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