What is the South? Should I believe what I read in most American magazines and newspapers, it is a land of myth and mystification, mired in nostalgia for the politics of the Confederacy and marked in equal parts by antiquity, frivolity, cinematic excess and grit.
This place I read of is at once destitute and exorbitantly rich; demographically, it is almost exclusively white, racist, working class and conservative; and its schools, among the worst in the country, exist to promote a parallel ideology readily adopted by the young and impressionable children of its most undereducated and disenfranchised inhabitants.
This place is at once germane and exotic. It is regularly exploited for its narrative potential and its literary traditions. It is regularly depicted as the kind of landscape that Sally Mann or Dorothea Lange might photograph — where people have bad teeth and wear cotton; they speak with a long drawl; they are the type to swear you to s— and bless you to heaven in the same breath; they shop at Walmart; they are Catholics; they work at hair salons, drive pick-up trucks, and find themselves perpetually at the end of their rope and at the mercy of yet another natural disaster.
I do not recognize this place. It is a land I have certainly never visited, nor in which have I ever lived. But by all accounts, when I tell you I am from the South, this is the place you might imagine if you are not familiar with it. And when I tell you it is a place I write about, these are the kinds of stories you might expect me to tell.
I find myself asking: What stories do we tell about the South, and why? For the past few years, what has been published in the genre has been almost exclusively related to Trump journalism and picaresque natural disasters.
But what exactly is the message behind these narratives, and who is writing them? What do they tell us about the state of Southern media, who do they serve, and, as they come to bear on media ethics and professional integrity, are any of them wholly accurate and true?
I think not. This is not new criticism, nor is this phenomenon the result of a few isolated incidents. Inaccurate representation of the South occurs commonly, in almost each successive episode in which it cameos in national news.
Part of this failure to depict the region with complexity, nuance and depth is due to the fact that many journalists covering this beat are not from here, do not live here, and in some cases, may have never been. What they write about is informed by what they read about the place they write about, whether or not it is accurate — and thus, the cycle repeats itself.
One of the most egregious examples of this tendency occurred in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, of which most news coverage was later widely condemned for its inaccuracies and exaggerated hysteria. This was in part due to parachute journalism, when reporters unfamiliar with New Orleans and regional politics traveled on assignment to cover a complex and deeply political event as it unfolded in real time.
Their task was practically impossible: How could they accurately represent the unfolding state of conditions in New Orleans with such limited expertise and lived experience in the city beforehand? How could they find affected people on the ground, develop trust with them over the course of their reporting and fully contextualize what any single testimony meant for the larger community without a local’s insight?
Inaccurate news coverage and a lack of Southern voices reporting in Southern media is further degraded as a result of the region’s news deserts, of which it boasts the largest number in the country. Without local journalists employed to cover the region’s politics and culture in depth, national news outlets are tasked with this responsibility, which they all too often fumble or do not undertake.
As a result, individual complexity is abandoned in the narratives they are reported. Louisiana, where I live, is certainly nothing like Appalachia, nor Florida, nor Arkansas — except in the way it is regarded by those outside of it and in the way the whole of America is, as a country constituted explicitly by its diversity, complexity and contradictions.
Yet outsiders still write about this region as if any of these places have anything beyond geographic regionalism in common. When they write the South uniformly as a monolith, as Yoknapatawpha County, William Faulkner’s fictionalized Mississippi county, they fail to acknowledge that culture, economics and politics can and often do vacillate dramatically between individual counties and states.
A recent meme, widely circulated on Twitter, addressed this phenomenon by outlining several media tropes that dominate national news coverage of the region, such as “What Old Men in West Virginia Diners Tell Us About America,” “We Were Shocked to Discover Communities of Color in the Rural South,” “The Case for Not Giving the South Our Tax Dollars Because They Are All Republicans,” and “Could Gentrification Turn The South Blue?”
These headlines mimic actual news coverage (and rhetoric), which still centers the idea that the South is a region defined by its disenfranchisement, poverty, racism, sexism and conservative politics. And while these attitudes and predicaments certainly do exist throughout the region — much as they do across the whole of the United States — this reading of the South ignores its incredible diversity, its sizable migrant population, its radical queer pockets (particularly in New Orleans and Gay Tennessee), its established mutual aid networks, its radical organizing history, its unique subcultures and identities, and vibrant Black resilience movements that have influenced the politics, culture, and traditions of the region and America, both historically and contemporaneously today.
These marginalized histories appear in national media less often — not because they do not exist, and not because they’re rare, but because they collapse popular binaries set up between the North and South, and Democrats and Republicans. But as convenient as these archetypes might be, they only indicate shallow and superficial reporting.
There is an easy solution to this. If national news outlets were to scout and foster diverse voices from the region who are committed to accurately representing it, media may find itself positioned better to disrupt the hegemony of the New York City media groupthink and more accurately represent the rest of the country, as much as they would the South.
Because it is an offensive and outdated gesture to lump a region constituted by vastly different cultures into a single geographic slate, it serves us well to acknowledge that it is only in this mythology of a singular, unified South that the fiction of any confederacy continues to persist.
The South I recognize — and wish to see written about more often — is one that is ethnically, culturally, and socioeconomically diverse; it disrupts fixed notions; it resists a collapsible identity; it challenges its history daily and envisions new and radical possibility that the regions’ residents work tirelessly for it to become.
This is the South I write about, and this is the South about which we all deserve to read.