Sticky rice, refugees, and the Southern imagination

Photo by Kate Medley.

Photo by Kate Medley.

In the western North Carolina town of Morganton, the Laotian refugee Dara Phrakousonh smiles when her customers order sticky rice in its Lao name, khao neow. As Katy Clune writes in the Southern Foodways Alliance’s publication, Gravy, Phrakousonh’s family fled the violent political instability of the 1970s. They arrived in America one at a time after their father was assassinated in 1976. She and her husband eloped and settled in Valdese, North Carolina, and eventually opened a grocery that sold out of the foods she cooked. In 2013, she expanded to a new location with a grocery and restaurant.

Her migration was not so different than the journeys of Black Southerners who escaped the oppression and lynchings of the Jim Crow South. The Great Migration, as it’s now known, was one of the most significant moments in American history—and its political and cultural changes are still with us. Now, many of the Great Migration’s children are moving back to a South changed by their parents’ and grandparents’ activism and citizenship, finding old, formerly all Black or White neighborhoods filled with international refugees and immigrants.

These changes are all around us—in urban and suburban Atlanta and in rural Morganton. And they will continue to intensify and give birth to new strains of what it means to be Southern. For all the clichés about the unchanging American South, with its past that’s never past, the region’s towns and cities have constantly shifted as people voluntarily migrated or were forced in or out. And they will change even more in the next ten years.

We’ve seen communities like Morganton embrace their immigrants—and we’ve seen reactionary and inhospitable responses, too. Most recently, throughout the South, state legislatures and governors have tried to prevent “sanctuary cities” from building hospitable environments for immigrants of all kinds. Faced with the attacks in Paris, almost every governor in the South announced they would try to prevent Syrian refugees from settling in their states.

If the politics of fear and resentment succeed yet again in the South, the region’s growing economies, revitalized cities, and great universities will not be able to flourish. The children of the Great Migration, and immigrants from around the world, may respond to those politics by settling where they will be treated with dignity as full community members—only draining the South of some of its most ambitious and caring people.

We haven’t seen the last of these politics. Fear has driven a resurgence in White supremacist and neo-Nazi groups in the last eight years—and some of them see in Donald Trump’s candidacy for president a chance to ascend to power. We will certainly see a fight to limit Southern hospitality. It will take place in state legislatures and at ballot boxes, but also in our schools and workplaces, on our televisions, and increasingly on the internet.

Many Southerners wish to welcome Dara Phrakousonh, not just to enjoy her papaya salad. Many pray that, of the thousands of Syrian refugees who have drowned at sea or been turned away at borders, more could have made their homes in our neighborhoods. The fight against reactionary and inhospitable politics will be long. It will be a moral struggle and a practical battle to ensure there are enough ESL teachers in public schools, that refugees are not ghettoized or forced into underemployment, that no newcomers while away their lives on the margins of society.

And this struggle will not take place solely in the realm of official politics. The future of the region and its communities will be shaped by Phrakousonh’s sticky rice, rap by a Japanese American born in North Carolina, films by a Brazilian Jew living in Louisiana, and novels by the descendants of slaves in Mississippi. We know that culture shapes our imaginations—and we know our imaginations are political.

As we imagine and create new kinds of Southern hospitality, we’ll have to listen to and fight for the stories of our all our neighbors—as well as the refugees who have fled the South’s past, and those that have yet to arrive.