Tennessee and North Carolina need you in, not out.
“Why don’t you come north for the summer?” a friend texts me, he means to be sweet. He sends along a picture of the view from his back window, a charming New England town, a birdhouse painted to match his cabin, a dog in the yard. He says his offer is about the sweaty Southern summers. Two years ago he stayed a week in my un-air-conditioned home and, as a nightly ritual, announced he would die. Ceiling fans spun at top speeds as he lay half-dressed on my sofa, cursing my state and cursing July.
But I also know his text is about Nashville. It’s about Raleigh. It’s about the backwardness they all see here. I know it’s because he thinks I live someplace hopeless, someplace left behind. He tells me to come somewhere easier, someplace I can put up my feet; he reminds me he is the better cook.
I know he knows about the big Confederate flag nearly big enough to hide history flying in my parent’s hometown. I know he knows about the wanna-be preacher who calls women and gay people filth and is scratching his way toward North Carolina’s Governor’s mansion through bigotry and fear. He’s read the headlines about cops protecting the white nationalists, about lawmakers trying to ban drag queens. He knows, like I know, that they’re cutting into our rights, coming for our votes. They’re coming for our bodies. He knows when they can’t win at the game they made, they will rule by procedure, rule as a minority, rule from the margins, rule even while their ideas become obsolete. He knows that this game down here is rigged and he wants me to get out.
But I am a woman and I am a Southerner, so I know how to pile my hair on top of my head and walk out into the heat.
I know what it’s like to be talked about and spoken for. I know what it’s like to be laid claim to, what it’s like to have to bark with the dogs to get my 18 cents more. I know what it’s like to be gerrymandered, to be presumed to be owned, for people to stake out claims on my flesh and my family, to draw lines that run through the middle of me. I know what it’s like to drive your kid sister across five county lines for an abortion and to pass the hat to come up with her missed pay. I know what it’s like because I’m from here, it’s all in my DNA.
In the South, we have seen it all. We’ve been America’s dumping ground for stereotypes and bad policy; we’ve been the laboratory for this nation’s sins. We don’t wince when our grandmothers heave down the big cleaver to sever the stems, we don’t wiggle when the mud is knee-deep. There’s a drawl in my voice and there’s tar on my feet.
Southerners come from people who not only farm the land but dig down underneath it. We fire up the lamps on our heads and push our bodies under the rock where it is dark. We chip away at another man’s filthy treasure knowing the mine roof can fall anytime. We aren’t hicks and hillbillies, but people who know the rest of the country’s secrets from deep underneath.
So, when I see people on Twitter saying we should give up on North Carolina or we should “Boycott Tennessee” as if we — people like myself and and my neighbors — don’t live here, as if we aren’t the majority, as if we have never have never been in love, as if we aren’t worried for our neighbors and as if we don’t care about our friends, as if we don’t have something to lose. When I see this, I have something else to say.
I say you can’t risk us stopping our fight here because this is where they have always tried injustice on for size. Once they make it fit to our thin and ragged bodies, they will export it and tailor it to you. This is where they invented the prison system to capture the dissenters, this is where they invented the literacy tests, where they invented the “right to work,” where they test out their politicians to see if their lies will take. This is where they perfect divide and conquer to keep us apart.
They start it here but it’s coming for you.
As goes the South.
You can’t risk turning your backs on us, you can’t risk boycotting Tennessee, you can’t risk making fun of the hillbillies, or the poor whites, or the poor Blacks, or whoever it is you see yourself as different from, because the South exports more than cotton. And you cannot say we don’t have a chance here, because we have never been given a single thing. Yet despite all that, we have given y’all so much. We have given you Martin and Jimmy. We’ve given you Huey and Ella. For God’s sake, we gave you Fannie Lou.
It was the mothers in Warren County who gave you the language to describe what was happening to your land so you could fight it. It was the miners in Mingo County who showed you how to unionize. It was the people of Lowndes County who showed you to mobilize. For every blow, for every Jim Crow, for every gerrymander, for every supermajority, for every trifecta, we have made something. And I’m not talking about coal and rice.
So goes the nation.
We made the gospel that pours out of my neighbor’s radio on a Sunday morning while little girls do jumping jacks in the street. I am not going North this summer, I’m going to stay right here at home in the Southern heat.
Southerners and Southern movements come from people who know how to work dying soil with their hands; soil from which you can better make pottery than food. We know how to make barbecue from least desired cuts of meat, how to make cornbread to sop up the potlikker.
We know how to raise corn on the shady slope of an Appalachian holler, how to pull rice out of a swamp, and peanuts out of dirt. We know how to hack back the kudzu and how to sit still at a lunch counter, how to sit straight in a pew.
We are the ones who birth the fiery Justins and we create women like Gloria, women who know to smooth their skirt but turn down a seat when it’s at the wrong table. We are the people who can walk a long country mile on the sweltering blacktop of a state highway with no shoes on our feet.
Just imagine if the rest of the country were with us. Imagine what we could all be.
It’s been a hundred and fifty eight years since they lost their cause and we are still here. It’s time for people to begin to believe in our new Southern strategy.