Thursday, September 7, 2017

A Bitter Taste

When I arrived in Nashville last year the first thing I did was wander into the bureau of Visitors and Tourism and asked for a guide and some ideas on how to become acquainted to my new City and in turn new home. They were amazing as most people are in the hospitality trade and gave me a copy of Southern Living as it was having anniversary events throughout the summer and thought I should attend. I selected a Bourbon tasting at the Hermitage. I like to combine my history with booze as it makes it go down better and the home of Andrew Jackson is a place where drinking is a necessity.

Later I found a better lifestyle mag, Gardens and Guns, which is mentioned below and I love. It is Martha Stewart with a pistol. I found Bitter Southerner by total accident and in fact link on my site as I find it interesting in that quintessential Southern hipster way. Here we also have the local bi-monthly, East Nashville, also hipster oriented but nowhere near as well written as BS (interesting acronym) but it is still a magazine. But it was there I read the first warning of how to fit in and to more importantly not. And that is the issue that I find most fascinating and in fact most repugnant about living in the South - the over emphasis on "identity" as it relates to region and in turn history. But they have their identity and I thought this relevant which I read in the comments section:

I've read them all, and the branding is only slightly different. SL is bourgeois azaleas + heritage festivals + Rick Bragg. G&G is $37k shotguns (as noted) and super-authentic heritage grains. Oxford American offers "think pieces" on southern identity by persons slightly more literate than Rick Bragg, plus foodways. Bitter Southerner is $40 hand forged bottle cap openers, "southern identity" from the hipster angst POV, and (also) azaleas. Haven't read scalawag. But (with the exception of SL, which, to its credit, has gone mostly pure anodyne: more cheese straws, less Bragg et al), they all sell a navel-gazing version of "what it means to be southern" and what you can buy to support that identity. The last part may be unfair to OA.

But they are just magazines and I know no one who reads any of them. That there is a problem in and of itself.

I have said many times "Those obsessed with the past are incapable of living in the present." It is an ever present shadow that casts over you and your future and when you are always on the defense you are in turn putting people on the offense. At the end of the day here I feel constantly under assault over the fear of the outsider and the need to mark territory to assume superiority. When every encounter is adversarial you find yourself wondering if anything good can come of this or we will be at war for life? The South literally contradicts itself as it is both superior and inferior, a victim or a martyr. Whatever it is it is exhausting.

One of the many comments at the Times site mention this need for identity as almost stifling. I have never in my life heard anyone but Southerners announce they are "Calfornians" "Washingtonians" "Pacific Northwesterners" And you do get some of that on the East Coast but again unless it is related to sports I am unclear why it matters where you are from and what does that mean exactly?

I think these stands out:

I lived outside of Charleston, SC, for four years in the mid to late 2000's, worked in the downtown area a few times, and moved to rural FL for six and a half long grueling months, only to flee back to my home state. I met many nice people, good people, caring people. But mostly, it appeared superficial to me. Underneath that "Southern charm" is suspiciousness of outsiders, an undercurrent of hostility, and misplaced pride in the "Southern" way of living. I even worked with one young man, who was in medical school no less, who still called the Civil War the "War of Northern Aggression." The South has a long way to go to pull itself out of it's racist past.

The South exhausts me. Include Arkansas and East Texas and you have a largely Third World nation within our own borders. The poverty, the hate, the self-imposed celebrated ignorance are the result of many many years of bad choices. The region hoovers up federal money and then hates the federal government. Celebrating any type of Southern exceptionalism is suspect. This is a part of the country that cannot figure out how to deliver basic services. There are islands - Atlanta, Miami, spring to mind - that have shed some of the disastrous legacies, but by and large, the biggest parts of the South are content to sink ever-deeper into the muck of ignorance and racism - and drag down the rest of the country with them.

