wake of the 40th anniversary of the King and a historic
presidential election, what it means to “stand” for something in contemporary America. The
documentary, “Stand,” debuted on TV One in May 2009, and Memphis served as the meeting
spot for the “soul patrol,” a starting point from which the crew could reflect. Shuttling back and
forth between Memphis and Nashville, which together stood in for the Civil Rights South at
large, the “soul patrol” stood reflectively on the balcony where King was shot, listen intently,
and in some instances cried, listening to the Fisk Jubilee singers, and went “back” to church,
including Mason Temple, where King delivered his final speech, and St. Andrew A.M.E. Church
in South Memphis.
Princeton professor Melissa Harris-Lacewell roundly critiqued “Stand,” and her June 5,
The Not-So-New-Limits of Black Solidarity 159
2009 article, which was published on and quickly circulated around the black
intellectual blog circuit, situates the documentary as born of the anxieties of black public
intellectuals in “Obamerica.” Harris-Lacewell writes that the documentary and the “soul patrol”,
“appropriated the legacy of Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. to implicitly claim that they [the
documentary participants], not Obama, are the authentic representatives of the political interests
of African-Americans,” arguing that the “soul patrol” “yearned for an imagined racial
past…[which] by their accounting…had better music, more charismatic leaders and a moreinvolved black church.” At its core, Harris-Lacewell’s critiques highlight the inherent hypocrisy
and willful rewriting of history that make possible and problematic the claims of “Stand.”
Beyond these critiques, however, I see “Stand” as emblematic of the appropriation of the
South and sanitized memories of the Civil Rights Era in service of racial authenticity. Perhaps
much more blasphemous than appropriating the legacy of King, the “soul patrol” appropriated an
imagined legacy of the black South—a better blackness—that centralized control of black
institutions in the hands of a few male leaders and community activists and subjugated women,
LGBT communities, and other undesirables to helper roles, or excised them completely from the
narrative. Their discourse is reminiscent of Cathy Cohen’s assertions in Boundaries of Blackness
that heteronormative, patriarchal, and middle class power causes fundamental impasses in black
community organizing around stigmatized issues, like HIV/AIDS. They draw on historically
black colleges and universities, spirituals, and good Southern black chu’ches to show the Yankee
Obama and his blind supporters that these are the roots of black American political activism.
The Not-So-New-Limits of Black Solidarity 160
In addition to ignoring women and other marginalized communities—as Harris-Lacewell
accurately points out, the “soul patrol” does not talk with one woman community activist, let
alone any activists that self-identified as LGBT—the “soul patrol” ignores the realities of the
contemporary urban South in favor of focusing on vestiges of Southern blackness—churches,
King, the Fisk Jubilee singers—as historically fixed and unchanging. As I have demonstrated,
black Southerners exist in a “new Old South,” in which enduring images, tropes, and vestiges are
refashioned into something newer and different, although often still recognizable and rarely
altogether better. The “soul patrol” erects a class and political boundary that draws on nowuniversal tropes of black life, roots them in their “original” place and space—the South—and
shrouds class anxiety and inevitable changes and bifurcations in black community life in the
Civil Rights Movement. The message is: to follow Obama blindly is to be against the Civil
Rights Movement, the black church, Negro spirituals, and young African American men, who
incidentally are the future of the black community.
“Stand” takes the same class politics and wraps them in the legacy of the Civil Rights
Movement. However, it goes a step further, taking a “bus trip through the South”—the drive
between Memphis and Nashville is about three hours—and drawing on tropes of Southern
blackness, and universal American blackness, to persuade audiences that Obama is not good for
“real” black folks, and that we should like to this “better” blackness for inspiration. In reality,
however, as Harris-Lacewell and others have pointed out, “Stand” is moreover an articulation of
black intellectual anxiety and crises of relevance, or impending irrelevance, in an increasingly
complicated black modernity.
