At the end of the summer, we saw some of the worst of the South. Hundreds of white supremacists descended on Charlottesville, Virginia, armed with riot gear, torches and hatred. They assembled that weekend to “Unite the Right,” but also to present a narrative, one that casts whiteness as synonymous with Southern identity and heritage. White supremacists returned to Robert E. Lee’s statue in Charlottesville last weekend, chanting, “The South will rise again.”
In some ways, they accomplished what they had set out to do. The images flooding social media depicted scenes disturbingly reminiscent of the South’s most violent memories: Ku Klux Klan raids and rallies for racial violence held under the symbolic banner of the Confederacy. The country and the world looked on in horror at hatred unmasked in the South. Think pieces and analyses abounded deeming Jason Kessler, the white Charlottesville resident who organized the initial rally in Charlottesville, as representative of a violent, racist, regressive South.
It is true that Kessler and his cohorts gathered in a long tradition of Southern (and American) white rage. But to say that the entire story of the South belongs to them is to ignore that it was also Southerners who voted to take down the statue of Robert E. Lee that stood at the center of this controversy. It was Southerners in New Orleans who decided to remove their Confederate monuments. It was Southerners who recently elected a young black radical, Chokwe Antar Lumumba, mayor of Jackson, Mississippi, and another young black progressive, Randall Woodfin, mayor of Birmingham, Alabama.
As Southerners ourselves, we have been witness to this struggle over the narrative of the South, and these developments are a large part of the reason we want to move back. Each of us has had conversations with our peers at Yale who question why we would want to return to the South. Because one of us is black and one of us is white, their assumptions about why we don’t “fit” in the South differ. A recurring theme is that people from outside of the region (and even some Southerners) do not recognize that it is both culturally rich and racially and politically diverse.
Two years ago, News columnist Tyler Blackmon ’16 highlighted the problems that plague the South — poverty, unemployment, disease, lack of education — and suggested that Yalies could supply potential solutions. He was right. But Yalies can also contribute to already existing solutions in the South without reinventing the wheel. As seniors, we want to suggest that as you consider career opportunities and begin to think about where your education might have the most impact, you consider going south.
Southern organizations are often underresourced and understaffed, but they carry out concrete visions to continue the long road of community-building in the region they call home. Often, community organizations don’t get philanthropic funding because they don’t have the resources to incorporate as a nonprofit or lack the staff to write grant applications. Until recently, national philanthropic organizations have routinely neglected the South in favor of funding opportunities in large cities like New York — the same places where most Yalies make their careers. But there are jobs in the South, there are opportunities and there is a need for people willing to support the hard work of Southerners who have dedicated their lives to building and healing their communities.
Despite resource constraints, Southerners continue to fight: for queer liberation through organizations like Southerners on New Ground; for immigrant rights through coalitions in every Southern state; for racial justice and civil rights through countless avenues, some new and some that have existed since Reconstruction. There are media outlets dedicated to telling Southern stories, philanthropies that fund rural healthcare and development efforts and artistic communities that produce some of the most innovative works in the country. There are ample opportunities for Yalies to plug into these efforts, if we can leave our elite coastal complexes behind.
We say this not to overlook the deeply rooted bigotry that exists in the South but to suggest that there is also deeply rooted, constructive resistance. We want to take the narrative of our region back and urge our classmates to consider a Southern story that contains multitudes, a Southern story that includes fighting to change its own institutionalized inequality. We further urge you to consider engaging with these fights through actions — internships, jobs, activism — as well as through conversations and scholarship. We believe in setting the record straight partly out of love for where we come from but also because we recognize that when stories of the South erase people of color and advocates of radical social change, people like Jason Kessler win.
Dasia Moore and Olivia Paschal are seniors in Pierson College. Contact them at email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org .