- Night Train across AmericaMapping EthnoHeteroNationalism in the Age of Trump
I find myself unable to articulate the moment in which we are living through the frame of an objective or empirical theory. In the age of Trump and the EthnoHeteroNationalism of his ascendance, our old language has lost its meaning. The models we have relied on to shape understandings of geography, history, identity, and culture may do more to obscure than elucidate the contours of our world. To discuss the so-called white working class, nebulous economic anxieties, or a southern strategy seems to elide a direct confrontation with the moment we have entered. We have to find a new way to see this world.
From out of the debris of the 2016 election, what we can see at the edges of our dimming candle might be able to form the substance to build a new understanding of our world and its dimensions. New models will be imperfect, but we should embrace them anyway. We can measure those new models by what they make visible and consider them against their inherent, but not necessarily untenable, limitations. The new theory we must forge begins with two points—you and I—merged close together, sharing stories and trying to make sense of things. We create a planar existence in the space around us. We map out the new world, but to do so, we must forget the maps of the old and their fixities and connotations. Our old map no longer holds meaning. There is no South in America anymore. We must approach our geography through a different vehicle, but if we ride the rails awhile together across [End Page 70] this dark chasm, we will find that there might yet be worlds waiting to take shape.
■ I took the night train out of Chicago in early January 2013. The City of New Orleans leaves Union Station at dusk and passes through the South Side before following Interstate 57, which follows the old path of Highway 45, south across Illinois. Near Carbondale, the train shifts to follow Highway 51 to cross the Ohio at Cairo, just a mile or so north of the Confluence at the southernmost point of free soil south of the original Mason–Dixon Line. I was headed home to Oxford, Mississippi, where I was finishing my dissertation on William Faulkner at the University of Mississippi. At the time, however, home was not just a university I attended. I was born in Memphis and raised in the mid-South. I had at that point never ventured outside of the shadow cast by Memphis into the former Chickasaw and Choctaw territories that form North Mississippi and West Tennessee. I certainly had no idea that in eighteen months, I’d be teaching gay studies in Wisconsin, still within arms-length of the river but on its northern banks.
The Mississippi above and below the Confluence is two distinct rivers as if to verify in landforms the impression that this huge continent does indeed have a distinct north and south to it. Mark Twain explored the differing character of the northern and southern portions of the Mississippi River in Life on the Mississippi; Alexis de Tocqueville, on the other hand, used the east/west flow of the Ohio River as his dividing line for the differences in capital and entrepreneurial spirit on an antebellum map of the United States. If the original Mason–Dixon Line that forms the northern border of Maryland bound slavery to the South in the early days of our republic, then the Ohio River became the de facto boundary for a nation expanding westward at a precipitous pace. Cairo sits at the southernmost edge of this imaginary geography. Below Cairo, our national consciousness has long been able to envision a South in which slavery existed and in which an agrarian society supported itself on cotton and cane and a particular, if peculiar, way of life.
The ideas represented by this South never bound themselves to these idealized borders, whether demarcated by rivers or by surveyors’ stones. Bleeding Kansas became a battlefield for pro- and anti-slavery forces. The term “bleeding” suggests how slavery...