Conclusion 161
The Southern Heritage Classic Annual Cultural Celebration, now in its 21st year, features a
football game held at Memphis’ Liberty Bowl between Tennessee State University and Jackson
State University as its main event. The game is attended as much for the football battle between
Tennessee State University and Jackson State University as it is for the battle between their
respective bands, “The Aristocrat of Bands” and “The Sonic Boom of the South,” and their
respective majorette squads, “The Sophisticated Ladies” and the “J-Settes.” People
fundamentally disinterested in football, like my mother, or unable to attend the game, often tune
in to a telecast for the halftime show. I have attended the game, and accompanying Classic
festivities, from tailgating to the Classic Soul Concert, each year for 10 years. Swarms of black
folk descend on the football stadium at the Mid-South Fairgrounds to continue the Southern
traditions of food, fashion, and football—as well as the tradition of supporting Historically Black
Colleges and Universities. The Southern Heritage Classic events, including a golf classic, battles
of black high school bands, fashion shows, and brunches, prefigure those of the 16-year-old
Essence Music Festival, drawing attendees from around the region and nation. At the 2009
halftime show, as usual, when the Sonic Boom of the South and the J-Settes and The Aristocrat
of Bands and The Sophisticated Ladies take the field respectively, most folks stand to dance,
participate, and reminisce on—or imagine or conjure—their own black college experience. The
Classic sells more than the black college experience; it also sells a New Black South filled with
food, fashion, and hospitality, a reasonably blackness relatively disconnected from material
poverty or its concomitant outcomes.
Conclusion 162
Although black Southerners have never looked away from the South and are by some
accounts skeptical of the increased attention to the region and in other ways welcoming of the
opportunity to put their Southern-ness on stage, regional outsiders, only recently turning South,
are now looking back towards Dixie. An array of entities has capitalized on the turn South, from
McDonald’s and its Southern-style Chicken Sandwich and Sweet Tea to the now-defunct Turner
South, that advertises a black woman’s South as filled with jasmine, fireflies in jars, and “tea
almost as sweet as the men.” Culture industries of black regional tourism, from black-led
plantation tours to the Civil Rights tours that were part of the “soul patrol’s” “Stand,” also
capitalize on this turn South, educating non-Southerners about the region in much the same way
that West African tour guides educate relatively naïve black Americans about their “homeland.”
Still, the predominance of the attention to the South focuses on these nostalgic, positive aspects
of black Southern life and fixes it in a happy, better space and place that ignores contemporary
realities. This is, of course, a political and discursive move only available to the black middle
class, and especially available to non-Southerners and new migrants to the South. For lifelong
folks who “never left,” the struggle is just as current as the tea is sweet.
As André 3000 contended more than a decade ago, “the South got something to say.” To that, I
add that the black South has something to say, particularly to sociology and Southern Studies.
Although it is clear that black Southerners can and will produce and distribute popular narratives
about black Southern life in film, music, and television, as well as in their everyday interactions
and self-imaginings, what is less clear is how to get certain folks who have looked away from
Conclusion 163
Dixie to listen to those narratives and discourses. As more African Americans migrate to the
South, and new immigrants from the global South, including Latin America, Southeast Asia, and
the Caribbean enter the region, the possessive investment in a narrative of black Southern life
that privileges and fixes old black South tropes—Negro spirituals, food and drink, pretty women,
fine gentlemen, down-home politeness—will undoubtedly increase. We know that new
Southerners, African Americans and others, latch onto Southern cultures, learning about those
cultures through a variety of media. We also know that folks traditionally outside of Southern
norms articulate some connection to Southern-ness—witness the popular documentary on Jewish
Southerners, Shalom, Y’all—refashioning them for their own cultural uses and in some cases
challenging them, yielding the possibility of those elusive “other Souths”—those Souths that are
unimaginable as coexisting because of what Tara McPherson calls lenticular logic: our inability
to perceive the South in its totality, as simultaneously black and white, new and old, rural, and
Southerners are not the only ones that trade on this lenticular logic. For sociologists,
blackness is overwhelmingly urban and poor, a position that for many years obscured rural black
folks and the black middle class. When blackness was not urban, it was rural and small-town,
obscuring the existence of blacks in Southern cities. As sociologists, we cannot see the South in
and of itself, and black Southerners in and of themselves, because we are so busy examining
migrants. Although Southern Studies scholars are moving away from this particular
epistemological position, traditional Southern Studies fixes the South and homogenizes it,
emphasizing regional commonality, rather than acknowledging the simultaneous existence of
commonality and difference. Further, Southern Studies fixes blacks as historical and historicized
Conclusion 164
political actors, and is therefore unable to see contemporary black life and changes in black
modernity in the post-Civil Rights era.
While the most promising space of escape from these various moments of lenticularity is
in and through popular culture, even it, in its most widely received products, misses the mark.
