The Empathy Of "S-Town" Doesn’t Extend To Black People

The hit podcast S-Town is beautiful and beautifully made. But I don’t think most black listeners will (or should) be able to look past the racism of the people it's about.

The podcast S-Town follows the true story of the eccentric genius John B. McLemore, a Southern horologist (aka clockmaker) obsessed with all the apocalyptic problems plaguing the modern world: global warming, poverty, bigotry, corruption, and crime. He contacts Brian Reed, a reporter with This American Life, out of the blue one day and they begin to develop a deep, peculiar relationship centered on digging into the supposed cover-up of a brutal murder rumored to have occurred in Bibb County, where McLemore lives. The seven hour-long chapters of S-Town whisk you into the world of Woodstock, Alabama, dubbed “Shittown” by the furious McLemore, who can no longer accept the degradation and hypocrisy he witnesses at every turn. Along the way Reed encounters family intrigue, secret affairs, buried treasure, stomach-churning violence, deep tragedy, and a glimmer of hope.

S-Town is a worldwide sensation, topping the podcast charts in America and several other countries since its late March release. And it’s a magnificent journey, fraught with narrative culs-de-sac, red herrings, and heart-wrenching twists. When I reached the end of the podcast, I blinked back tears and stared at my computer screen in awe. The feeling was wondrous, sad, beautiful. But it didn’t last. Why? As usual, my blackness got in the way.

Several minutes into the second episode of S-Town, Reed enters a secret clubhouse at the back of Tyler Goodson’s tattoo parlor, a place Goodson (a close friend of McLemore’s and a major character in the podcast) has built as a “haven” intentionally hidden from black customers, where he and his friends, Reed says, can “cultivate a sense of pride in their status as the outcasts of their world.” A tattoo artist named Bubba casually remarks on the “niggers” he doesn’t want to spend his tax money feeding. Until that moment, despite its setting in rural Alabama, the show hasn’t really mentioned race in any substantive way. Reed, embarrassed about the whole situation, describes himself as “shocked” and “scared” by what Bubba says. He warns the listener that they are about to hear some racist language — “replete with multiple uses of a terrible word.” It’s likely white listeners braced themselves. Black ones probably rolled their eyes.

Race has a weird, sideways manner of appearing as S-Town plays out.

Race has a weird, sideways manner of appearing as S-Town plays out, peeking out of the woods and then disappearing again so quickly you wonder if it was there to begin with. The wealthy Burt family — whose son Kabram is the man McLemore suspects of committing a murder — are owners of the K3 Lumber mill, which Reed doesn’t seem certain is as sinister as it first appears; do those three K’s stand for the names of the three Burt brothers, or for something else? When Reed asks Kabram’s father, Kendall Burt, about the name of the business, Kendall is delighted to tease Reed as a “liberal” whom he and other like-minded Southerners “upset with the election.” Kabram has a Facebook page that bears the message “raise hell and kill [black] babies.” (He used another word, Reed says.) Each detail is there, presented starkly and without defense, and yet, minutes later, they sink into the shadows as Reed moves on to other, more pressing concerns, like the location of gold bars secreted away in hidden chambers or the questionable motives of a city hall clerk.

Reed tells us early on that he is married to a black woman whose family is from the South, who has warned him not to reveal their relationship to people in Alabama. He also acknowledges that his own whiteness offers him access, as a reporter, that he wouldn’t otherwise have. Still, he seems able to look past his subjects’ constant, casual use of racist language. "We talked about the use of certain words,” he said in a recent interview with BuzzFeed News. “And I told [Goodson] that they made me uncomfortable. It's a weird position to be in as a journalist, because you don't want people to censor themselves. So that's not what I was trying to do. But I was also trying to be myself, you know? But [Goodson] was fine. Like, it was not an issue.”

Reed is performing a familiar dance. He can distance himself from the prejudice of these people, as long as it’s not audible. But as a black listener, hearing him do so is deeply uncomfortable. The fear black people know and experience in a very intolerant America does not fade merely because white people smile and say the right things. We know better. S-Town bristles, amazes, and disturbs in a way that clearly delights the overwhelming majority of listeners, but not everyone has the luxury of listening to this beautifully crafted story without being alienated by it.

Black audiences are used to this — a certain sense of deadness, a distance from the work of white creators, even when that work displays undeniable power or genius. The first season of Serial, another gripping and wildly popular podcast that in many ways paved the way for S-Town (both were made by the producers of This American Life) chronicled Sarah Koenig’s investigation of Hae Min Lee’s 1999 murder in Baltimore, and the possible innocence of the convicted killer, Adnan Syed. It produced a similar feeling: pure elation, and then a curious disappointment as I recognized a white woman sweeping into the lives of young people of color to speculate, evaluate, and pass judgment. At one point she openly doubts whether or not a jury would be inclined to convict Adnan merely because he is Pakistani and Muslim, after his mother suggests as much. Koenig’s position of power, like Reed’s, goes mostly uninterrogated.

More recently, the blockbuster podcast Missing Richard Simmons, which follows filmmaker Dan Taberski’s search for the flamboyant health guru, generated a new wave of controversy over the ethics of its basic premise. These mystery podcasts become cultural phenomena by using the stories and the trauma of real people as an opportunity to wax philosophical on life, love, and death. They afford those who can enjoy them most a certain kind of safety. Why else would millions have devoured S-Town or Simmons or Serial, other than to be completely lost in an experience? But the podcasts may offer that experience at the expense of their subjects’ dignity, or at the price of full inclusion.

