This Was The Year America Finally Saw The South
In 2016, from music to television, the experience of black Southerners was everywhere.
My grandaunt Jane migrated to Chicago, married, and found steady, well-paying work in the 1950s. At some point in those early days up north, she asked my grandmother to join her. At the time, both of them were teenagers. My grandmother was keen to leave the grinding poverty she’d grown up with, anxious to never eat another pot of beans flavored with salt-pork, to use real toothbrushes instead of twigs chewed to frayed nubs, to never weed another patch of Mississippi earth, to use indoor bathrooms. She wanted a different future, one filled with furs instead of sackcloth dresses, with factory work instead of housekeeping for white people, with access to parks and beaches and seats and water fountains that weren’t separated by race.
Even though my grandmother dreamed of possibility, of the new, she did not accept the invitation. Her husband didn’t want to go, and my grandmother would not leave him in Mississippi. So she remained, and she bore and raised all of her seven children there. For her, there was no escape. Instead, she worked hard as a domestic, a seamstress, a hairdresser. After one of her cousins saw her pick up a full-grown pig and throw it over her shoulders, he said, “We’re looking for people to work down at the plant. Women who can work as hard as men.” Her youthful dream of steady factory work came her way 20 years after she wanted it, but she was grateful nonetheless.
Tina roared her songs like she’d passed through fire and come out the other side unburned.
As a young woman, my grandmother went to see Ike and Tina Turner perform on the chitlin circuit in a juke joint in a nearby town. Tina Turner glittered, my grandmother said. Glowed. Tina’d been born and raised in the South before escaping north. She roared her songs like she’d passed through fire and come out the other side unburned. Sometimes, when my grandmother tells me the story, she’s wistful. She tells me about how she sewed a special outfit for that night, a dress that was fitted on the top and flared out into an A-line skirt. She tells me that she spun around that floor like a windblown flame, that the audience made space for her and her partner to dance as Tina wailed. Sometimes, I wonder if her proximity to a woman, an artist who was a displaced Southerner but who shone brighter for her embrace of her Southern musical heritage, was heady for my grandmother. I wonder if it made her feel free. If it made her feel seen.
My generation has felt half-seen for years. We’ve had glorious moments when we’ve been sharply in focus, reflected back in the faces of our artists, our ambassadors to elsewhere. UGK. Erykah Badu. Outkast. But when our favorites with national exposure semi-retire (E. Badu and Outkast) or die (Pimp C), then we do what we’ve always done. We retreat to our locals. To our Three 6 Mafia and our 8ball and MJG and our Pastor Troy and our Trick Daddy and Trina and Paul Wall and Chameleon and Mike Jones and Yo Gotti. Seeing ourselves in Southern hip-hop comforts in some respects. It gives us a sense of cultural cohesion, of identity, of common language.
When I moved to New York in my early twenties, Southern rap music was only one of two sources I had for representation. I lived with two other women in an apartment in Brooklyn. We were all struggling, working entry-level jobs, trying to become acclimated to the icy north. Two of us were from the South: I was from Mississippi, and my roommate from Texas. To prepare us to leave our apartment and brave the subway, most mornings I’d play Southern rap music, loudly. Mostly, to honor my roommate, I’d break out UGK. Let the refrain to “Tell Me Something Good” sing us out the door. For five minutes, it made me feel a little closer to home. But even though we loved those songs, loved that little bit of home talk, it made us uncomfortable, too. We could hear the South in the swelling crescendo of the music, those voices invoking heat and funk and wild Southern landscapes. But we couldn’t hear ourselves in the words, which were often misogynistic and homophobic, and seemed to shame us. Our joy in that bit of home was problematic. It was as if we were looking at ourselves in a funhouse mirror, our images warped by swagger, anger, and materialism, without any of our pain, struggle, joy, and vulnerability. Desperate for any connection with home, I continued to listen to Southern rap, building a playlist of gems that I still listen to today: Slim Thug’s “Dedicate,” Z-Ro and Trae’s “One Night,” Project Pat’s “Life We Live,” T.I.’s “Live in the Sky,” UGK’s “One Day You’re Here, Then You’re Gone,” and Mac’s “My Brother.”
But I wanted more. I read and reread Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston and The Color Purple by Alice Walker and anything else I could by these two brilliant Southern women. There were no movies or television shows for me to watch. Still, I was grateful for my worn, frayed books that told stories that embraced a textured black Southern experience. I was grateful to open my windows and listen to Southern hip-hop. To feel half-realized with my treasures, if only in the space I occupied.
Before I published my first novel in my early thirties, I was an invisible artist. This is part of the reason that I was so invested in writing about ordinary black Southerners, and why I felt such a heavy sense of responsibility to do so. I wanted to be seen. I wanted to write stories that affirmed my existence, that showed black Southerners to the larger American culture. That posited this: We are here. We are human beings. We live.
Thankfully, since then I have discovered and been joined by others. In the stories of these great writers, the black Southern experience has gained weight, heft, and substance, become a man, a woman, a child, shining with the life-giving blood of the narrative. There are so many wonderful black writers who are reaching national audiences now: Natasha Trethewey, Nikky Finney, Jericho Brown, Clint Smith, Saeed Jones, Kiese Laymon, Jamie Hatley, and many more. They create heat-soaked, history-rich, fully formed worlds on the page that live, that imprint on, that change the reader’s understanding of the American South, of black Southerners, and, in doing so, the reader’s very self. I am so grateful for them.