Popular culture is replete with reimaginings of the South, many of which draw on Old South
tropes in New South contexts to tell familiar, and different, stories about the South. This recent
swell at the close of the first decade of the 21st century, including the HBO series True Blood and
Tremé, the TNT series Memphis Beat, and TLC’s reality show Policewomen of Memphis,
engages the past and present, and “reality,” reality and fiction to present a changing, yet constant,
South. While the South has risen and ridden again at several junctures since the Civil War, recent
attention to the South has solidified the region’s lure, despite the fact that as a space, the South is
evolving into something much like other American spaces: it is characterized by urban and
suburban sprawl, is home to many new immigrants, and faces challenges managing the needs of
economically and politically diverse populations. However, the South that is featured in many
popular reimaginings, particularly in television, conveniently bypasses the black South to narrate
a white Southern life with black folk in it. Thus, in popular and scholarly contexts, we continue
to know comparatively little about the black South, despite its endurance over time, its increasing
numbers as a result of reverse migration, and its particular challenges brought forth by the
intersection of racial and regional disadvantage.
Still, I have also demonstrated that Southern hip-hop and recent films about the black
South are at least productive spaces in which to begin an investigation of the black South that
steps back and views the region in its entirety. In particular, films about the urban South, like
Conclusion 165
Jason’s Lyric, Hustle & Flow, and ATL attempt to present together the South as rural and urban,
rich and poor, black and white, and respectable and immoral. Further, Southern hip-hop gets
crunk and gets low, but also critiques “region haters” and various power structures.
I have also argued here that the South is a strategic accomplishment, both in popular
media and in people’s everyday lives. Although the region is accomplished by different mediums
through different means and for different means, representing and “doing” an authentic South is
important for people personally and integral to selling various products, from tea, to chicken
sandwiches, to television shows, to barbeque sauce. However, for many black Southerners, their
regional positions are real, not part of some broader process of cultural accomplishment. For
LaShaun, her assessment of the “racist eye” was as real as any other empirically verifiable fact,
and is a sincere representation of her racial decision-making processes. Yet, as more new
Southerners come to the region, even the sincerest of representations might need a performative
boost, or at least a more steadfast grip on those representations. Still, sociologists and Southern
Studies scholars alike would benefit from listening to what the (black) South got to say. In and
through it, we will be able to understand the regional dimensions of various issues of interest to
sociologists for what they illustrate about social structures and to Southern Studies scholars for
what they say about how the region continues to be disproportionately disadvantaged on key
economic and social measures—housing, employment, and education crises, as well as responses
to “natural” disasters, representing just a few of these shared issues of interest. An earnest turn
South, for sociologists and Southern Studies scholars alike, would take simultaneously produce
sociologies both in and of the South, yet another instance of disciplinary lenticularity that we can
stand to do without.
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Throughout this research, I use the terms black and African American interchangeably,
although I am aware of the various politics with which each term has been imbued that highlight
fine distinctions between the two. I use the term “black American” to distinguish between
blacks/African Americans whose generational lineage is American and new black immigrants,
including immigrants from the Caribbean and the African continent.
In Cultural Trauma: Slavery and the Formation of African American Identity, Ron Eyerman
(2002) argues that the collective memory slavery is in many ways implicated in the formation of
contemporary African American identity.
Jackson’s Harlemworld illustrates the varied ways in which performances of race and class are
both structurally-bound and have structural implications.
In his 2001 essay “The Promise of a Sociology of the South,” Larry Griffin argues that
sociology in the South persists to some extent because of the region’s distinction as being the
location of a host of issues of sociological interest, e.g. race relations and social movements.
Griffin also argues that sociology of the South declined as a result of postwar disciplinary shifts
in sociology that privileged more “rigorous” and “scientific” inquiry over the more
interventionist and lay-directed inquiry that had characterized sociology of the South.
On an advertisement for the now-defunct Turner South network, the text, superimposed over a
young African American woman’s face, includes the following: “My South has tea, iced and
almost as sweet as the men.”
Thompson’s essay appears in a special volume of Social Forces, themed In Search of the
Regional Balance in America and edited by Odum and Katherine Jocher. It was originally read at
the annual meeting of the Southern Sociological Society in Atlanta in 1944.
Allison Davis and John Dollard’s Children of Bondage: The Personality Development of Negro
Youth in the Urban South (1947) and Charles S. Johnson’s Growing Up in the Black Belt: Negro
Youth in the Rural South (1941).
Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937) is the most far-reaching, and therefore controversial, of
Hurston’s fiction works that draw on anthropological folk data. Also of note in this regard, and
perhaps more representative, is Mules and Men (1935).
