At the 2016 MLA conference in Austin, TX, I attended a panel on the future of Southern Studies. During the panel, various scholars presented their manifestos on where Southern Studies is and where it should ultimately go. A couple of months after that panel, the latest issue of PMLA arrived in my mailbox with the manifestos in print. Appearing under the banner “Adjust Your Maps: Manifestos from, for, and about United States Southern Studies,” the collected essays present varying thoughts on where we would should ultimately go in regards to Southern Studies.
For the majority of individuals, both inside and outside of the academy, the South exists as an exotic region in retrograde, a place that contains the lesions and scars of racial segregation, “capitalistic exploitation,” and religious fervor, However, are these items, and more, limited to the states that exist below the Mason-Dixon Line? No, they are not? The South, for me, serves as a microcosm of the Nation and its struggles at equality and democracy. Perhaps Michael Bibler’s introductory comments to the collected manifestos sums everything the up the best. Bibler writes, “Slavery, segregation, racism, sexism, homophobia, social and political conservatism, religious extremism, capitalist exploitation–these are all national problems, not limited to the South” (154).
Today, I want to take the time to express a couple of my thoughts regarding a few of the pieces in the section, especially when considering the role of Southern Studies in serving as a Trojan horse to bring more diverse conversations in regards to literature and culture into the hallowed halls of the university. To this extent, Keith Cartwright’s “Tar-Baby, Terrapin, and Trojan Horse–A Face-the-Music Cosmo Song from the University’s Hind Tit” struck a nerve with me, especially considering the idea of Southern Studies serving as a Trojan horse to bring students who may not read The Third Life of Grange Copeland, Of Love and Dust, The Known World, A Visitation of Spirits, or other texts because they refuse to take an African American literature course into contact with multiple voices and points of view. Let’s focus regionally, instead of continuing, as Cartwright says, to be “bad copies of magnetic North’s real (but devalued and never holistic) thing” (177).
For me, the idea of using literature and Southern Studies as a Trojan horse and to maintain a regional focus when teaching anywhere strike home. I can remember walking into countless classrooms when teaching as a GA at UL Lafayette and asking students whether or not they had ever heard of Ernest J. Gaines. Nine times out of ten, a couple of students would raise their hands to say that they had heard o from before. To me, this signified a tragedy because he taught at UL Lafayette but also resides less than two hours away. Bringing him into the classroom opens students eyes to the multitudinous obstacles we still need to overcome in regards to race relations and laws, and his work provides students with a focal point that they can draw upon because they are familiar with the region. Likewise, if I was teaching in North Carolina, I would make sure to introduce students to Randall Kenan. If I was teaching in Georgia, I would have them read Alice Walker. These are just brief examples, but providing students with texts they can relate to, especially in regards to region and locale, helps them become more invested in the content. In that way, ideas and themes that would appear in an African American literature or culture course could be integrated into an American literature survey course or a course on the novel in the twentieth century.
Erich Nunn’s “Screening the Twenty-First-Century South” calls on us to explore the cultural production and representation of the South in this contemporary moment. He discusses Duck Dynasty, Here Comes Honey Boo Boo, True Detective, and the fact that Adult Swim originates from Atlanta, GA. Rather than pandering to natioanl perceptions of the South as a screen where the nation’s ills get reflected, we should “write back against this line [and] Smash the Mason-Dixon, indeed”(190). I have long held that the South serves as an image of the nation’s problems, specifically in regards to race and class. Recall that many African American texts (Richard Wright, Iceberg Slim, James Baldwin, Ralph Ellison, etc.) debunk the North as Paradise myth that partly helped to fuel the Great Migration. Why did the South become the Other? Why does it (we) exist in a realm that sees the region as a site for the ills of America?
Perhaphs the most interesting section of Nunn’s article comes near the end when he discusses the Norton Anthology of American Literature‘s section on writing that emerged in response to 9/11. The sectin appeared in the seventh edition, but by the eighth edition (four years later) it was absent. While Nunn questions this move, he ultimately comments on the fact that for most of his students, from the Gulf Coast states, Hurricane Katrina served as a more tangible site of trauma. According to Nunn, “They experienced 9/11 as mass-mediated spectacle but remember Katrina and its aftermath as lived experience–not only the violence of the storm but also and perhaps more enduringly the travails of displacement–memories of friends and relatives in FEMA trailers, and so on” (189). What does this say? To me, it signifies the erasing of experiences that a region went through and survived, much like 9/11. It makes the event invisible to the academy, when numerous fiction, films, albums, and other forms of media have appeared in response to it. I will take this point up in my next post when I discuss Katharine Burnett’s piece.
I want to conclude this post by pointing out that Mafia III, a video game due out in October, may serve as good space to interrogate some of the thoughts that Nunn presents in his piece. The game centers around Lincoln Clay, a mixed-race Vietnam vet, and it takes place in a rendition of 1968 New Orleans (New Bordeaux in the game). Lincoln, before going to Vietnam, worked with the Black Mob in New Bordeaux. When he returns, he falls back in with the organization, and conflicts arise with the Italian Mob. Appearing to take on elements of True Detective and film noir, it will be interesting to see what comes of Mafia III and what critiques will arise, especially when considering the most recent issue of PMLA.
As usual, what are your thoughts on these discussions? There are numerous other manifestos in the section, and I will discuss a couple of more in the next post. Let me know your thoughts in the comments below.