Ecology + Justice + Culture in the American South

A warm welcome to Southerly

This newsletter came out of a fleeting thought I had several years ago about a magazine for the South. The idea came up for air every once in a while over the years, and evolved: The South needs stronger, more in-depth narrative journalism, and people seem to crave it. The South needs a publication to answer the multitude of questions about climate change and how it impacts the land and people. The people confronting the legacies of the South deserve a voice, and the ways others clutch those legacies can’t be ignored. The complex ecological, political, and cultural challenges the South faces are representative of the challenges of our age. They should be discussed, dissected, understood.

While working this year at High Country News, a regional magazine about the American West, I noticed how many fascinating, similar stories were cropping up in the South, flying under the radar or being covered stereotypically and superficially. This has always been a problem, but during and after the presidential election, that inkling of an idea I had solidified. The racial, political, and environmental discourse in the South is more relevant than ever — this region, and its people, are anything but simple.

There is no clear geographic definition of the South; it depends on which agency, academic, or neighbor you ask. I define the South broadly, to include Appalachia, coastal states, culturally Southern states, and the Deep South: Kentucky, Tennessee, North and South Carolina, Georgia, Virginia, West Virginia, Mississippi, Louisiana, Alabama, Arkansas, and Florida.

The South is one of the fastest growing and urbanizing regions of the U.S. One study suggested that by 2060, land in the South used for urban purposes could double. It is diverse, with an African American population that has helped build and create what it is today, a rising Hispanic population, growing refugee communities, and rural white communities. The South is where many climate change challenges are playing out first: some of America’s first climate refugees are members of the Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw Indian tribe on Isle de Jean Charles in southern Louisiana; they were awarded funding by the federal government last year to move to higher ground. Storm surge is already threatening most of Miami’s roads, in addition to its sewer systems. The mid-Atlantic coast is sinking faster than any coast in the U.S. In 2016, unprecedented drought in the Southeast fueled one of its worst wildfire seasons yet. And the South’s political stake is expanding: for example, North Carolina has been one of the most crucial states to watch during and after the presidential election, from the transgender bathroom bill, to voting restrictions, to its response to sea level rise.

But most often, Southern issues — particularly ecological ones — are merely footnotes. Most recently, a pipeline leak and explosion in Alabama went virtually unnoticed during the Dakota Access Pipeline protests; hog farms on the North Carolina coast flooded during Hurricane Matthew, their waste contaminating surrounding communities — most of which are poor people of color — without attracting much attention.

There’s a quote from the book After Nature: A Politics for the Anthropocene, by Jedediah Purdy, that captures what many people here have always known. After spending time out West, it rings truer now than ever for me — a harsh reminder, a fuel for fire:

“I know that there is no equality among American landscapes: some are treated as sacred, some guided into many generations of habitation and use, and others sacrificed in just a few years … If you live in a wooded suburb of Boston and treasure the preserved lands next door, if you live in the dense neighborhoods of Boulder, Colorado and like to go to Rocky Mountain National Park for your summer hikes, your relationship to the land is secure, a privilege enshrined in law. But if you love the hills of southern West Virginia or eastern Kentucky, if they form your idea of beauty and rest, your native or chosen image of home, then your love has prepared your heart for breaking.” 

These truths inspired Southerly. The goal is twofold: to shed light on the best journalism and the most pressing environmental, justice, and culture stories in and out of the South, and to rediscover this region myself, by getting on the ground and listening to a variety of communities. I’ll do some of my own reporting, and hopefully add other Southern writers’ work. I’ll include essays, investigative projects, narrative writing, photography, and more. My long-term plan is to get back to that original fleeting thought, and turn this weekly newsletter into a magazine.

To do that, I need your ideas, your feedback, your thoughts. What are the under-reported stories? Where are the injustices? What are we glossing over? What should we focus on under a Donald Trump administration? Who, and what, is the South, really? I want to know what matters to you, whether you are in rural Louisiana, urban Atlanta, the hollers of Appalachia, the Outer Banks, or downtown Tampa; whether you are conservative or liberal, college-educated or not; an immigrant or a native; living in a suburb or on a farm or in a trailer park or a beach house.

To kick it off, I chose a few stories focused on the progressive and diversified Southern perspective that will inform and shape this newsletter: 

White and black communities in North Carolina have banded together to push rooftop solar in low-income communities and fight Duke Energy’s transmission lines and power plants across the state. The most recent issue of Scalawag, a new magazine on politics and culture in the South, breaks down battles between residents and the utility company to show how deeply intertwined Duke is with state politicians, campaign fundraising, and local economies.

Not sure why it took me so long to discover the podcast Inside Appalachia, out of West Virginia Public Broadcasting, but I’m hooked. My favorite episode so far is Inside Affrilachia, where host Jessica Lilly dives into the lives and perspectives of African Americans living in Appalachia. Frank X Walker, a Kentucky-based writer and poet, coined the term “Affrilachia” in the 1990s. Since then, a group of black writers, called the Affrilachian Poets, have come together to “defy the persistent stereotype of a racially homogenized rural region.”

This explainer from Vox details the nuances of coal country Republican votes and discusses how unfair it is to blame them for backing politicians who will strip their healthcare. Too many post-election stories have belittled Appalachians for their Trump votes without asking deeper questions about the political cycle and broken promises continually made to coal miners.

A glimpse into the lives of Muslims in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, this Washington Post story delicately balances the perspectives of the Bible Belt’s evangelical Christians and growing Muslim communities, focusing on how they coexist amidst the current political rhetoric.

That’ll do for now. Happy New Year, and feel free to give me a shout via email or Twitter. See y’all in 2017!