Ecology + Justice + Culture in the American South

Biloxi’s book ban, the danger of dams, & Florida’s displaced migrant workers

In Chapter 17 of “To Kill a Mockingbird,” Tom Robinson, a black man, is in an Alabama courtroom on trial for allegedly raping a young white woman named Mayella Ewell. Judge Taylor tells the crowd that some people requested women and children leave so they won’t have to hear the details of the case. But Taylor denies the request, saying that “people generally see what they look for, and hear what they listen for.”

This week, the Biloxi, Mississippi school board banned “To Kill a Mockingbird,” Harper Lee’s iconic Pulitzer Prize-winning novel about racial inequality and the civil rights movement. The book is frequently taught in U.S. grade schools ― I read it in the seventh grade, and it is the first book I ever remember analyzing and using to discuss the flaws of society. Now, however, eighth graders in Biloxi won’t be required to read it, the president of the school board said, because there is “some language in the book that makes people uncomfortable, and we can teach the same lesson with other books.”

This remarkable ability to turn a blind eye to what is uncomfortable, to try to gloss over dark legacies and pretend history doesn’t exist unless there is something to be gained from it, is ingrained in Southern culture. It is perhaps the region’s most glaring and harmful flaw. So often, this habit is lightheartedly portrayed on movie screens or in book pages: the Southern couple sitting on the front porch drinking sweet tea, being polite in order to save face in front of their neighbors. And sure, the South is warm and friendly ― but underneath that mask there is often deep-seated fear, misplaced anger, and resentment.

What many people want to remember and what the facts actually are don’t always mesh. It happens when we talk about the myths and facts of segregation, as Nikole Hannah-Jones reports, or when society calls for Confederate monuments to come down. It occurs when we tell stories of of our food and our farms, or when we talk about the statistics of a changing climate. Recently, filmmaker Lance Warren eloquently wrote for Longreads about this while working on his documentary, An Outrage. He discusses the lengths to which the South has gone to to hide its history of lynching: “[We] had driven 723 miles from our home in Richmond, Virginia, to find killing fields across the region,” he wrote. “We wanted to see how these places looked today. We wanted to explore memory, interrogate history, and ask what happens when the two do not agree.”

Unfortunately, instances like Biloxi’s book ban are often projected onto the entire region and onto people ― primarily people of color ― who have spent their entire existence confronting the South’s history. It is left up to the blue dots in the seas of red to fix it while most everyone else stands by. This was the case with the Biloxi decision, and Mississippians took to social media to call out those who were stereotyping the region.

People in the rest of the U.S., whether it’s the Intermountain West or New York City, are also complicit in allowing this habit to continue. This country has failed to reckon with an entire region and the ripple effects its decisions created. That is clearer now than it has ever been, as our cultural and political divides continue to widen. The wounds of history have not healed, largely because the Band-Aid that keeps most people comfortable has never been ripped off.

Part of Southerly’s mission is to become an integral part of these conversations, both in person and online. Whether it has to do with confronting the myths and truths of race and culture, historical accuracy, or climate change, I want to spur civil dialogue. As William Faulkner once wrote, “to understand the world, you must first understand a place like Mississippi.”

My question, then, is how to unravel that. What conversations have worked at your dinner table, your church, your happy hour? What has helped you confront the South’s failures, and what do you still have trouble with? In what situations have you seen more than what you’ve looked for, or heard more than what you were listening for?

Send me a note anytime on Twitter, via email, or reply to this newsletter.

Stories worth your time

Molly Born wrote a story for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette about students in West Virginia who unfurled a banner at a football game that said “TRUMP PERRY” to taunt their rival, Perry High School, which is predominantly black. It set off conversations about race, politics, and sports, and, as Born reported, offered some critical teachable moments.

The podcast Inside Appalachia dedicated an entire episode to people in communities impacted by the creation of flood-control lakes ― from Burnsville Lake in West Virginia to a controversial project that almost flooded the Red River Gorge in Kentucky 50 years ago.

For Scalawag, Mason Adams digs into gentrification, development, and segregation in Roanoke, Virginia. “From a distance, Roanoke looks like a success story for Southern reinvention, using its outdoor assets to attract a young creative class and build a new image as an outdoor-centric beer and biomedical destination,” he writes. “Yet while this new model clearly is delivering new prosperity and jobs for some, the city faces significant challenges in spreading that wealth across neighborhoods to its most vulnerable residents.”

A shoutout to my hometown of Louisville in my latest story for InsideClimate News, which looks at the rapid adoption of electric transit buses by cities across the country to save money and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

News flying under the radar

The Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement is investigating a leak of up to 392,700 gallons of oil from a deepwater well into the Gulf of Mexico off the coast of Louisiana.

Floodwaters from Hurricane Harvey may threaten the Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary, which is 100 miles south of the Texas/Louisiana border. The coral reefs have held up well so far with warm and polluted waters, but massive amounts of freshwater could harm the delicate ecosystem.

Florida is home to an estimated 300,000 migrant workers, whose jobs, homes and lives are at risk after Hurricane Irma destroyed a bulk of the state’s cropland. Because of their legal status, many migrant workers don’t qualify for relief or are afraid to seek help.

Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe had voters of color to thank for his narrow 2013 victory. This November, voters will choose his successor, and Democratic candidate Lieutenant Gov. Ralph Northam needs them to turn out again to win the race.