Doing Southern Studies Today

Wednesday, January 13



12.00-1.30 p.m.: Negotiations of Genre


Allison Serraes

Toni Cade Bambara’s Crime Novel and The Southern “True Crime” Genre


In the acknowledgments of Toni Cade Bambara’s posthumously published magnum opus Those Bones Are Not My Child (1999), she thanks her opposition: “Also while I’m at it, I’d like to thank several crank callers, threat-makers, hecklers, and writers of poison-pen letters, et al., without whose fierce opposition I might not have been so damn dogged” (675). Bambara recollects the resistance she experienced while she spent nearly two decades researching and writing her novel based on the Atlanta Child Murders, a topic that recently has been taken up in the true crime podcast boom of the 2010s. While “True Crime” touts southern origins with Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood and has had many major successes in southern settings—the Peabody Award-winning podcast S-Town (2014), for example, received over 40 million downloads in its first month—the genre is generally limited by operating from the perspective of a white male narrator or reporter. In this way, Bambara’s highlighting of the pushback she received while researching her book points to an assumption that her main character Zala Spencer also combats: that Black women cannot or will not be permitted to investigate or report crime as an “authority.” My presentation will argue that Bambara’s Those Bones Are Not My Child—though a fiction based on true crime events—challenges the predominantly white and male perspective of the true crime genre by exposing the white supremacist ideology embedded in U.S. crime reporting and journalism. Her use of the media in her novel including real and fictionalized reporters and newspapers calls into question the purportedly unbiased nature of crime reporting. Therefore, my readings of Bambara’s work attempt to open the door of studies into the relationship between race, gender, and the so-called objective positionality of the presumably white male reporter that has dominated the genre.


Tjalling Valdés Olmos

"Pastoral Afterlives in Queen Sugar: Genre, Affect, and Abolition in the Cultural Imagination of the US Rural South"


Dominant imaginations of the US rural South draw widely on tropes, moods, and scenes of the southern pastoral genre. As such, they reproduce affective structures of white comfort and nostalgia associated with the plantation and the Old South (Adams 2007). The characters and rural spaces of southern Louisiana that are at the center of Natalie Baszile’s novel Queen Sugar (2014) and the US television drama series of the same name (OWN, 2016—present) both repeat and subvert the affective regimes inherent to these dominant imaginations. The Queen Sugar novel and series revolve around the retreat and return of the urban-based African American Bordelon siblings to rural Louisiana, where their recently deceased father has left an inheritance in the form of a sugarcane farm. While drawing on generic conventions such as the plantation-idyll and the reunification of the urban North and rural South, both the book and television series also complicate the southern pastoral and its affective structures by focusing on what has normatively been excluded from (or, at times, made hypervisible in) these imaginations: the experience of black women in the US southern rural. My paper reflects on Queen Sugar’s engagement with dominant imaginations of the South in relation to the legacies of the plantation that haunt the sociopolitical fabric of the United States (Hartman 1997). I do this specifically by turning to Queen Sugar’s engagement with the carceral state (Gilmore 2008). Moreover, by focusing on affect (Ahmed 2010, Berlant 2011), I show the different investments and disinvestments of the series and novel in the southern pastoral as an imagination of the rural that offers the possibility of escape and utopia, and argue that the series pushes an abolitionist imagination of the US rural South that radically reimagines who has a political stake in the US rural as a whole.   



Hendrik Burfeind

Black Country Music and the Intersection of Genre, Race, and Region


Country music is frequently seen as a quintessentially Southern form of music. More specifically, it is the genre’s perception as an expression of Southern whiteness that usually anchors such claims. Although, from the beginning, African Americans have played an important role in the development of country music, their erasure from the genre’s history started early on. Influenced by Jim Crow ideology, the nascent recording industry codified country as a marketing category for Southern whites (as “old-time” or “hillbilly” music) while recordings by black artists were categorized as “race” records.

This artificial separation did not reflect the intermingling of musical forms that happened in the South, before or after that point. Yet, throughout the 20th century, the division gained evermore traction, reaching its zenith in the 1960s when R&B/soul music was understood to be the soundtrack of the civil rights movement while country music represented the so-called white backlash. Notably, it was around the same time that Charley Pride and other African American artists first appeared on the country charts. Although Pride was rather reticent about discussing the role of race in his career, successors such as O.B. McClinton and Stoney Edwards were more assertive in establishing themselves as Southern, black, and country. Throughout the 1970s, they used this position to draw “attention to the contrast between [their] blackness and the cultural expectations surrounding country music.”1 My paper will argue that their careers offer a prescient opportunity to investigate the complex interplay of racial ideology, genre, and region, showing the multiplicity of voices that not only constitute country music but also the South.