Some examples include Odum’s seminal Southern Regions of the United States (1936) and
Rupert Vance’s (1929) Human Factors in Cotton Culture: A Study in the Social Geography of
the American South.
While I will not extensively examine this phenomenon here, it is important to note another
dimension of sociology’s epistemological blindness to elements of African American culture: in
its zealousness to distinguish new migrants as coming from overwhelmingly rural communities,
sociologists neglected the urban experiences many African Americans had in the South before
migrating North or West. This has contributed to the lack of ethnographic studies of the urban
South, despite the fact that Southern cities, and Atlanta in particular, have been the migration
destination of Americans bound for the Sunbelt as well as new immigrants since the 1960s.
Aldon Morris’ (1986) The Origins of the Civil Rights Movement is also an important
exception, but is concerned with a much-researched issue in the South—the collective action of
black communities in the Civil Rights movement—rather than a sociology of the South.
“The City as Southern History” is the culminating essay in Goldfield’s (1997) collection of his
work on the urban South Region, Race, and Cities: Interpreting the Urban South. In it, he rearticulates the theme building throughout the collection—that, for him, the South is the city, and
the Southern city is the South.
Having come of age in the “city that killed King” as the daughter of a native Memphian and a
migrant from the Mississippi Delta, I admit an affinity for Memphis, and by extension the black
South, that is most certainly evident in this work. I discuss the methodological advantages and
challenges of being a native daughter in the field in the methodological appendix.
Wattstax, heralded as the “Black Woodstock,” was a festival held in the Watts neighborhood
of Los Angeles to mark the seventh anniversary of the Watts riots. Stax artists, including Isaac
Hayes, the Staple Singers, and Rufus Thomas, among others rallied to not only support black
struggle across the nation, but to also lend voice, or a soundtrack, to that struggle. It is significant
that Memphis sound, rather than the Motown sound that had come to define black music up until
the emergence of Stax, was the sound of the Civil Rights and Black Power Movements.
Chapter 1
Onita Estes-Hicks (1993) has argued persuasively that this second period of African American
autobiography, which Black Boy epitomizes, follows closely the tradition established by
Frederick Douglass in the first period.
Academics have written extensively on the Southern turn. See, for instance, Madhu Dubey’s
chapter “Reading as Listening: The Southern Folk Aesthetic” in her text Signs and Cities: Black
Literary Postmodernism; Hazel Carby’s 1994 essay, “The Politics of Fiction, Anthropology, and
the Folk: Zora Neale Hurston,” in Fabre and O’Meally’s collection, History and Memory in
African American Culture; William J. Maxwell’s “Black Belt/Black Folk: The End(s) of the
Richard Wright-Zora Neale Hurston Debate” in his 1999 book, New Negro, Old Left: African
American Writing and Communism Between the Wars; and Susan Willis’ 1987 text, Specifiying:
Black Women Writing the American Experience.
For a critical appraisal of the endurance and appropriation of this debate in African American
arts and letters, see William J. Maxwell’s chapter on the debate, referenced above.
Maxwell, pp. 156.
“Art and Such” was originally written for the Federal Writers Project and published in a 1990
anthology, Reading Black, Reading Feminist: A Critical Anthology, edited by Henry Louis
Gates, Jr. Page 24.
Wright’s less-than-stellar opinion of women is well documented. For a thorough review, see
Cheryl Higashida’s 2003 essay in American Literature, “Aunt Sue’s Children: Re-viewing the
Gender(ed) Politics of Richard Wright’s Radicalism.”
See Baldwin’s 1949 essay, “Everybody’s Protest Novel.” Ellison’s strongest epistemological
critique of Wright can be found in his response to Irving Howe’s “Black Boys and Native Sons,”
“The World and the Jug” (1963).
Richard Wright had become acquainted with the work of philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, whose
notion of “the gaze” provided Wright the existential justification for the oppositional anger and
violence of his characters.
See Chapter 1 of Dancing Revelations: Alvin Ailey’s Embodiment of African American Culture
for a thorough, piece-by-piece description of Revelations. The original performance of
Revelations on January 31, 1960 was far more theatrical and much longer than the more pared
down version, the one presented to the nation through television debut in 1962 with which
contemporary audiences are much more familiar.
Arthur Todd with Alvin Ailey, “Roots of the Blues,” Dance and Dancers (November 1961):
Gayle’s essay is reprinted in the 1992 collection, Black Southern Voices, edited by John Oliver
Killens and Jerry W. Ward.
