The offices of the New York Times. By Joe Shlabotnik via Flickr.

“Brooklynization” my ass

This essay is for all my Brooklynized Bama buddies.

This is for the uneducated, uncivilized, backwards boogers who traveled North and returned down South born again as enlightened consumerists.

This is for the Southerners whose only exposure to culture were the skits at Bible Camp—you know, before that eye opening spring break or first semester of college or whatever in New York City or Los Angeles or fill-in-the-blank Better Place when (finally! praise God!) you were turned on to Real Culture.

In other words, this essay is for the fantasy land, make-believe Southerners of Ginia Bellafante’s imagination.

Recently, the New York Times published a column by Ginia Bellafante titled “Abortion and the Future of the New South.” In it, she somehow manages a remarkable trifecta of ignorance. She slanders Southerners and glorifies gentrification while neglecting the very real horror of restrictive abortion laws on those of us who will remain here regardless, who have roots here, who have family members who need tending to or communities we’re invested in, or simply have a love of this place and its nothing-to-do-with-Brooklyn culture.

The article appeared in response to a string of abortion laws passed in the South and midwest, including the most restrictive law in my home state of Alabama. Twenty-five white men in the legislature passed a bill banning all abortions without exclusions for rape or incest. A white woman, Gov. Kay Ivey, who happens to be the second woman elected to the office, signed the bill, which happened to be written by a white woman, into law.

She slanders Southerners and glorifies gentrification while neglecting the very real horror of restrictive abortion laws on those of us who will remain here.

There is so much to unpack there: how these lawmakers used women’s bodies to pander politically to the most extreme among us; how white women assisted in and approved this move; how restricting abortion is not statistically likely to reduce abortions; how lawmakers blatantly ignored measures that are likely to reduce abortions, including well-researched and documented efforts to bolster reproductive health education and expand resources; and how at least a few of these Alabama lawmakers have admitted the move was simply a political dog-and-pony show that will ultimately amount to Alabama taxpayers losing millions to legal fees. The American Civil Liberties Union and Planned Parenthood have already filed a lawsuit against the state.

My best bud, a mother of a four who works in reproductive health, texted me the day the law passed to say that she needed to get to the woods. What she meant was: I need a reminder that this place is beautiful.

Southerners, mostly those of us with a uterus, are furious. We’re heartbroken and tired. We don't agree with this ban. What we don’t need right now is outsider condescension or dimwitted reactions. In the past few weeks, Southern women have asked you to reconsider the foolishness of a boycott or travel ban, which would only harm our people, not politicians. They’ve asked men to join in the resistance to these laws. And they’ve asked you to donate to on-the-ground organizations like Yellowhammer Fund and Planned Parenthood Southeast.

Swear on my granny’s grave, we’re aware of how shitty this all is.

One small terror of being an American is that we’re supposed to smile and thank God for our Democracy, forgiving the atrocities carried out by our government in comparison to evils elsewhere in the world. Nowhere is that tension felt more deeply than in the South, where the political system is stacked against so, so many of the people who are bound to this region by a devotion outsiders misunderstand and misrepresent (as if we’re all blindly committed to the white patriarchy).

In Alabama, for instance, our absurd constitution ensures centralized power in Montgomery with the state legislature, which regularly passes preemptive or reactionary measures to local municipalities and their attempts at progressive policies. They’re attempting to block Birmingham’s minimum wage hike. They’re attempting to prevent cities from removing Confederate statues. Both of these measures are currently tied up in lawsuits.

Meanwhile, we’re contending with the ridiculous distractions of outsider perceptions and influence.

If by “Northern urban values” Bellanfante means the industrialization of this region by way of extracting resources with racist labor policies, then yes, that is the definition of New South.

Bellafante claims the South stands to hemorrhage its onslaught of recent outsider residents because of abortion restrictions. That may very well be true, though I doubt it, because the South—surprise!—has more to offer than a reasonable cost of living. Our laws have always been excessively regressive. We know that. You know that. This knowledge hasn’t stopped people from moving here. The South has many of the fastest growing counties in the U.S. It’s home to the largest population of LGBT folks. And while we still have block-to-block, town-to-town racial segregation, the South is not a monolith of white folks like many other places in the U.S.

All of these folks make the South’s culture much more beautiful and complicated than Bellafante’s suggestion that our cities have been “Brooklynized by way of a progressive social culture and a tweaked fidelity to some of the South’s more marketable traditions.”

Though plenty of companies might find ways to monetize glossy versions of the South, as Ballafante suggests, let me go ahead and say our traditions are not for sale.

On May 20, for instance, thousands of Alabamians marched through Birmingham, Huntsville, Montgomery, and Mobile to protest the abortion ban. My guess is Bellafante would say my fellow Alabamians picked that up from Brooklyn, too, instead of carrying on the tradition of civil resistance that began in the South’s Black communities.

The piece opens with Bellafante’s cousin in New Orleans, who upon hearing about the state’s abortion restrictions, said, “You really forget you’re in the Deep South here.” This cousin is on to something: There absolutely is a rural-urban divide in politics, but that divide exists across the U.S.—even in New York.

