Re-Run: “Patchwork,” April 2010

This post was originally published on the blog for “Patchwork: A Chronicle of Alabama in the New South,” my Surdna Foundation Artist Teacher Fellowship project in 2009 and 2010.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

A Chronicle of Alabama in the New South

This term, the “New South,” nests precariously between being an anomaly and an ideal, between a cruel joke and a wild hope, between a vicious lie and a half-hearted effort at improvement. As far as I know, the term came from newspaper editor Henry Grady. He was trying to say that the South had changed . . . and that it should even more. Of course it became abundantly clear after Reconstruction was over that yes, the South had changed, but had only become less overt and more insidious in its racist ways. The next incarnation of the “New South” came after World War I, then again after the Depression, then again after the Civil Rights movement. The last time it seems to have stuck. Though nobody would surmise that our old problems have been solved completely.

I hesitated to subtitle this project with the term “New South.” I don’t like the historical connotations of its repeated failure to live up to its promise. But I do agree with people like Glen Browder who say that we are moving forward— maybe just inching forward, but moving forward nonetheless.
There is an old saying, “Many hands make light work.” I liken the changing of Alabama to moving a house. If you strap one guy to it and make him pull, he could work all day every day but it will probably never move. But if he goes around its foundation and loosens it up . . . and then if you add more people who are pulling . . . eventually slow progress will be made. And if you add even more people to pull, and the right leverage mechanisms are put into place, those people can move that house, without the help of a crane or a truck.
Alabama is the same way. If enough people sit back suspiciously and full of cynicism, saying, “They’ll never move that house,” then those cynical people are probably right. But if the people who want to see something change will get on board, abandon apathy and cynicism, and work for change, it can happen. The Civil Rights movement proved that.
I was pleased to hear it and didn’t expect it, when I watched Conan O’Brien’s last episode of The Tonight Show and he said that nothing pisses him off more than cynicism, because cynicism is completely useless. He said, if you’re not going to work to do good things, then get out of the way for people who are, and don’t bash them for doing it. He said that people who spend their energy impeding good work are the worst kind. Alabama is a lot like that, only it is masked by terms like “conservative” and “Alabama values.” These coded messages mean: “We’re not going to change anything,” and “We’re going to stand defiant against anything different from us.” It’s cynicism. In Alabama, we watch systemic failures in our state and refuse to change, and then many Alabamians bash the people who try to change it.
I wanted to write about the things I have been seeing for a long time— a real “New South.” I have known lots of people, born and raised in Alabama, who are not those cynical people. They are musicians and skaters and entrepreneurs, writers and teachers and organizers, artists and librarians and historians, architects and preachers and photographers, divers and kayakers and meth-lab busters. I have known these people who are working not to let those cynics ruin this state. But you don’t hear much about them, because the national news media only wants to talk about our football teams, our corrupt politicians, and our weirdo-freaks. Well, I don’t hear much about the good people of Alabama either, so I spent a year out looking for them, and remembering the ones I had known for years, and thinking of a way to tell more people about them. That’s the “New South” I’m talking about— a place full of progressive people who want to leave all the bullshit of the past behind, but nobody has organized them all yet.

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