During the first six months of the Trump administration, we’ve seen chaos, fear, and suffering as the president and his advisers have attempted to make real some of their campaign promises. We’ve seen legislative agendas stall as executive agendas move forward, including plans to renew the war on drugs, challenge affirmative action, and erode divisions between police and immigration enforcement.
We’ve also seen mass mobilizations of people unwilling to watch from the sidelines as Trump’s agendas take effect. Throughout, the word “resistance” has gained prominence––in headlines, hashtags and protest signage––to the point of becoming a buzzword (this Vogue article on dressing for resistance at New York Fashion Week was more the rule than the exception last winter).
While the idea of resistance may be trending now, for many Southerners, the word resonates through centuries of struggle into our daily lives. Everywhere that oppression exists, so too does resistance. The South is not unique in this regard, but in the American experience, it stands apart. Conditions in the South have necessitated forms of resistance that are hidden in plain sight. In the food we eat––vegetables grown from seeds that enslaved people surreptitiously brought from Africa. In the clubs we frequent––sometimes the only place where queer Southerners can comfortably be “out.” In everyday spaces transformed into classrooms––where undocumented students, banned from universities, learn in the tradition of Freedom Schools. Resistance is in our dialects, accents, art, music, religious practices, and daily habits––many of which have persisted in defiance of forced assimilation. Resistance is the rhythm of life in the South.
Here in the South, resistance is paired with backlash to liberatory change. That backlash rarely looks, in daily life, as many non-Southerners imagine it––attack dogs and fire hoses and angry, White mobs. Such eruptions do happen, but they are not as frequent as our constant contact with pedestrian, debilitating forms of backlash. Backlash is literally built into our physical environment, in cities and towns where public spaces have been abandoned or turned over to private development to thwart racial integration. It’s written into criminal codes as “moral turpitude,” an undefinable offense designed to turn Black people into felons and keep them from voting. It’s calculated into our paltry paychecks because our White unions, when they existed, often refused solidarity with workers of color.
Resistance and backlash are like water. They always find a way to move, making new channels around obstacles. We’ve been in their flux for four centuries in the South. And in that time, journalists have not always shied away from claiming a channel. In the South, journalists have claimed resistance.
The Black press began in the “Up-South” of New York in 1827, with the launch of Freedom’s Journal, whose editors declared: “We wish to plead our own cause, too long have others spoken for us.” They did not seek a “neutral ground” from which to report because their purpose was to assert their humanity; to take an “objective” position would have meant entertaining ideas that dehumanized them. Neither did Ida B. Wells attempt to report on the lynching of three of her friends as a dispassionate observer. How could she when she was under threat of similar violence? After publishing her account in a Memphis newspaper she owned, The Free Speech, her office was burned and she was forced to flee.
These, and so many others, are the footsteps in which we humbly seek to follow. We strive to live up to the caliber of publications like the civil-rights-era journal Freedomways, whose contributors Julian Bond described as “Writers with picket signs as well as pens in hand, scholars whose classrooms were the union halls, students who took instruction in the cotton fields or lunch counters, artists who brushed consciences as well as canvasses.”
Working in this spirit means recognizing that there has never, in fact, been any neutral ground or objective perspective––choosing stories, editing voices, and shaping narratives is always preferential. This is not a call to set aside the practices that make journalism credible: If anything, those practices are even more important now that facts themselves are allegedly partisan, as our president suggests. Rather, it’s a call to stop wringing our hands in private while publicly producing work that agrees to the terms of an unjust status quo. As our new state politics editor, Lewis Wallace, wrote in a January blog post, “we can check our facts, tell the truth, and hold the line without pretending that there is no ethical basis to the work that we do.”
Whatever the remaining years of this administration bring, and regardless of how the democratic urge is characterized in hashtags and headlines, we know that resistance lives here in the South. Scalawag will tell its story.