How to Raise a Progressive Kid in the South: The Remix

First off, let me get this off my chest: Fuck this article. And all others like it.

Here’s why:

I grew up spending weekends with my dad’s family in what was then rural North Georgia. My dad and grandparents would often wish aloud that “those Yankees would just go back home”. This sentiment embarrassed me when I was little, as I perceived it to arise out of a 150-year old frustration over the loss of the Civil War. However, I was also always puzzled that my family used the term “Yankee” to refer to someone from anywhere other than the South (ie Californians were certainly included). I was also confused because my mom and my stepmother were both “Yankees”- sometimes when my siblings and I did something that he did not approve of, my dad would disdainfully call us “half breed Yankees”. Today, I recognize these sentiments as representing my family’s frustration with the condescending approach that people who are not from the South (Deep South in particular) tend to take towards those of us who are.

So often, those that have not had the pleasure of growing up here and having the nuanced realities of our lives and history imprinted on their bones, their consciousness, their beings, decide that they need to go on an expedition to “discover” what those realities are. Often, there are uninformed and arrogant prescriptions made about how to make us better. Sound familiar? And then they write (or paint or photograph etc) about those “discoveries,” which occasionally gains them a great deal of notoriety- often at our expense. These reflections frequently miss the mark, as Ms. Aronowtiz’s piece has.

The title of Aronowitz’s article is just atrocious: “How to Raise a Progressive Kid in Alabama”. Why Aronowitz thinks she, only days into her road trip, has the knowledge necessary to write such a piece is dumbfounding. I decided to read the piece anyway, as I know that oftentimes authors do not have control over how their pieces are titled.

But even more upsetting is what seems to be the central recommendation of the piece in regards to “how to raise a progressive kid in Alabama,” which is to send them to a private school that costs as much as or more than college. Surround them with students and teachers that think like them. Because god forbid you as a parent actually introduce authors like bell hooks, Sylvia Plath, and Audre Lorde to them yourself (or provide your kid with the tools necessary to discover them on their own).

This recommendation is a-historical. It ignores the fairly recent role of private education as a tool of oppression, particularly as a tool for preserving racial segregation, particularly in the U.S. South. Aronowitz focuses her story on a progressive private school in Alabama, but the much more common reality are private schools in the South that came about because of the 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education Supreme Court decision that required schools to racially desegregate. White parents literally created private schools so that their kids didn’t go to school with black kids. How different is it for a “progressive” parent to send their child to a private school when the end effect is still racial segregation in schools? How progressive is that really?

But I also take issue with the way this article, and often progressives from other parts of

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the country, address the prevalence of religion in the South. Because it’s also a-historical. Christian liberation theologies sparked resistance to enslavement and provided vital grounding for the Civil Rights Movement (across race). Anti-South liberals, progressives and radicals reveal their ignorance when they assume that religion here is something that always makes us backwards, rather than entertaining the idea that it’s an asset that has provided strength and cohesiveness in the face of unbearable oppressions.

I’ve spent virtually my entire life in the South and attended public schools here until college. The public schools I attended were under-funded. The students at my schools were mostly white working class, African American, and recent immigrants of color. When I was in elementary school, Georgia passed a state law mandating that every school hold a “moment of prayer” every single morning. The principal of my elementary school regularly quoted from the Bible, and would literally sing hymns over the school’s intercom system. The only things I remember from sex ed class are nightmarish slides demonstrating the more cosmetic consequences of STIs and the mantra “abstinence is the only sure form of birth control”.

And still, I managed to discover and read bell hooks in high school. My mom taught me that it was not ok that the State of Georgia was trying to force us to pray in school. She told me that I could do whatever I wanted during that moment, as long as I was respectful. That’s a lesson that has served me well in community settings where meetings more often than not begin with a prayer to a god I don’t necessarily believe in. Today, I call myself a “heathen child” (as my father has since I was little). I am a radical, white, feminist anti-racist committed to the liberation of all people. I walk around continuously aware and trying to learn more about my particular historical context as a person with all of these identities who is from the U.S. South and committed to making home here. I am in relationship with lots of people who came from circumstances similar to mine is some way and who identify with a variety of progressive and radical movements.

I don’t say all of this with the belief that my individual life experiences and those of my friends are the only ways to demonstrate how to raise progressive kids in the South. But they do demonstrate stark alternatives to those suggested in the article referenced above. Perhaps most importantly of all, there are multitudes of other progressives and radicals that hail the U.S. South, ranging from Anne Braden to Ella Baker to the leadership of the Black Panther Party itself. It would better serve our collective liberation if Aronowitz and others like her would consider our experiences and relevance before pontificating about how to make the South more progressive. The U.S. South is not a place to be colonized. We do not need well-intentioned people from other places to teach us what is right and wrong. In fact, Southerners have served as the moral conscience of this country on a vast number of occasions.

