By Reid Ramsey
Growing up in the Southern United States is a tricky proposition. As you grow older, more and more reckoning must be done, both with your personal history and understanding of the world and then with your regional history and understanding of the world. Traditional education is seldom the key to this reckoning.
For example, the course of growing up in Knoxville, TN, my hometown, is especially tricky. We are a big, southern college city situated in a valley. We excuse ourselves from slavery and the Civil War, for as any white student from Knoxville can tell you: we voted against secession and were also quick to rejoin the Union. This snippet of historical arrogance continues to misinform people today, and instead of reckoning with our collective history, we cover it up, pat ourselves on the back, and most people genuinely try to “do good.” Tennessee is the volunteer state due to the overwhelming number of Tennesseeans who joined the fray during multiple calls for troops. This “volunteer spirit” is a real attribute that people in the state both suffer and benefit from. We have a strict loyalty and a need to help that harms those who are misinformed and benefits those who first seek the truth on matters.
Tennessee is just one of several southern states (Kentucky, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Arkansas, and most of Florida make up the rest) that share both rich yet shameful histories, as well as rich yet shameful presents. Everyone born in the South must eventually reckon with their past as a fundamental aspect of their growth. Even more so, both those with faith and without it must also reckon at some point with both the joy and pain those institutions have brought to an entire region. The South can’t be divorced from its past or from religion without serious loopholes.
Despite a rich and fraught history, southerners in fiction are typically boiled down to stereotypes, bad accents, and religiously and politically unworthy. While these depictions occasionally lean into some truths, they largely dismiss real people living in the South and the shifting diverse nature in favor of complementing the rest of the country for just how far they’ve come. For the rest of the country, the South is best thought of as having a shameful past, an ignorant present, and never as having a future. Yet without the South we wouldn’t have many great works from artists such as Zora Neale Hurston, William Faulkner, Outkast, Jeff Nichols, Dee Rees and many more.
The purpose of Southern Sights is not necessarily to evaluate the quality of depiction of the South in every movie, yet instead to simply evaluate each movie on its own merits. Too often, just like the region itself, the movies that honestly depict the South are overlooked and dismissed. Southern Sights will look each week at a movie that is either set in the region outlined above or is somehow informed by the region. The hope of the website is that through these reviews/essays/whatever you wanna call them, we can uncover a deeper understanding of the South and the art that reflects it. In the end, I often think of the words from Atlanta native André 3000:
“Da Souf got sum to say,” or as it is often mistranscribed, “The South got somethin’ to say.”
The only other hope for Southern Sights is that it grows more into a true depiction of the South itself. While right now it’s just a dream, I’d love the writers of the website to reflect the diversity of the region more than I can as a straight white guy from Knoxville. It is only through collective work that we can draw a truly significant picture of this huge region, so to think that my voice could encompass all of it would be deeply arrogant. So, if you want to write for the site, drop me a line at Southern.Sights20@gmail.com. This is at the moment just a passion project but it would be wonderful to grow it into something more and be able to fund not only myself but others who venture into this alongside me.
If you’ve stuck around this long, I’m excited to dive deep with a series of the Best Southern works of 2019, which will start running next week. Check back each Monday for something new.
This is going to be a fun ride. Y’all with me?