As a native Southerner who thought she understood our history and culture, it was only after living away for three decades and observing the people and the place from a distance that I came to terms with both. Now that I've returned, I feel like an outsider, though I keep my opinions to myself. Quite simply, we Southerners need to do a lot of quiet and honest reflecting before we can move forward. For we are not yet as special as we think

And this I think is the most eloquent:

The South has always been fertile ground for writers, and the themes may often be driven by the tension in what Patterson Hood called "the duality of the Southern thing." However, I am not one to buy into the meaning of that duality as one that is embodied in the "typical" Southerner, and perhaps it is not meant to be taken that way. The duality is simply a euphemism for racism and its continued support by some not insignificant portion of the population. And as such, it is not more complex than any other simple moral question - you either are or you aren't a racist. There is no need to wrestle with some imagined complexity or nuance to the question or in interpretations of the "good" people in our past and present who still deeply embrace those views. The correct side is clear.

Now, how that past affected the population, which is a mix of racists, victims, and non-racists, is interesting. The past primarily affected Southerners psychologically; for the perpetrators, by the long years of telling themselves why it is OK when most know down deep it isn't, for the victims, overcoming the effects of being scarred deeply and forever, and for the non-racists, grappling simultaneously with anger at both the perpetrators and themselves for often not doing enough. That psychology has deeply informed the culture, art, and writing of the South, not always in overt ways.

And that is the problem. This odd duality that literally makes the phrase "Southern Hospitality" and oxymoron. The idea that we from the outside are there to take away their "culture" or their "way." I hear and see it everywhere and yet without newcomers arriving Nashville would be the dump it was, a place of honky tonks and bad food. There is a growth of industry and in turn with it a rise in population who bring with them a willingness to do all the heavy lifting and working hard mantra espoused by the gentry here. What they fail to mention is that here in Tennessee less than 1/4 of the population vote; that only a 1/3 complete College and that one out of 4 are illiterate. So all these glossy rags and words of cocktails and wisdom are utterly ignored. Our regional newspaper is utter garbage and for the landed gentry, aka the wealthy, they lead lives of insular security that nothing that goes on outside affects them inside and that is what matters. There are more book festivals and writing meetups and even local bookstores than I found in Seattle and yet again no one seems to go them. I dropped out of my last class after I read the drop the mic piece which was critical of what I found here. So you are one of them if you are one of them - White, Christian, Middle Class, Educated, Informed - about sports - and compliant; Loving sweet tea is however optional.

I have been composing my essays on reflection of here many that started in this very blog. I see the future in the Children here and it is bleak. It is embarrassing to listen to Adults speak to them and the reality of how they are being tracked and in turn marginalized into largely service roles while the Private Academy kids have grounds akin to Country Clubs where they hob nob with their future fraternity brothers and/or business partners. It is like some sort of incest farm where families are joined at the hip and bank account.

Yes I speak harshly but I have little else to go on. I have been asked and "invited" to Churches and that is the extent of the hospitality quotient. I have been berated and admonished more times than I can count and had the Police summoned to my home and stopped me when I was entering my work place. These are not normal behaviors and actions when you wish people to remain and feel welcome. The Nashville Way seems to be one of a permanent scold. I listened to the Cop berate me yesterday after my Iphone was stolen and then after he denigrated the kids to the point you do see a racial component, it was totally off putting and then when he finally concluded with the comment: "If it had happened to me I would be as upset as you and been the same way." So why not start out that way to take away my anxiety and simply tell me the truth, that they were never going to get my phone back, cancel the service, be glad it was a earlier model and if you were going to buy a new phone anyway this may be the time. But no it was to berate, to scold and admonish. I love when he said don't cancel your service when we find it.. right.

The circular speaking and the ability to lie while smiling is something that I have not experienced until I moved South. I lived in Texas and there they talk in telephone numbers or in other words hyperbole but hey it is not that distressing but the ability to lie while talking is something of which I will never understand.

I cannot wait to leave but in the interim I have to write. This might be the balm to the wound. - Signed, A Bitter Northwesterner...