2.00-3.30 p.m.: Hauntings in Southern Literature


Vanesa Lado-Pazos

Haunting Back: A Study of Spectrality in Jesmyn Ward’s Sing, Unburied, Sing


The South has been constructed historically in the American collective imagination as the locus of the uncanny abject, particularly in relation to slavery and its atrocities. Indeed, here, perhaps more than anywhere else, the past is a permanent haunting force. This paper deals with the study of spectrality in the novel Sing, Unburied, Sing (2017) by African American author Jesmyn Ward. The field of spectrality studies emerged with the ‘spectral turn’ in the 1990s and it has consolidated as one of the major tools of inquiry into the narrative significance of spectral objects in connection with the representation of different forms of oppression and dispossession. 

The novel, set in Mississippi, revolves around a humble black family disrupted by death. This paper intends to examine two ghosts from different generations that converge in the protagonist’s, Jojo, and his mother’s, Leonie, narrative. First Richie, a young prisoner from Parchman Farm whom Jojo’s grandfather took under his wing. His violent death reveals the abuses suffered by the mostly black convicts in an institution that operated as a form of neoslavery. Decades later Given, Leonie’s brother, is killed by his white companions and his murder dismissed as a hunting accident. 

This analysis will show the dual function of spectrality in this novel. Firstly, the ghosts unveil how different forms of racial discrimination have been ingrained in the social and legal fabric from Reconstruction to the present. At the same time, they articulate a narrative that incorporates the traumatic past into the present as means to reflect on the current situation of the black community both in the South and nationwide. In this manner, the novel follows the tendency initiated in the late 20th century of rewriting Southern history through this spectral trope and it draws attention towards the urgency of this debate today.


Thomas Austenfeld

"a swamp // where graves had been. I recall": Natasha Trethewey's Monumental Work of Memory


American poets have imagined monuments and written about them since the founding of the Republic. Monuments to the Confederacy are at the heart of America's current cultural war. Natasha Trethewey, poet laureate of the United States from 2012 to 2014, has engaged the topic head-on throughout her career: in 2006, she titled a poem "Monument" and then gave the name Monument to an entire volume of her poetry published in 2018. Trethewey herself is still in mid-career and far from setting up a monument to her accomplishments: she was only 40 when she returned to University teaching. Yet already in "Providence," the poem preceding "Monument" and from which my title quotation is taken, Trethewey focused on graves. A gravestone is the most common, and frequently the only, monument erected in honor of a person not in the public limelight. 

The erasure of gravestones through the force of hurricane Camille (1969) is analogous to the erasure of the memory of Black Gulf Coast residents. Trethewey worries about a societal and personal neglect in which she participated when she failed to properly mark the grave of her mother, who had been murdered by her second husband. Re-membering, memorializing, speaking the names of the dead is central to her poetic project.

In this paper I trace Trethewey's monumental work, as her poetry enacts the different meanings of "monument" = "burial place" and the more common "commemorative structure."

In so doing, I claim that Trethewey unearths and recalls, through the language of poetry, the erased bodies of Southerners whom current practice would commit to unmarked graves in swamps. As a Black Southerner, Trethewey confronts not just the storms of the Gulf, but also the tide of racism along with the waves of cultural change that threaten to sweep away graves together with private history. 


Ahmed Honeini

“Salvation is just words”: William Faulkner and the irreligiousness of As I Lay Dying.


The posthumous voice of Addie Bundren in William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying emerges from a chorus of fifteen narrators, including her children and husband. The sudden presence of her voice defies all reason and logic; in the context of the overt religious leanings of Addie’s community, Faulkner implies that hearing her voice is akin to sacrilege. André Bleikasten, identifying the presence of Southern religious fundamentalism within the novel, writes that ‘the God of the Bible and all the mythological and ideological background of Christianity are an indispensable framework of reference’ to Addie’s community. Several of the narrators, including Addie’s neighbour, Cora Tull, and Reverend Whitfield, with whom Addie has an affair, claim to speak with Godly authority. However, as Bleikasten observes, ‘one of the ironies of the book is that for several of its characters these religious references are purely verbal. Those who use them most readily’, Cora and Whitfield specifically, ‘are also the most hypocritical, and in their devout speeches there is something […] shallow and false.’ 

