A long way in one year: Scalawag in 2015

Photo by Nik nerburn.

A year ago today, we were waiting on final drafts of every piece for Scalawag’s first issue. Incredibly, all of our writers submitted their work on time. Maybe they just wanted to celebrate and relax at the end of the year (I get it), but I’d like to think their promptness was also out of hope for Scalawag. As 2015 winds to a close, that hope feels like it has taken real root, expanding our ambitions for Scalawag and reaching out to connect people and stories from around the South.

The year seemed to begin not on January 1, but almost a week later, when the staff of Charlie Hebdo in Paris was attacked by a small group of terrorists. An ocean away from Durham, North Carolina, where Scalawag is headquartered, we tried to send our support to the French victims of the attacks and comfort a close Parisian friend living here.

One community show of support—for Muslims in the United States and beyond who found their concern for Paris and its citizens dismissed by prejudice—was an Islamic call to prayer planned at the Duke University Chapel. But in a sign of the continued strength of hate and fear in the South, the call to prayer was cancelled by Duke administrators.

The same day, down the road, another major theme of 2015 in North Carolina and around the South reared its ugly head: the promotion of partisanship over good policy. The “resignation” of Tom Ross, the president of the University of North Carolina system, was announced—an ouster seemingly designed to install a Republican appointee at the head of America’s oldest public university system.

Faced with the persistent ability of hate and cronyism to distort Southern life, we felt more sharply the need for Scalawag to create a home for inclusive civic conversation. The next month, we sat around my kitchen table to do the first and final proof-reading session for Issue 1.

After weeks of scrambling around to film and edit a video for our Kickstarter campaign, Brooke Shuman handed us a first cut. Along with the band formerly known as Plume Giant, and many, many others, we were able to launch that campaign from the same kitchen table on March 1. We hoped friends and strangers would believe in our mission—would want to lift up voices often unheard, and to imagine better possibilities in our politics. And we hoped they could spare a buck or two.

We immediately found real excitement. And over the next thirty days, our first readers—maybe you, reading this now, found out about Scalawag on Kickstarter—pledged more than $30,000, breaking our initial goal in ten days and then raising over 157 percent of that goal. And outside of Kickstarter, just over a dozen people donated with further generosity—cementing the idea that Scalawag could mean something truly important for the South and those who cared about it and civic conversation throughout the country. Thanks to their help Scalawag would be real.

After a flurry of InDesign work with the incomparable Chika Ota, our creative director too humble to include herself on our first masthead, we sent Issue 1 to the printer, and on May 30, we were greeted with the first print copies of Scalawag. It was just about a year after Jesse, Sarah, and I had begun to work to make Scalawag real—work that paid off only thanks to Chika; to our team members Matt Whitt and Robert L. Reece, who has made us all better editors; and Michael Jones, who works on our business team.

In July, as we edited Issue 2 and began to publish on our website, we made Scalawag’s first real move. For months, Jesse and I had worked at the tables of a café called Monuts every day. But the generosity of Henry Copeland and his staff (not least the folks behind Racery, a social race company that empowers athletes to raise money for charities and causes) gave us office space: We found ourselves surrounded by fewer biscuit sandwiches and more whiteboards. (I’ve only questioned the trade when I found myself having forgotten to bring lunch yet again.)

As we published Issue 2—with the stories that challenged our thinking about queer people’s lives in the rural South, pollution in North Carolina’s Haw River, and the Delta blues in Europe—we had trouble finding copies of Scalawag in the stores that carried the magazine. We were excited to learn they’d just sold out.

The fall brought us Scalawag Issue 3 (finally with color on the cover) and an incredible set of new editors: Durham-native and environmental justice warrior and lawyer Danielle Purifoy and Atlantan Anna Simonton, whose stories in Scalawag explored the Black Lives Matter movement in her home city and the fight to define Hurricane Katrina’s 10th anniversary in New Orleans. Maura Friedman joined the ranks of our incredible contributing editors Erik Lampmann, Kate Selker, and Rachel Garringer, spread across the South.

We began to publish articles online and only online for the first time—and we found love from around the web and even from our kindred publications that still print on real paper. The New York Times promoted one of our first and best stories about the continuing legacy of White supremacists in North Carolina—by one of the great grandsons of the leaders of the state’s “Country Club Klan.” The Nation’s Sarah Leonard printed a column exploring Scalawag’s early success and wondered why the magazine was so “suspiciously attractive.” (Get your suspiciously attractive subscription on sale here.) In Durham, IndyWeek looked at our attempt to expand conversation about Southern politics and culture in the age of the Donald.

But we don’t believe this is the really the age of the Donald. This seems to us the age of something else. We’re inspired by the Black Lives Matter protesters who challenged him and his supporters in the Carolinas, who hold vigil to Tamir Rice. We continue to believe that while some may retreat in the face of fear, while massive political donors will continue to try to promote their greed above the common good, it is just those challenges that demand we discuss the state of our democracy—that demand we act to repair it.

Just this year we celebrated the 50th anniversary of some of the most important moments in civil rights—and mourned the murders of Black citizens praying in Mother Emanuel, AME in Charleston, South Carolina. The tragedies of Southern life and history haven’t disappeared, but there was still much to celebrate on the anniversaries of Bloody Sunday, the march from Selma to Montgomery, and the passage of the Voting Rights Act. Even in the face of tragedy, some kind of hope and action is possible and even necessary.

What that means for Scalawag, we’re still figuring out. We know we need to keep on publishing good journalism, connect people and stories from across the region, and finance that work in a period of intense change. If you haven’t already, subscribe and join us. And stay tuned—if the past is any guide, the best is yet to come.