- Front Porch
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President Booker T. Washington, the canny founder of Tuskegee Institute, became famous (or infamous, depending on the observer) for words he spoke at the opening of Atlanta's Cotton States and International Exhibition in 1895. The only African American person on the program, Washington used the spotlight to ask black southerners to accept the social and political domination of southern whites in exchange for mutual economic progress. Sharing with his mixed-race audience the story of parched sailors who found fresh water from the Amazon in what seemed to be the salty Atlantic, Washington advised both races to "cast down your bucket where you are," and to find their futures in the South.
Becoming known as the Atlanta Compromise, Washington's proposal drew praise from many whites and some blacks as a practical solution to what they called the "race problem." It also drew condemnation from militants, who denounced Washington for surrendering to the white supremacists who were then stealing the fruits of emancipation in an orgy of lynching and disfranchisement across the South.
This is not the place to referee the famous quarrel over these matters between Washington and W.E.B. Du Bois. But Washington's advice to "cast down your bucket where you are" is nonetheless compelling for southerners of all stripes who struggle with the tension between leaving home and staying or returning home. It's so compelling that John Shelton Reed, founding editor of Southern Cultures, revived it as the central image of a commencement address he gave here at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 1995. It also seems to draw together the otherwise-disparate features of this issue of Southern Cultures.
For small towns and hometowns can be famously stultifying places. A long line of successful artists and intellectuals could not flower before leaving their native soil. Sarah and Angelina Grimké could not bear to live in Charleston. Thomas Wolfe traded Asheville for New York. William Faulkner and Tennessee Williams honed their craft in New Orleans, culturally far from their Mississippi roots. Frederick Douglass had every reason to escape Maryland. And the list goes on.
But as virtually every southern writer demonstrates, home can be a wellspring for art, and for every writer that stayed there's another southerner who left home, gained some polish and perspective, and then came back to ruminate on the push and pull of place and kinship. Faulkner, Welty, and O'Connor are obvious cases, and many more have followed their example.
This issue of Southern Cultures features a mixed bag of leave-homers, stay-homers, and come-homers. In "From Georgia Peach to Art Historian," Gail Levin leads off our leavers with an autobiographical sketch of how she struggled to break away from her Atlanta family in order to find herself in art and academe. Her mother loved to paint but discouraged her ambitions; her father ignored art but saved her earliest self-portrait, found among remnants from his own investigation of sexuality. How did Levin's parents, she asks, foster her search for art as they tried in [End Page 2] vain to steer her elsewhere? In this issue's "Not Forgotten," Dawne Shand explores the familiar problem of a small town's open secrets that no one dares to mention, blocking any serious consideration of racial wrongs and forcing a cruel dilemma on the otherwise-minded: shut up or leave. Brian Glover takes up a different problem in "De-Located Yankees," his word for northern migrants who refuse to fit into a southern milieu. Looking at writers Brad Watson and David Sedaris in particular, Glover finds displaced Yankees who can't act "northern," and natives whose southern schtick falls flat. In the end, he concludes, "southernness must be performed, and that performance can never be entirely 'successful'" among leavers and stayers alike.