This Southern renaissance extends well beyond books and music now. There are quality fictional programs about ordinary black Southern people on television. Two of the most prominent: Queen Sugar and Atlanta. Queen Sugar is beautifully constructed and wonderfully paced, and focuses on intimate, everyday dramas that unfold among its characters. Atlanta does the same, except it also incorporates comedy. All the main characters are sympathetic. Their lives are so nuanced and varied. I watch, and I come into focus. I am a human being. My experience matters, is legitimate.
I wanted to write stories that affirmed my existence, that showed black Southerners to the larger American culture.
This past year, Beyoncé dropped Lemonade. The musical album was excellent, but the visual album blew me away. Here, black women’s voices were rising up from the darkness of time. This is exceptional because we are so often erased from history, reduced to mammies and jezebels, robbed of our rich internal lives, our spiritual traditions. In the Lemonade video, Beyoncé reverses this. Her sister Solange has finished out the year with an album, A Seat at the Table, that is distinctly black and distinctly Southern. So black, in fact, that it sounds like a manual for survival in America, emphasizing self-care, black love, black joy, and the fact that it’s natural to be angry and frustrated. Sprinkled throughout are several spoken interludes by Master P, a New Orleans music legend, and Solange’s parents, who are both black Southerners. This, a year after Erykah Badu released But You Caint Use My Phone, which itself came in the year after J. Cole released 2014 Forest Hills Drive. Suddenly, I didn’t need my playlist; I had whole sophisticated albums to wallow in.
But why now? Why has all this reached a sort of apex in pop culture and literature in 2016?
When I left Mississippi to attend college in California, I experienced the same encounter again and again. It followed me from California to New York City to Michigan. Whenever I told people I was from the South, there was a raising of eyebrows. Other moments, a soft grunt. Sometimes, a shudder. What I understood: I’ve heard the stories. How fucked up it is down there. There: not here. What I understood: Her story is not relevant to me. Her story is not mine. This hidden, common sentiment is one of the reasons I think we went so long without representation, without this revelation of black Southern experience in the broader culture. Others considered us too alien.
But then, in 2012, a black boy was killed. And then a man. And then another boy. And then a woman. And then more and more: These past four years have given us an awful deluge of names that we all know, since social media makes every death a national event. Trayvon Martin. Tamir Rice. Eric Garner. Kendra Jones. Sandra Bland. Alton Sterling. Michael Brown. Walter Scott. Philando Castile. There are more, too many for me to name. This flood washes away the scrim of that alienating sentiment. As black person after black person died without cause across the United States of America, as they were buried without justice, suddenly the South wasn’t so far away. It had been hidden for so long, disavowed in the public sphere, only recognized by those it harmed, but this year the steady stream of deaths created activists who insisted that all Americans acknowledge that which most spent decades denying.
As black person after black person died without cause across the United States of America, as they were buried without justice, suddenly the South wasn’t so far away.
But many Americans still insisted we were delusional. Still insisted we were imagining we live in a land undergirded by systems and peopled by folks who look at us and cannot see that we are human beings. Still insisted this even as they backed a presidential candidate who spewed openly racist, homophobic, xenophobic, misogynist rhetoric, who hosted rallies where people of color and women were actually physically assaulted. The one bright spot in all of this is that after the November 2016 elections, it’s become a bit harder for Americans to disavow their willful ignorance. Hate crimes abound from Delaware to Michigan. Trump fills his cabinet with new and old guard white supremacists, homophobes, xenophobes, and misogynists alike. Now, no one can deny it: The rotten underpinnings of the South anchor the whole damn country, like the swampy bottom of the Mississippi River delta. And now we are all sinking in it.
Suddenly, the experience of the black Southerner is universal. It inspires a feeling of kinship in an audience. It garners sympathy. It renders the invisible visible. And because it is capable of all of this, it sells. Artists recognize this. Businesses recognize this. And in 2016, we all benefited from it, as a multiplicity of voices sang out in the wilderness, against those that would silence or disavow. These voices affirm our shared humanity, our shared plight, our shared hope that we can fight through this quagmire of hatred and antipathy and misplaced nostalgia and willful ignorance to a better future, which has to be inclusive of all. Or else we fail.
In the weeks since the election, I’ve realized again and again how important it is to speak. To resist. I’ve realized my grandmother is a storyteller, that she is telling the truth as she lived it: Throughout my childhood and young adulthood, my grandmother was the center at any gathering, telling tales of rogue revenue agents and black men shot dead, of black children hiding in trunks to get out of sundown areas in Mississippi, of black women dancing exuberantly and freely. She was telling stories of black people who endured fear and tragedy and still embraced joy. The underlying assertion: We are people. How dangerous that assertion was in the ’40s, ’50s, and ’60s for my grandmother to make in Mississippi. In America. How dangerous that may soon become for me, for all the artists I admire. But that is our heritage. That is the legacy we’ve inherited. It’s revolutionary. May we black Southern artists galvanize. May we be prophets who speak with flames of truth. Who acknowledge the painful past and the tortured present and, in doing so, make the rest of the world understand that it exists. That we exist. May we further the conversation that will lead us out of this sinking wilderness. In the words of the ATLien wonder André 3000: But it’s like this: The South got something to say. For all our sakes, we will continue. I hope you listen.
Jesmyn Ward received her M.F.A. from the University of Michigan and is currently an associate professor of creative writing at Tulane University. She is the editor of the anthology The Fire This Time and the author of the novels Where the Line Bleeds and Salvage the Bones, the latter of which won the 2011 National Book Award and was a finalist for the Dayton Literary Peace Prize. Ward lives in DeLisle, Mississippi.
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