Where It All Began
I’m sitting in a hotel room in Oxford, Mississippi, drinking green-label Evan Williams out of a Styrofoam cup with an ashtray beside me because smoking rooms are apparently still a thing.
Does that line sound familiar? It should, being that it’s the first line of the first post on this blog. I wrote it last summer in the exact hotel room I’m sitting in now. It wasn’t on purpose, but I got the same room in the same hotel for this trip to Mississippi. Instead of Evan Williams, I brought Wild Turkey. My, my, do we mature.
Since that first time I visited Oxford last summer a lot has changed. I graduated from my master’s program and moved from New Orleans back to Nashville. I was admitted to five of the seven Ph.D. programs I applied to, including all of my top-choice programs. I got a few pieces published here and there, and I have a couple of scholarlies under review. I started teaching adult education, proofreading for the Tennessee Senate, and I’ve done various other odd jobs to pass the time and make ends meet. Waiting is a good thing; we grow in the transitional seasons.
On my blog I’ve told stories about my family, outlaws, fictional characters, and policies that affect people’s lives. I’ve been to Texas, Knoxville, Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana since that first post, all for various reasons, but mostly because of the stories contained in those highways and dirt.
When you tell someone that you study the working-class and Southern writing, their immediate reaction is to think about how devastating and bleak it must be. But that makes me think of the time a professor asked what the class thought Faulkner’s Light in August was About. “About” in the literati sense—what does the story mean for all of us, now and then, for the South and for the rest of y’all? I piped up about my favorite novel with a visceral, unplanned response. I said it was About perseverance. I got strange looks from him and the class—the book is arguably the darkest piece Faulkner ever wrote. But I didn’t get the first lines of the novel, “I have come from Alabama: a fur piece,” tattooed on my arm to herald the bleakness. That tattoo means perseverance, as does the novel, because darkness and shit and inhumanity and hatred and suffering are part of life, and if we stop believing we can grow and move we’ll come to a shattering, species-ending halt.
At the end of Light in August, Lena Grove and her baby leave Mississippi and cross the line into Tennessee. She says, “My, my, a body does get around. Here we aint been coming from Alabama but two months, and now it’s already Tennessee.” I might’ve gotten the quote wrong because I’m reciting it from memory, but you get the gist. She just witnessed the lynching of Joe Christmas, the failure of Gail Hightower to save him, and she’s failed to find the father of her baby. Lena Grove keeps going. She’s poor, uneducated, and alone—but kindness finds her and hope endures. We have to hope. We have no other option but to hope. Without hope, we’ll never grow.
This post wasn’t supposed to be a metaphilosophical meandering about hope and growth. It was supposed to be a post about Southern women, the group I know dearest and closest of them all. But unless you understand what perseverance and hope look like, you’ll never understand a Southern woman. You’ll never understand the exhausted mother, working at a manufacturing plant with the “second shift” for her husband and kids waiting for her at home while enduring systemic misogyny, racism, and bigotry, all to show up at church on Sunday to Praise His Name with her ambrosia salad in tow.
These women raised me, and they continue to raise me. The women that hurt and don’t show it because there’s greasy pots in the sink and collards to simmer and laundry to wash and neighborhood kids to feed and a sick daddy to take care of. They smile and they work their cuticles to bleeding because that’s just what we do. We know the world will stop without us.
So this year I moved in with my sweet sister to save money for my next grad school jaunt. I’m working fifty plus hours a week at three different jobs, taking care of my relatives that need me, driving in the rain with no windshield wipers because I’ve got to get the fuck down that highway before I’m late. I got my heart cruelly shattered, and it was my own goddamn fault for letting my permanent guard down to begin with. I’m planning my fourth move in five years and staying up late to write until my eyes start to burn. I’m suffocating under the weight of how dark it all is, and I have no plans to stop diving headfirst into the wreck. Because that’s what life is—if we stop moving or leave somebody behind there won’t be a world to inherit.
The Institute for Women’s Policy Research put out a report two years ago about women’s labor in the South. The gender pay gap will take double the time to rectify in the South than the time the global gender pay gap is expected to close. In the South, 16.4 percent of women are in poverty whereas 13.7 percent of women are in poverty in other states. Specifically, 25.5 percent of Black women are in poverty. Immigrant women in the South make 28.2 percent less than U.S.-born women. When I say the South is hurting, I mean each and every one of these women are hurting.
Don’t interpret this as me excusing our poverty and the collective failures against women. I’m telling you that it’s hard—that women in the South work longer hours for less pay with the strictures of poor healthcare and mouths to feed with limited support. But I am telling you that these women persevere, that they know if we stop fighting we’ll fail our children. No Southern mother is capable of failing her babies. That’s why working-class women activists have such strong roots in the South, and why they’ll never stop working two shifts a day to survive until the day comes when we win. And you should be afraid.
When a Southern woman plans to beat your ass, she always will. She’ll always win. She’s been whooping asses too long to give up. And when, like Lena Grove, she finally makes it to Tennessee, she will remember what she saw and will never let it happen again.