In Southern Magazines, Easy Pleasures and Hard Questions

SEPT. 5, 2017

DECATUR, Ga. — It was Friday afternoon at Kimball House, a casually elegant bistro set in a 19th-century railroad depot where the bartenders wield Herbsaint, rye and peach honey. Chuck Reece, 56, editor in chief of the website The Bitter Southerner, was at the bar, poring over the day’s raw oyster menu and using a little pencil to circle all the items of Southern provenance.

Then Mr. Reece recounted his website’s origin story, one he suffuses with a dash of the providential. It was originally going to be a breezy celebration of Southern cocktail culture, he said, until he and his friends hit on that curious name. “Bitter Southerner” suggested a more ambitious mission. “We basically spent a year trying to figure out what that name was telling us to do,” he said.

And this, in essence, is what they heard: “Cross out the ‘i’ and add an ‘e’,” Mr. Reece said. “Bitter” would become “better.” This website was going to try to fix the South

From the outside, the American South of 2017 may seem stuck in a one-note loop of grim historical disputation, with fights over the Confederate flag and monuments interrupted only by meteorological disaster. But Mr. Reece’s online magazine is engaged in a broader re-examination of Southern identity that is playing out in a clutch of ambitious regional publications, some of them provocatively named — Garden & Gun, Scalawag — and all describing a multifaceted, multiracial future that seems to have already arrived, right alongside the incessant re-litigating of the pas

In the last four years, The Bitter Southerner has emerged, on a shoestring budget, as a kind of kitchen-sink New Yorker for the region. It has tackled issues of race, class, crime and capital punishment, and published profiles of Southern farmers, bartenders, beekeepers, gay teenagers, spiritualists and civil rights pioneers. Begun as a hobby, the web-only magazine now has 100,000 visitors per month, a small staff and a cult readership that supports its journalism with the purchase of T-shirts that broadcast Mr. Reece’s vision of inclusiveness (“All Y’all”) and the good life (“Drink More Whiskey”).

Along the way, it is trying to manage a tension that has long dogged Southern publications: How much to sing the song of the South, especially amid genuine evidence of racial progress, and how much to be a skeptical voice in a place where issues of race and class often shadow conversations about even the most innocent pleasures?

At one end of this spectrum is the Charleston-based Garden & Gun, a gauzy, 365,000-circulation lifestyle magazine that defines and reflects the new Southern aspirational style: Dowdy suburbanism is out, replaced by a vision of vernacular architecture, artisanal everything, the wabi-sabi chic of the rural hunting lodge and an informed embrace of regional cooking. Kimball House, with its vintage sconces and heart pine floors culled from a Kentucky distillery, has been featured in the magazine at least twice.

After nearly going under during the recession, Garden & Gun’s bimonthly issues are now fat, thanks to the humming economy and the avoidance of a list of topics, once enumerated by the editor in chief, David DiBenedetto, that might offend its readers: “politics, religion and SEC football.” (Don’t hold them to the last one.) Its aversion to controversy has, oddly, made it the South’s most controversial magazine, criticized by some Southern liberals who contend that it trots out a stylish, sanitized version of the moonlight-and-magnolias myth — even though its vision of the new Southern good life makes room for same-sex garden party hosts, contemporary African-American novelists and inventive Mexican-American chefs.

On the other end of the spectrum is Scalawag, a Durham, N.C., based nonprofit quarterly begun in 2015 by a three 20-somethings, with an unapologetic left-wing agenda and dispatches from self-identified queer Appalachia, gentrifying East Nashville and North Carolina’s death row. Its circulation is about 1,500, and it does not review cocktail bars. Its motto: “Reckoning With the South.”

“The South is not this homogeneous place — it has a deep history, a really full history, and one that’s not just for the upper class,” said Alysia Nicole Harris, 29, an African-American who grew up in Virginia and is an editor in chief of Scalawag. “The demographics are changing. And ultimately, we believe that the South is going to be the voice that emerges to lead this conversation about trauma and healing, because here is where the trauma was the thickest.”