See, for instance, Madhu Dubey’s chapter “Reading as Listening: The Southern Folk
Aesthetic,” in Signs and Cities: Black Literary Postmodernism.
See, for example, Hazel Carby’s 1994 essay on Zora Neale Hurston, referenced above.
In Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom!, Quentin Compson, a native-born Southerner in New
Englad, famously responds to the query, “Why do you hate the South?” with an increasingly
decided, “I don’t hate it. I don’t hate it!” Baker’s use of it perhaps signifies some Southerners’
ambivalence towards the region, their desires to be both critical and appreciative of it.
Chapter 2
July 23, 2007, “Rza What? Rza Wu on Southern Hip-Hop’s Domination,” available
_1680723071/, accessed 18 January 2008.
Corey Moss and Yasmine Richard, March 16, 2006, “50 Cent Says Eminem Wants Him to
Hold Off on Summer LP,” available, accessed
19 March 2007
“Ice T Disses Soulja Boy,” YouTube,,
accessed 17 September 2008.
Aaron McGruder, Season 3, Episode 2, “Bitches to Rags.”
In Black City Cinema, Paula Massood argues that by the late 1990s, spoofs of the ‘hood film
genre, like Don’t Be a Menace to Society While Drinking Your Juice in the ‘Hood, indicated that
the mechanics of the genre had become so predictable that they could be replicated and satirized.
There are several other indicators of black folks’ fatigue with the ‘hood trope in the late 1990s: a
number of black films that take place outside of the ‘hood, including Love Jones, The Brothers,
The Best Man, and Waiting to Exhale resituate black folks as middle class and not plagued by the
urban violence and police brutality of Boyz in Da ‘Hood or Juice; hip-hop music definitively
shifts in the late 1990s back to its feel-good party music origins, in which “gangsta” became a
persona rather than a reality; finally, the late 1990s was a time of relative economic prosperity
for some black folks, even as others were being removed from welfare rolls as a result of the
1996 Welfare Reform Act. Thus, these schisms indicate a split in black popular culture that in
many ways effectively silences black urban critique with success stories.
See Darren Grem’s 2006 article of the same title, “‘The South Got Something to Say: Atlanta’s
Dirty South and the Southernization of Hip-Hop America” in Southern Cultures.
In these discourses and others that criticized whites, whiteness, or power structures perceived as
white, white participants routinely drew distinctions between themselves and oppressive
whiteness, although usually indirectly. In interviews and informal conversations, white
participants would often say things like, “…and white people are just crazy,” or “…white
people’s racism.” Only in spontaneous self-conscious reflection—which may or may not have
been caused by a personal facial expression of which I was unaware—did some white
participants say things like, “…white people… I mean we…are really ruining downtown.”
Here Sara is referring to the woman who has now become infamous for protesting the creation
of the National Civil Rights Museum. She insists that King would not have wanted the museum,
and she is often sitting across the street from the museum selling books, t-shirts, and urging
tourists to boycott the museum.
Emerging in 2000 as one of the most popular music forms in the nation, Southern Crunk in a
corporate context is exemplified by the work of Lil’ Jon, the self-proclaimed “King of Crunk”
and often called a “modern-day minstrel” or “coon buffoonery” by black intelligentsia. Crunk
music is generally marked by its fast, club-ready bass beats and group chanting and/or call and
response. Some Memphis emcees argue that the actual origin of Southern Crunk music can be
definitively linked to Memphis and Three Six Mafia in particular, and that the stigma against
Memphis as a city—its “backwardness”—makes Atlanta a more attractive, and perhaps
believable, point of origin for the sound.
One of the seminal works in this area is Peggy McIntosh’s 1988 essay, “White Privilege:
Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack,” which came out of her work “White Privilege and Male
Privilege: A Personal Account of Coming to See Correspondences Through Work in Women’s
Studies.” Others, including sociologist Abby Ferber, historian David Roediger, and philosopher
George Yancy have written extensively on whiteness as well. Over the past decade, unpacking
and deconstructing whiteness, culturally and structurally, has become both popular and
profitable. Anti-racist writer and lecturer Tim Wise has perhaps been most responsible for the
recent popular attention to whiteness and white privilege.