Taberski, Koenig, and Reed are each members of a privileged class chasing after the mysteries of the Other.

Taberski, Koenig, and Reed are each members of a privileged class chasing after the mysteries of the Other, for the education and entertainment of mostly heterosexual white spectators: gay people and sufferers of social anxiety, immigrants and their children, poor white Southerners who operate as rustic foils to buttoned-up Yankees and noble savages all at once. The hosts of these podcasts obsess over their subjects, even fall in love with them, and invite us to do the same — while inevitably prioritizing their own search for a narrative (and an audience). S-Town is merely the latest example.

Has S-Town, which does at least raise the issues of race and class multiple times, really failed so completely? Reed is hardly sympathetic to the racist views of his subjects. The podcast is a portrait of John B. McLemore’s complex place in society and a deep dive into his troubled humanity, not a dissection of racial issues in the South. The storyteller and the main character are both white men and they, like anyone, should be allowed the space to tell stories about themselves.

Even a privileged white man bears no obligation to strongly consider the perspectives or experiences of other groups when creating such personal, original work. Unless, of course, he wants to reach the widest audience possible. Podcasts are a relatively new format for storytelling, and their popularity is largely dependent on word of mouth. Could I — a queer, black, Southern man — recommend S-Town? Yes, and I do. But there will always be a series of caveats, never a ringing endorsement. “It’s good, but no black people were interviewed.” “It’s nice, but Reed is careful not to ask Tyler Goodson about his Confederate flag tattoo.”

It’s also a matter of craftsmanship. S-Town’s greatest draw is how fearlessly it explores every facet of McLemore’s life and the town he came to despise. The hesitation to thoughtfully consider race and racism as one of those facets seems curious, if not a serious oversight. A piece in The Atlantic calls S-Town “a Well-Crafted Monument to Empathy” — but where is the empathy for the black customers Goodson and his friends are so careful to keep out of their clubhouse, or the black teens who can’t kiss under a bridge because it’s covered with racist graffiti that makes them fear for their lives? Nowhere to be found.

Black folks are used to exclusion, but that doesn’t make it hurt any less.

S-Town works very deliberately to drum up sympathy for poor Southern whites, or the “white working class,” as the media lovingly refers to them. But what about the black communities who have suffered in still more unimaginable ways? What about the black babies Kabram Burt wants to kill, and their mothers, and their locked-up fathers? Poverty is considered the natural state of black Americans only because it is has been cruelly imposed on us for generations. Part of tearing down this idea that black Americans’ plight is deserved and inevitable is encountering our humanity. What better medium could there be to do such a thing than one in which our skin color isn’t visible?

Of course, white people are not the ideal dissectors of white supremacy. They, like all of us, have been trained not to see it, and, unlike all of us, benefit from it their entire lives. When Bubba the tattoo artist brings up the black mothers he isn’t interested in feeding, I would suspect he knows in his heart of hearts that no matter how bad he has it, black people in Bibb County have it much worse. In his voice I hear both the pleasure he takes in feeling superior and the barely withheld contempt that helps him smother any trace of guilt.

Perhaps I’m asking too much. Podcasts are not going to end white supremacy, especially not while Fox News stretches its shadow over rural communities like Woodstock, Alabama. But, if anything, media organizations like Fox show us how our beliefs are so completely shaped by what we watch and listen to. S-Town is a deeply stirring piece of storytelling. It connects us to other human beings at their most vulnerable and opens us up to a world of people we would never otherwise meet or know. If only we were all equally welcome within its warmth and tenderness. Black folks are used to exclusion, but that doesn’t make it hurt any less.

S-Town is wonderful. John B. McLemore is a unique creature with a powerful story that should be told. And perhaps pulling apart the mysteries of a man like McLemore helps us tackle our own: a man who fights for equality and utter dominance, sometimes in the same desperate breath; a man who was raised on wealth gathered from the blood, sweat, and tears stolen from my black ancestors, yet gives freely to those in need; a man who loathes the town he’s lived in his entire life and yet refuses to abandon it.

But sometimes, in trying to more fully reveal America and all the parts of it we don’t see or acknowledge, we occlude it further. So the white Southerners whom I, and so many black Americans, would face only with terror are met by our own white friends with open arms. It is not that those people, however racist, are not worthy of compassion. But when will that compassion be tempered with judgement that takes into account black suffering as if it is a real thing that happened and is still happening all over the nation? I fear that, when it comes to white Americans, North looks South and South looks North so they can both avoid looking at the rest of us.

I enjoyed listening to S-Town immensely, in every way I imagine its creators hoped I would. And that’s exactly what makes its failure to acknowledge my experience so upsetting. The white people of Bibb County, whatever their views, are just like us, just as full of frailty and love and loss and hope. But I don’t think most black listeners will (or should) be able to look past the racism of those “characters,” because their real sentiments endanger our real lives. You can’t go back to seeing them as charming Southern rogues, playing on the swingset or cooling their pies on the sill, after they reveal their deadly prejudice.

At the fringes of their checkered picnic blankets, you just might glimpse a few stains — our blood — and the tree limbs are bent because our broken bodies weighed them down. You might remember the story that, so often, we cannot hear or see because it’s been erased. When you finish, after the tenderness, you just might feel that absence in your stomach, in your closing throat.

Wesley Jenkins is a writer from Houston, Texas, and a 2015 alum of the VONA/Voices program.

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