In the face of stark injustices in the U.S., there have always been Southerners committed to the struggle for collective liberation leading the way. I suspect we will continue to do so; the real question is whether or not folks from the rest of the country are ready to deal with their own presumptions and savior complexes in order to actually pay attention to and learn from us.

6 thoughts on “How to Raise a Progressive Kid in the South: The Remix”

  1. The Nation seems particularly addicted to paying northern writers to write about the Gulf Coast. They really don’t seem to believe people in any most-affected communities are qualified to talk about themselves. As a result, so much of their reporting from the US south and global south really misses the mark.

  2. Thanks for this, Kate. I especially appreciate the mention the a-historical nature of this southerners aren’t proggressive posture. Not to erase the realities of oppression here, but to remember and honor the legacy of struggle. Anytime there is oppressi, there are people fighting for freedom. The more violent the oppression, the stronger the resistance. This especially speaks to an ignorance of Black peoples resistance movements, the largest insurrection in the country against enslavement by enslaved people happen in Louisiana (LaPlace) in 1811. The oldest Black newspaper founded in New Orleans, the Trbune. The largest strike of Black and white workers that was successful, the founding of the SCLC, the organized NOLA CORE support fot the Freedom Rides of 1961. History tells us that so goes the south, so goes the nation.

  3. I don’t know how to raise a progressive child in the South. All I know is that my ex-husband and I managed to raise three of them. I have no advice for other parents, other than raise your children to think for themselves. And yes, my children attended public schools.

  4. It’s so good to read this, Kate. What you describe about your experience growing up in Georgia is very similar to my childhood in Baton Rouge – attending underfunded public schools until college, access to good books outside of school, a mother (and a few exceptional teachers) who encouraged me to think for myself, and modeled respect for and recognition of humanity in its many manifestations.

    I didn’t have any explicitly progressive/radical mentors in my life; there were just smart people who encouraged me to be myself, and were tolerant of my often-awkward process of discovering what that meant. (I realize that that was a privilege – one of many.) My mother taught me sex education when I was quite young, and continued to do so as I became sexually active, because sex education was – and still is – illegal in East Baton Rouge Parish public schools. My first direct action (though I certainly didn’t call it that back then) was teaching my classmates about STIs, contraception options, the risks of taking birth control pills for smokers, etc. I did this during our lunch breaks many times, and also via notes passed around during math class.

    Most of the kids I knew who went to private school didn’t get as good of an education as I got, didn’t get hooked on reading and writing the way I did, and the few folks I know anything about these days certainly never got radical.

    Surrounding a young person with wealthy people does not make them a radical. Clearly. “Teaching tolerance” is largely theoretical when done in the context of mostly-white schools.

    I am currently living (in self-exile) in Portland, Oregon, for acupuncture school, and so am surrounded by exactly these sorts of well-intentioned people who – if they think about the South at all – only do so in terms of fixing it. It makes me livid and homesick, frustrated and post-Katrina triggered, and it especially makes me miss my communities back in New Orleans. Thank you, Kate, and Wendi, for reminding me of what richness there is to come back to; thank you for reminding me of who I am and why.

  5. Right?! A more apt title for the original piece could be “How to Keep Patting Yourself on the Back for Not Being From Alabama.”

  6. Thank you all for your affirmations on this piece and for sharing about your own experiences. There has been ongoing conversation (and well founded, inspirstional snark) about this piece, Nona’s piece, and this problem in general on Facebook and Twitter also. We actually got the piece directly to Nona via the TOK Twitter account; her responses were defensive and dismissive but not surprising. No word yet from The Nation :) There’s so much work to do, but this experience has left me so appreciative of the community of folks out there that “get it” and how brilliant we are as Southerners even though various other points of our identities, privileges, and oppressions- and the histories of those things- may differ or intersect in messy ways.

    Jennifer I empathize so much with your position as I spent 9months during and after Katrina in Los Angeles, in self-imposed grad school exile. I found Southern California to be an exciting and beautiful place full of potential and I found West Coasters, for the most part, to be lovely people. But it wasn’t home and being there during/right after Katrina made that ache so much worse. When I moved back to NOLA in early 2006 via road trip, I remember making it to East Texas and giddily rolling the car windows down because the air finally smelled like home. It sounds like you are doing your best to glean all that you can from the experience in the best ways that you can, which I really admire. I wish you continued strength on that front!

    Coleen, I so wish I had thought of that title. Seriously. Part of the reason it took me so long to post the piece was because I was searching for a snarkier title; alas my brain didn’t deliver quite to my satisfaction…

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