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The American South: On the Map and in the Mind

A Guernica special issue.
Kara Walker, Gone, An Historical Romance of a Civil War as it Occured between the Dusky Thighs of One Young Negress and Her Heart (detail), 1994. Cut paper on wall, 156 x 600 inches. Courtesy of Sikkema Jenkins & Co., New York

Whether you’re partial to images or prose, attempt to capture the American South and you will soon find yourself deep in a thicket of contradiction. And there, not least among your struggles will be the very challenge of defining where exactly it is that you’ve wound up. When we talk about the South, are we referring to a stretch of states below the Mason-Dixon, a frame of mind, a variant of culture, or a region sill reeling from having once ardently defended Jim Crow and the “peculiar institution”? Writing in the Encyclopedia of Southern Culture, Patrick Gerster includes among the stereotypical characters we might encounter: Bible-thumping preachers haunted by God, nubile cheerleaders, demagogic politicians, corrupt sheriffs, football All-Americans with three names, and neurotic vixens with affinities for the demon rum. Add to this roster a host of poets, painters, farmers, freedom fighters, and citizens—scattered north and south—coping with the uncertainties of post-industrial America, and we may just begin to grasp this entity that remains in equal parts a place on the map and a place in the mind.

In this special issue of Guernica, the first of four made possible through your generous support to our Kickstarter campaign, we offer fresh takes on a familiar landscape, where the American South is at once a geographical distinction and a bright spot in the imagination, where burden vies with birthright, and where ignorance and renaissance exist side by side.

Catherine Lacey is quick to remind us: “Neither tomorrow’s progress nor today’s bigotry hesitates at state lines. The human rights issues we see writ bold below the Mason-Dixon are American issues.” Writing in this issue on the paradox of LGBT churchgoers and her home state’s copycat anti-gay bill, the Mississippi-born and Brooklyn-based author inveighs against the “nasty underside to Southern hospitality and bless-your-heart manners” that she says “encourages systemic oppression and lets old wounds fester.”

In an intimate dialogue with his mother, writer Kiese Laymon explores language, love, the enduring politics of inequality, and how past and present continue to mingle. “White supremacy and patriarchy don’t want us to ritualize the work of loving each other,” he writes, “which means white supremacy and patriarchy literally want us dead. We ain’t dead yet.” And Guernica’s Ed Winstead considers the accent in Southern writing. “‘Southern,’ as a descriptor of literature, is immediately familiar, possessed of a thrilling, evocative, almost ontological power,” writes Winstead. But, he argues, since the golden era of the early to mid-twentieth century, “the South as conceived of in literary terms” has been in statis, bound to a grit-lit voice and rural-sounding vernacular.

Plus fifteen writers, including John Biguenet, Rachael Maddux, Wendy Brenner, Margaret Wrinkle, and Jamie Quatro, consider what the South means for them, often traipsing, in the words of Bill Cheng, “a precarious position in that borderland between longing and not belonging.”

For Bryan Stevenson, working in Montgomery, Alabama, the predominant narrative of the South tries to cover slavery up, “to get rid of it, to destroy it. As if somehow, if we do that, we can make it go away.” In an interview with Guernica’s Alex Carp, the public interest lawyer discusses leading an effort to locate and commemorate former lynching sites and slave markets and placing often overlooked aspects of history back into public view. Dwyer Murphy talks with National Book Award winner Jesmyn Ward on the cultural renaissance underway in the South and how it risks reinforcing stereotypes while opening up new channels of expression. Guernica’s Meara Sharma interviews the Southern historian Marcie Cohen Ferris on “food as a barometer of cultural identity,” and Henry Peck talks to the “moonshine roots” musician Valerie June about the timbre of the Tennessee landscape.

Our issue also features new fiction by LaShonda Katrice Barnett and Lauren Holmes, poetry by Rebecca Gayle Howell and Clay Matthews, and pieces on a Nashville artists’ enclave, the ethics of execution, Southern gothic on the small screen, and more.

In this issue:


Kiese Laymon: Hey Mama

Ed Winstead: On a Strange Roof, Thinking of Home

Catherine Lacey: Against Bless-Your-Heart Manners

Glenn T. Eskew, Tom Piazza, Kent Wascom, Jamie Quatro, Lightsey Darst, David Bottoms, Rachael Maddux, Margaret Wrinkle, David Foote, Bill Cheng, Megan Mayhew Bergman, Jed Horne, Laura van den Berg, John Biguenet, Wendy Brenner: On the South

Ann Neumann: Whole Body Burning

Margaret Sowell: A St. Joseph’s Walk

Win Bassett: These Signs Shall Follow Them

Alexander Lumans: Centaurs Eat at Cracker Barrel

Lincoln Michel: Lush Rot


Beating the Drum: Dwyer Murphy interviews Jesmyn Ward

Sound Medicine: Henry Peck interviews Valerie June

Salt of the Earth: Meara Sharma interviews Marcie Cohen Ferris

Walking with the Wind: Alex Carp interviews Bryan Stevenson


Veronica Kavass: Forts and Fugitives

Freestyle: Laura Blereau interviews Rashaad Newsome


Lauren Holmes: I Will Crawl to Raleigh If I Have to

LaShonda Katrice Barnett: Ezekiel Saw the Wheel


Clay Matthews: Act Two

Rebecca Gayle Howell: You Can’t Tell the Truth


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You might also like

  • Against Bless-Your-Heart MannersAgainst Bless-Your-Heart Manners On the paradox of LGBT churchgoers, Mississippi’s copycat anti-gay bill, and the South’s damaging culture of politeness.
  • Beating the DrumBeating the Drum The National Book Award winner on substance abuse in the rural South and being told she’d written “just a Southern book.”
  • On a Strange Roof, Thinking of HomeOn a Strange Roof, Thinking of Home Toward a definition of Southern literature that goes beyond twang.
  • Hey MamaHey Mama A black mother and her son talk about language and love in the South.

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