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Southern things have been very loud of late. Like a scene from any one of the dystopian television series so popular right now in an anxiety-ridden America—imagine a Deep South setting for The Leftovers—"things" are misbehaving. Across the South, a number of iconic southern landscapes and objects are shifting in meaning, and we cannot turn away from those conversations. A low hum has grown [End Page 1] into a loud chorus, and even violent protest. Consider the Confederate battle flag lowered from its place of honor on the grounds of the South Carolina State House on July 10, 2015—a once-unimaginable act authorized by Governor Nikki Haley in response to the horrific murder of nine black members of Charleston's beloved Emanuel A.M.E. Church, itself a powerful material symbol of both the South's historic African American community and the region's divisive racial history.
During the South Carolina legislators' debate over the flag's presence on the State House grounds, Representative Jenny Anderson Horne, a Republican from Charleston, stood and delivered an impassioned call for its immediate removal. Noting her own southern white ancestry, including family ties to Jefferson Davis, she decried "heritage" as a ruse for keeping the flag. I was moved by Horne's words, her breaking voice, her jutting finger emphasizing each point she made as she stood firm at the podium, and how she called out the names of her black colleagues and friends in the room who were deeply offended by the flag. The southern materiality and femininity of her appearance—Horne wore pearls and a pale pink suit—stood in sharp contrast to her steely words, "I cannot believe that we do not have the heart in this body to do something meaningful such as take a symbol of hate off these grounds … [I]f we amend this bill, we are telling the people of Charleston, 'We don't care about you. We do not care that someone used this symbol of hate to slay [nine] innocent people who were worshipping their God.'"
In the early summer of 2017, under the leadership of Mayor Mitch Landrieu, the city of New Orleans began the contested process of removing four Confederate monuments, each a venerated symbol of the white "Lost Cause." The word contested is an understatement. After contractors hired to remove the statues received death threats, workers wore bulletproof vests and masks as protection. When the last of the four statues was dismantled on May 19, Landrieu gave a historic speech at Gallier College. His remarks reverberated with southern things, as he called forth a material record of the city's history and asked why there were no monuments and markers to remember the slave blocks and lynching sites of New Orleans. The Confederate monuments, Landrieu explained, "are not just stone and metal. They are not just innocent remembrances of a benign history. These monuments purposefully celebrate a fictional, sanitized Confederacy; ignoring the death, ignoring the enslavement, and the terror that it actually stood for." The mayor called upon the city of New Orleans to create new symbols together, reflective of the possibility and potential of all, rather than the white elite and working-class southerners who remained tied to a particularly toxic understanding of "heritage." In July 2017, about fifty members of the Ku Klux Klan, who said they came from North Carolina, rallied in Charlottesville, Virginia, to protest the city's decision to remove...