Among the array of colorful posters and artworks in my office are two that I intentionally placed on the wall right above my desk. One is a cardboard Amos Kennedy print with a royal blue background that declares in big block letters: PROCEED AND BE BOLD! Below is the name of Samuel “Sambo” Mockbee, who was the founder of Auburn University’s Rural Studio. The other is a screen-printed piece from Standard Deluxe that features two little girls running with an Alabama flag and also a coiled snake accompanied by the words DON’T TREAD ON ME amid the jumble of colorful layers. Living and working in the Deep South, as a writer and teacher intent on seeing things get better, both sentiments seem necessary.
The latter, which comes from the Gadsden flag during the Revolutionary War, is today most often associated with far-right conservatives and gun-rights advocates, though to me it’s more about the generally American, albeit distinctly Southern belief in the greatest degree of freedom possible. This admonition has an ironic presence within Southern culture, considering the region’s historic habit of treading on all sorts of people: African Americans, the poor, immigrants, Catholics, Jews, and LGBTQ people. Interestingly, the self-same culture that has many times wagged a finger of warning at the federal government and the rest of the nation about states‘ rights also spawned and fueled one of the world’s greatest movements for human rights.
The former, which lacks that historical baggage, is no less poignant— also only four words, it provides an insistent urging that is something like Winston Churchill‘s “never give in, never give in, never, never, never, never.” Mockbee was a Macarthur Foundation “Genius Grant”recipient whose mission to design and build better and more affordable housing for the rural poor led him to Hale County, Alabama, a place whose poverty and isolation were chronicled in the book Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (and can more recently be surveyed in the Oscar-nominated documentary Hale County This Morning, This Evening). The phrase was also the title of a documentary about letterpress printer Amos Kennedy, whose spirit, I can attest from personal experience, is nothing if not bold.
To face what the Deep South has become requires anyone with an eye toward improvement to consider these notions: Don’t tread on me, and proceed and be bold. I can remember realizing, even as a teenager and young man in Alabama in the 1980s and ’90s, that our societal trajectory was a troublesome one. Coming to political and social awareness during the era of party-switching and crossover voting, at the time of Billy Jack Gaither’s murder and Revonda Bowen’s prom, and when the Christian Coalition set a precedent for defeating the state’s only hope for new revenue . . . I witnessed the post-movement evolution into our 21st-century culture, in which new groups are raising their voices to say, Don’t tread on me.
Yet, to proceed and be bold doesn’t mean to fight. I dislike the word fight as a political term. In election years, I see campaign ads in which candidates proclaim, “I’ll fight the Washington establishment,” and “I’ll fight for you.” I don’t want for us to fight anymore, and I don’t want to vote for people who regard politics as a fight. I would rather live in a culture where we differentiate the best and worst parts of our culture, where we listen and learn from good ideas, where we respect each other, compromise, and cooperate. I want for the people of the Deep South to look willingly at our long historical penchant for antagonism and choose now to proceed boldly into a better way, one seriously lacking in meanness and suspicion and refusal.