See Marianne Bertrand and Sendhil Mullainathan’s 2004 article, “Are Emily and Greg More
Employable Than Lakisha and Jamal? A Field Experiment on Labor Market Discrimination,”
pages 991-1013 in number 4 of volume 19 of the American Economic Review on racial
discrimination in employment. Also, see the significant body of work in this area amassed by
sociologist Devah Pager, and in particular, her work with co-author Lincoln Quillian: “Walking
the Talk? What Employers Say Versus What They Do” in the June issue of Volume 70 of
American Sociological Review and “Estimating Risk: Stereotype Amplification and the
Perceived Risk of Criminal Victimization” in Issue 1 of Volume 73 of Social Psychology
Black folks are also inhibited in executive function after interracial interaction if they have selfreported more negative attitudes towards whites. Social psychologist Jennifer Richeson, along
with co-author Sophie Trawalter, has researched and written extensively in this area. See in
particular Richeson and Trawalter’s 2005 article, “Why Do Interracial Interactions Impair
Executive Function? A Resource Depletion Account” in Journal of Personality and Social
Psychology, volume 88, pages 934-947 and their 2008 article, “The Threat of Appearing
Prejudiced and Race-based Attentional Biases in Psychological Science, volume 19, pages 98102.
On critical race stories and coping strategies, see Kumea-Shorter Gooden, “Multiple Resistance
Strategies: How African American Women Cope with Racism and Sexism” (2004, Journal of
Black Psychology 30:406-425); on racial socialization and coping strategies, see McHale et al
“Mothers’ and Fathers’ Racial Socialization in African American Families: Implications for
Youth” (2006, Child Development volume 77, number 5, pages 1387-1402).
Sean Bell was killed leaving his bachelor party in 2006 in Queens, New York by undercover
police officers. Tarika Wilson was killed in a drug raid on her home in Lima, Ohio in 2008. Her
infant son was shot twice during the raid. Oscar Grant was killed in 2009 in a public
transportation station in Oakland during an arrest.
Part of Grammy Award-winning duo OutKast and known for his eclectic fashion style, André
3000 was criticized for wearing the belt in the video for “Ms. Jackson,” on OutKast’s 2000
album, Stankonia. Other cultural critics read the rappers donning of the belt as an appropriation
of the Southern trope to both dilute its power, while still others read the belt as the rapper’s
enduring attempt to center the South in hip-hop discourse.
In Jackson’s 2003 Harlemworld: Doing Race and Class in Contemporary Black America, see
especially “Class(ed) Acts, or Class Is as Class Does” and “White Harlem: Towards the
Performative Limits of Blackness.”
Paula Massood makes this argument in Black City Cinema, in which she traces the
representation and relationship of African Americans to cities through American cinema from its
outset to the late 1990s.
Chapter 4
This public construction of the crises of African American women’s relationships of course
obscures the existence of African American marriages. Katrina Bell McDonald’s work on
healthy African American marriages and the ways in which couples attempt to navigate and
manage marriage attempts to fill in this gap.
Although McPherson is certainly focusing on the white Southern lady, embodied in her
younger form by Scarlett O’Hara and in her mature form as any number of “steel Magnolias,”
real and fictive, I see black womanhood as having this same pivotal position in understandings of
black life, from slavery to the Moynihan Report to Maury Povich.
McPherson argues that battles over feminism and the feminine undergird contemporary
feminist’s discomfort with the particular deployment of the feminine by Southern (white)
women. Journalist Ariel Levy argues in Female Chauvinist Pigs that this disjuncture between the
feminine-as-oppressive and the feminine-as-empowering is a product of the failed/misinterpreted
legacy of the sexual revolution in the “post”-feminist era. Still, McPherson argues that
deconstructing and reconstructing the figure of the Southern lady might prove useful for
grappling with the disjuncture between sexual liberation and empowerment and sexual
oppression, the feminine and feminism, and gender equality and gender difference. However,
these guides, as they stand, do not push forward deployments of the Southern lady; rather they
repackage the old for a “post”-feminist audience.
For a discussion of blues women’s feminism and epistemological positions, see Angela Davis’
1998 text, Blues Legacies and Black Feminism: Gertrude “Ma” Rainey, Bessie Smith, and Billie
Chapter 5
Even these are being upended by growing numbers of black Republicans. Although these
deviators from the black political voting norm are a minority, they are significant because of
their oddity, and have, as of late, particularly with the appointment of Michael Steele as
Republican National Committee chairperson, received a great deal of attention.
Clyde and Yvette may represent a middle-class couple by Southern standards and relative to the
other characters, as the both have legal jobs and attend church regularly. However, a more
objective, i.e. national, understanding of their class status—Yvette works in a management
position in a retail/sales store and Clyde records music around town for church groups—might be
as “working class.”
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