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  • Front Porch
  • Marcie Cohen Ferris

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Ben Alper, from the series “Background Noise.”

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IN WHICH I OUT MYSELF as a southern outsider/insider. Raised a Jewish southerner, I am married to an agnostic folklorist from Mississippi with whom I share progressive politics. My household supports small-scale farms and local food producers and makers in our region. I fear that industrial agriculture—and its historical ties to the plantocracy—is detrimental to the well-being of thousands of southerners (human and animal) and the environment. I recognize the daily impacts of climate change on our state, most dramatically seen in the devastating flooding and economic damage caused by Hurricane Florence in fall 2018.

I feel a growing cynicism about the moral core of public institutions in our region, and am angered by racial terrorism that allegedly honors the memory of the Confederacy and denigrates African American experience and history. From confrontations over monuments in civic spaces to white elected officials and former fraternity brothers confronting past sins when newly uncovered college yearbooks reveal photographs of their younger selves donning blackface and spoofing lynching in college antics, a historical reckoning is needed. In these clashes over historical memory, and given public reactions to them ranging from expressing horror to overlooking these “shenanigans,” it is not immediately apparent who is insider and who is outsider. As we see time and time again, these positions are not fixed, and the insiders of today may become the outsiders of tomorrow.

As a feminist, I am grateful for the women who have driven the #MeToo movement. Southern women continue to fight for equal pay and workplaces that support pregnancy and child-rearing, time to care for aging parents, and space to foster creative initiatives and new projects. I am reminded of Rosanne Cash’s recent album, She Remembers Everything. Cash describes the work as a “reckoning with mortality, feminist rage and sorrow, trauma and love . . .” While you’ve got Cash’s album teed up, start reading historian Jessie Wilkerson’s To Live Here, You Have to Fight (University of Illinois Press, 2018), a brilliant examination of women’s lives as leaders, activists, workers, homemakers, and their long tradition of “citizen caregiving” in the struggle for social and economic justice in Appalachian resistance movements of the 1960s and 1970s.

While my politics might place me “outside” of an old-fashioned and stereotypical understanding of what it means to be a southerner, I live here. (In fact, I was born here—not that being born in the South is the only way to achieve southernness.) As a native of northeastern Arkansas, I’m tired of old squabbles about whether the state is inside or outside the South. Chopped barbecue sandwiches topped with slaw and thick-cut onion rings, fried catfish and hushpuppies, warm Rotel dip with tortilla chips, and platters of fried chicken are typical foods on the Arkansas table. Cotton and rice fields for days. Southern. Period.

Obviously, the binaries I have presented are much too simple, grounded in the current red/blue political divide of our nation. Daily, we observe ploys to divide America and Americans by race, [End Page 2] class, religion, gender, and place. Pundits and politicians claim to be righteous “insiders,” attempting to isolate, marginalize, and expel nonbelieving “outsiders.” Think about the historical persistence of the insider/outsider trope in the South, whose diverse populations have grappled—often violently—with the politics and privilege of belonging and alienation, from its indigenous peoples to European explorers, planters, enslaved Africans, laborers, Confederates, segregationists, Progressive Era “New Women,” civil rights activists, counter-culture and anti-war protestors, movement leaders, white supremacists, and newly arrived immigrants.

In this special issue, the second of four honoring the twenty-fifth anniversary of the publication of Southern Cultures, historian and guest editor William Sturkey brings together essayists to examine this pervasive theme of “Inside/Outside” in the American South. Who are its gatekeepers? Who or what is included or excluded, and why? Which voices are heard, and which are not? Who is welcome? Who is not? “Inside” and “outside” are malleable concepts; it is possible to be both at once...


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