He knows his own publication has a way to go. The founders, a half-decade ago, were all white. Mr. Reece recently recruited a black managing editor, Timothy Turner, and a black music columnist, Joycelyn Wilson, a media studies professor at Georgia Tech. One of her most recent pieces, riffing on the latest 2 Chainz album, was titled “Four Reasons Pretty Girls Like Trap Music.”

When I returned to the South three years ago to work as a correspondent for The New York Times, The Bitter Southerner was gaining some buzz, but I was leery. Mr. Reece has written that his site exists “to support anyone who yearns to claim their Southern identity proudly and without shame,” and I suppose I think of my Southern identity as something less to claim than to puzzle out. The summer 2017 issue of The Oxford American features an essay by Harrison Scott Key, in which he describes his experience of playing in a Southern R&B band as a kid. I played in one, too. Apparently we shared the same small epiphany:

“We played for friends here and there, and we sounded O.K. — but something was missing,” Mr. Key wrote. “On the outside, we were white, but on the inside, we were also white. And inside that inner whiteness, there existed a deeper shade of white that knew things, such as how our good fortunes had come pretty easy, at least compared to the people we sang about in the songs we played.”

But I like Mr. Reece’s magazine, which, like any great periodical, feels like it is of its moment. At Kimball House, Mr. Reece held forth on a range of Southern topics both frivolous and deep: The introduction of okra as a cheap New World food supply for enslaved Africans. (“You can’t write a story about how wonderful a thing gumbo is without acknowledging that it is an undeserved gift.”) The mixology skills of New Orleans bartenders. (“There are old bars where folks never stopped doing it right.”) His interview with the Atlanta rapper Killer Mike (“He said, ‘I’m not that different from people you call redneck. I drive a truck. I like to fish.’”) And Southern millennials, born into a world where correctives to the Lost Cause myth are only a couple of clicks away.

They are an important part, he said, of The Bitter Southerner’s target audience.

“We have ancestors, recent ancestors, who grew up a certain way, and never challenged that way of thinking,” he said. “Now we’ve got all of these kids who have all of the world’s information at their fingertips. And they have the courage” — Mr. Reece used a more earthy phrase here — “to challenge it.

Mr. Reece grew up in tiny Ellijay, Ga., in the Appalachian foothills, raising hogs with the Future Farmers of America and working in a record store for credit that he spent on punk rock records.

In 1979, he attended the University of Georgia, in Athens, where new cultural currents were percolating in a Southern context. He took in both the early music of R.E.M. and the art of Howard Finster, the rural Georgia preacher whose self-taught painting was full of otherworldly vision. Backwoods preaching was the kind of thing Mr. Reece thought he had moved to Athens to escape. Now he discovered the wonder in what he had shunned.

These days, The Bitter Southerner is his only full time job — a labor of love, he says, but one that pays a small fraction of his old work in corporate communications. In the early 1990s, Mr. Reece served as press secretary for Gov. Zell Miller, the Georgia Democrat best remembered for railing against his own party at the 2004 Republican convention.

The publication’s challenge is to reflect a modern South that has one foot in the craft cocktail lounge and one in the racial violence of Charlottesville, a reflection of what Patterson Hood, the leader of the Southern alternative rock band Drive-By Truckers, calls “the duality of the Southern thing.”

At a recent meeting, the magazine’s staff, including the media director, Kyle Tibbs Jones, mentioned two recent articles that had been popular among readers: a feature on Decoration Day, a Southern grave-tending ritual with echoes of Mexico’s Day of the Dead; and one that unearthed a trove of old photos of South Louisiana residents posing next to their beloved azalea bushes.

They spoke of the articles to come. Mr. Reece said they might run something on the novelist Thomas Dixon Jr., whose writings inspired the racist 1915 silent film “The Birth of a Nation,” and celebrated the white backlash that brought an end to Reconstruction.

“Basically a lot of what you see becoming manifest in alt-right philosophy today has antecedents in Dixon’s writing,” Mr. Reece said.

“Dark week,” Ms. Tibbs Jones said. “We need to follow that up with some azaleas.”

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