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Monday, June 19, 2017

Unfinished Business

This book—Zandria F. Robinson’s This Ain’t Chicago: Race, Class, and Regional Identity in the Post-soul South—has pinned me to the wall. Before reading it, I often wondered if African Americans who were born and raised in the South thought of themselves as Southerners. Why would they want to identify with a region with a history of enslaving and oppressing black people? And now as I write, I wonder why I’ve never asked. Ah, yes. Well. Like I said, this book has pinned me to the wall.   

I now know the answer. And how black Southerners have made the South their own is the subject of Professor Robinson’s impressive and ambitious book. Although the word Memphis does not appear in the title, This Ain’t Chicago, which was published in 2014 by the University of North Carolina Press and is part of its New Directions in Southern Studies series, is grounded in the Memphis experience. Professor Robinson, a born-and-bred Memphian herself and a sociologist at Rhodes College, takes stock of interviews she conducted with black Memphians—as well as of music and especially television programs and film—to “explore how region intersects with other axes of identity and difference in the black South.”

Professor Robinson conducted the field work for the book while she was a PhD student at Northwestern University, in Chicago. The main title comes from the responses of her interview subjects when she presented them with consent forms on Northwestern letterhead. “This ain’t Chicago,” they would say upon seeing the stationery—by which they meant that the black experience in the South was distinct from that in Chicago and other parts of the country.

That response—that assertion of a unique Southern black experience—is at the heart of the book. Region is the key element. As Professor Robinson explains, the South as a place, once a central focus of sociological studies, fell out of favor after World War II, as scholars became more interested in problems that could be treated as national or global in scope. Nevertheless, it is regional identity that black Southerners—or more properly, young black Southerners—have recently added, or reintroduced, to the mix of race, gender, and class that forms and informs their identities. Many black Southerners who came of age during the 1950s and 1960s—that is, before the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.—disowned the South, representing as it did for them racism, violence, and oppression. It’s the millennials and the hip-hop generation who “boldly and defiantly claim a regional identity as a distinction, a significant nuance to their racial identities.” As a 32-year-old waitress and returning college student interviewed by Professor Robinson put it, “We just do things better down here.” It would be hard to imagine that same waitress saying the same thing fifty years ago—which is exactly the point.

That Memphis does not appear in the title is deliberate: Professor Robinson intends her study to comment on and illuminate black life in the South generally. Yet Memphis is the ideal place to center her study, she says. The Bluff City “sits at the physical, temporal, and epistemological intersection of rural and urban, soul and post-soul, and civil rights and post–civil rights.” Because of that, Memphis stands in for “a conversation with the varied instantiations of the South, past and present.” I will return to this at the end of my review.

Post-soul and post–civil rights here have multifaceted meanings. In part, they are temporal markers, referring to a period that comes after the 1960s and 1970s—“after the heyday of Al Green, Stax Records, and Mavis Staples.” In part, they have to do with the paradoxes—and here Professor Robinson references the cultural critic Nelson George and the popular culture scholar Mark Anthony Neal—that characterize black life in the twenty-first century: “Mass incarceration, wealth stagnation, and the entrenchment of HIV co-occur with unprecedented educational attainment, skyrocketing wealth for a small but expanding blue-chip elite, and the first African American president.” They also have to do, as alluded to above, with the relationship of black Southerners to the past. Whereas previous generations wanted to escape and even erase the past, the generations who have come of age after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. reclaim the past and use it to create twenty-first-century identities, taking the cultural and historical materials of life in the South—its symbols, its food, its history, its famous sons and daughters—and combining them in creative, fluid, and sometimes transgressive ways.

But perhaps the most important concept in Professor Robinson’s analysis is what she calls country cosmopolitan. In essence, country cosmopolitan refers to a mix of the rural and the urban—much like the author’s presentation of Memphis itself. It is a “best-of-both-worlds blackness” that “blends rural values and urban sensibilities to navigate—and sometimes sanitize—the post–civil rights South.” It combines ironic performances of behaviors that blacks were once terrorized into performing—saying “yes, sir” to a white man—with new and decidedly non-ironic behaviors, such as staring directly at whites in a restaurant without speaking. (Is that really a thing?) What’s more, country cosmopolitan functions differently for different groups. Ordinary black Southerners—the Memphians interviewed in the book—use it to “maintain and strengthen the boundaries of authentic racial and regional identities”; black Southern cultural elites like Tyler Perry and the rap duo OutKast use it to “give voice to a distinctively Southern black experience”; and corporations like McDonald’s and Popeye’s use country cosmopolitan to “build an African American consumer base and foster a regional seal of approval.”

Although This Ain’t Chicago originates in Memphis, Professor Robinson is careful to situate her subject in the South as a whole. As she points out, while the popular media trade on the idea of the South as a unique place, the region is “evolving into something much like other American spaces: it is characterized by urban and suburban sprawl, is home to many new immigrants, and faces challenges managing the needs of economically and politically diverse populations.” The South remains very much an intentional construct, be it of the Southern hip-hop artists who insist on being taken seriously by their East Coast counterparts, the forty-four-year-old media professional who bristles at outsiders who “think we slow, backwards, [and] always at church,” or the director of a nonprofit organization who sees herself as a “Southern belle” and understands how being from the South makes men “want” her. As Professor Robinson writes, “The South is a strategic accomplishment, both in popular media and in people’s everyday lives. Black and white folks, the cultural elite acting on their behalf, and corporations are all interested in accomplishing a particular version of the region that suits their specific ends.”

This Ain’t Chicago will bother white Southerners who believe it’s their birthright to control how the South is historicized, represented, and interpreted. As the book amply demonstrates, young black Southerners have been engaged in creating their own South, with its own history, its own symbols, its own culture. And I think that that gets to the crux of the recent furor and hand-wringing over Confederate symbols such as the Confederate flag. Whether the Confederate flag represents “heritage, not hate” is in some ways beside the point; what is really at issue for many whites who defend the flag is their authority to dictate its meaning—whatever that meaning may be—and by extension, the meaning of the South and what it means to be Southern.

In closing, I want to return to the claim that Memphis is the ideal place to sample the identity work of young black Southerners. As someone who grew up in Memphis and visits the city often, I think I understand what Professor Robinson means when she says that Memphis “sits at the physical, temporal, and epistemological intersection of rural and urban, soul and post-soul, and civil rights and post–civil rights.” This means that the city—unlike, say, an Atlanta or a Charlotte—drags its past into its present, that Memphis has a usable present and a usable past, that Memphis, while being a twenty-first-century city that has a majority black population and a majority black leadership, retains significant elements of the rural, the Old South, the Jim Crow South. As a young woman from Jackson, Mississippi, who moved to Memphis to attend college said, Memphis is dogged by “unfinished business.” The lives of the majority of black residents are still shaped by the legacy of white supremacy and white oppression—although white supremacy and white oppression are no longer sanctioned by law and although, legally and in theory, black residents have access to education, employment, and credit. Black lives (and white lives too) are also shaped by the rural inheritance that might be the city’s most enduring, and crippling, legacy. Memphis is a city of landlordism, of sharecroppers and tenant farmers—not literally anymore, but a hat-in-hand, working-class mentality pervades the city to this day. Whether my characterization of Memphis is accurate, and whether Memphis is unique in those respects, are open questions. I invite my fellow Memphians to respond.

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