This paper argues that, because Addie’s voice is heard from an explicitly posthumous position, she casts her own, quasi-religious judgement upon the society which has systematically condemned and ‘kilt’ her. Her speech exposes the falsity and sinfulness of Cora and Whitfield, to whom ‘[s]alvation is just words.’ She also chastises the hapless actions of her children, who cause the desecration and ‘violation’ of her body both during her life and after her death. Her posthumous revenge upon her community becomes the guiding principal of the novel’s narrative logic. After death, Addie influences the lives of those who made her feel powerless, abused, and victimised. Ultimately, this paper seeks to prove that Faulkner explicitly rejects religious fundamentalism and zealotry in As I Lay Dying and, therefore, he dismantles one of the cornerstones of Southern identity. 


4.00-5.15 p.m.: Keynote Lecture


Riché Richardson

The Birth of a “Formation” Nation


The coronavirus has had a devastating impact on populations around the globe and upended life as we know it, while leading to the loss of over a million lives, including nearly 240,000 in the US alone.  There, a reactionary political administration failed to respond to the crisis in ways that prioritized public health and scientific knowledge.  To the contrary, under the guidance of President Donald Trump, it seemed benignly neglectful and remained more invested in using the crisis to fuel political divisions while pandering to white supremacy.  Neglecting to use presidential authority to invoke the Defense Production Act as a strategy to provide urgently needed medical supplies, while taking a laissez-faire approach that left decision-making about how to address the virus in the hands of state governors-who in the US South prioritized reopening their economies and opted not to enforce social distancing and masking protocols that have proven to be most effective in fighting the virus-eerily recollected the discourse of state’s rights.  That a predominately white group of armed protesters took over the statehouse in Michigan in protest of mandatory shutdowns that aimed to forestall the spread of the virus, was symptomatic of ways in which discourses of American constitutional “rights” and “freedoms” have been distorted and weaponized during this crisis, which has disproportionately impacted minority populations who are impoverished, who have pre-existing medical conditions, and who serve as essential workers.  In this already volatile political climate, the murders of EMT Breonna Taylor in Louisville, Kentucky, who was incidentally, one such worker, and the vigilante killing of Ahmaud Arbery in Brunswick, Ga., sparked protest this past spring and underscored the need for accountability and reforms in law enforcement.  In May, George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis, Minnesota was the final tipping point that ignited protests in all fifty states in the US as well as the world.  Yet, many in the Republican Right Wing have been slow to acknowledge what is at stake in this anti-black police violence or to condemn it, and continue to deny the reality of systemic racism.  In a year during which we commemorated 100 years of Women’s Suffrage, and witnessed the passing of the iconic civil rights leader John Lewis, who was famously beaten in 1965 as he protested for voting rights, blatant efforts to undermine the voting rights of American citizens on the road to the presidential election eerily recollected strategies of voter repression in the Jim Crow South.  All of the issues underscore that a visionary and innovative Southern studies is urgently needed, perhaps now more than ever.   

It is significant that Donald Trump’s reactionary presidency and attitudes on race resuscitated forms of white supremacy in this nation that hearken back to President Woodrow Wilson’s sanctioning of racism at the highest levels of government a century ago, a president who famously embraced D.W. Griffith’s 1915 film The Birth of a Nation, which romanticized the Ku Klux Klan, sanctioned lynching and ridiculed black political participation.  In this talk, I analyze ways in which the music and video artistry of the iconic singer Beyoncé from Houston, Texas, promotes a counternarrative to this toxic political climate by staging a vision of a democracy of that includes blacks as citizens, as well as through her embodiments of national femininity in the popular realm.  I argue that she builds upon the iconicity that black women leaders established in politics throughout the twentieth century and into the new millennium.  I examine ways in which her artistry engages political movements from the past decade, from Black Lives Matter and #SayHerName to #TakeAKnee, as well as Mothers of the Movement, which is linked to black women whose children have been murdered by police and vigilantes, including Trayvon Martin.  I draw on work in critical race theory and critical race feminism such as theories of intersectionality, as well as my own interventions in the field of Beyoncé studies that emphasize her sustained engagements of black Southern  identities, to underscore the importance and indispensability of thinking about black identity to adequately address the current political moment, and to achieve a more inclusive and diverse American democracy, concluding that a Southern studies that fails to recognize the value of identity politics and intersectionality, which have been vital to the mobilizing of contemporary leaders such as Stacey Abrams in protecting voting rights, is escapist, apolitical, and perhaps unconsciously antiblack.