And the thing is, New Orleans is the “Deep South.” So is Dallas, Birmingham, Nashville, Atlanta, Charlotte, and yes, Miami—the cities that, according to Bellafante, were uninhabitable until they traded their own complex histories for strip mall versions of Brooklyn. If you’re going to other the South, you don’t get to cherry-pick what constitutes the South and Southerners. You don’t get to rewrite our history either, like this paragraph chock-full of bullshit:

'The New South' was a term conceived in the aftermath of the Civil War to suggest a set of aspirations of some southern elites who hoped to rebuild a backward and devastated place into a world better aligned with Northern urban values.

If by “Northern urban values” Bellanfante means the industrialization of this region by way of extracting resources with racist labor policies, then yes, that is the definition of New South.

Industrialization hinged on Northern investment, which allowed New York financiers to profit wildly from subjecting Southern Blacks and poor whites to horrendous labor conditions. That’s the relationship between North and South—one of extraction. Wealth in the North exists today because of these conditions. Meanwhile, the South continues to suffer. We see it in all those nationally ranked quality of life measures where we’re consistently the worst— from our poor birth outcomes to our early deaths. Then the North mocks and frowns upon our suffering, pouring salt in the wound.

Are those the “Northern urban values” we so desperately seek to mimic?

Here’s another doozy:

It is this understanding of the modern Southern city — that you could nurture the addictions you had cultivated somewhere else — that has allowed places like Birmingham to grow into budding technology centers and to lure the bright and the driven.

I don’t even know what she’s talking about here, “nurture the addictions you had cultivated elsewhere.” If it’s the shallow, mindless consumption of popular trends, we call that good old-fashioned Capitalism. As for real addiction, I can’t speak for the whole South, but I got mine honestly—through a genetic disposition and mild childhood traumas. When I smoked my first cigarette at 12 in a treehouse in northern Alabama, I can assure you, Brooklyn had nothing to do with it.

Let’s do one more:

In the last 15 years or so, I have made no fewer than 50 trips to Birmingham, Ala., where my husband’s family lives, each time marveling at how much more exquisitely it meets a particular set of consumerist and architectural fantasies — the book shops, the midcentury modern furniture stores, the retooled industrial spaces, the gyms that are indistinguishable from the ones in TriBeCa, the soaring leaded windows, the restaurants now nationally known and the new ones always coming up.

I’ve lived in Birmingham for a decade. My family has been here seven generations. I can confirm our historic buildings and their leaded windows  are not modern Brooklyn knock-offs. (My ironworker papaw apprenticed under men who dug the earth for the city’s first skyscraper. They swore they never hit solid ground thanks to an underwater spring.) All but one of our bookstores are as old as I am. The newest is owned by my dear friend, a brilliant and kind man who lived in the woods while attending theology school and lost many of his teeth after years of refusing to brush. So Brooklyn! His shop, by the way, is also a very successful café in a space where a Starbucks flopped. And, of course, gay men in my family were shopping for mid-century modern furniture long before the trend made it to box stores.

When I finished reading Bellafante’s piece, my first reaction was to wonder who her husband’s family was. At the very least, maybe we could make sure she got the bad potato salad at the next reunion.

When outsiders condescend to the South, they often do it as Bellafante does—in total ignorance.

I considered sending a response directly to the New York Times, but it makes a lot more sense for my indignation to be here in the pages of Scalawag where a group of Southerners—mostly queer women of color—are countering false narratives about this place.

Bellafante’s perspective isn’t unusual, of course. When outsiders condescend to the South, they often do it as Bellafante does—in total ignorance. Here’s what I mean: Bellafante ends her article as she began—talking to a New Yorker, Allison Gourlay, who moved to New Orleans last year. She says she was urged to stay, because New Orleans was “on the cusp of something.”

She said, “When you meet all these young people moving here who are so passionate and intelligent and changing the rules and making the city what it is, it is so inspiring. But it really worries me that it could no longer be that place.”

Making. The. City. What. It. Is.

I’m not exaggerating when I say I gasped.

I hollered for my husband, who I first kissed awkwardly in New Orleans, who took me to her streets to heal after a long illness, who grew up in southern Mississippi where people cherish this gem of a city as if she’s the aunt we always hope we’ll grow up to be. New Orleans may not be our home, but we love many of the people who come from her magnificence.

I re-read the entire piece aloud while our toddler mimicked our exasperation, rolling his eyes and huffing. And I don’t think we were being dramatic.

All of this matters because New Orleans has always been home to a culture that is unique and worthy—no matter who thinks she’s “on the cusp.” This matters because New Orleans was the site of an American tragedy where “belonging” is so crucial. The very people who made New Orleans what she is—mostly Black Southerners— continue to be displaced after Hurricane Katrina, when they were left to perish or prevented from returning to their beloved home.

This matters because many of the hip dishes you’re serving in Brooklyn restaurants were first cooked by slaves and sharecroppers.

This matters because Miami is a multicultural city where artists flock—in the Deep South.

This matters because Huntsville, Alabama is home to American rocket science, and because Birmingham has more to offer than what’s trendy. All of our other cities contribute way more than consumable trends.

This matters because our rural communities feed people, and our working class communities sacrifice so that our industries might thrive.

This matters because many of the hip dishes you’re serving in Brooklyn restaurants were first cooked by slaves and sharecroppers.

This matters because culture has no hierarchy despite the elitists who co-opt traditions and rank them by marketability.

I lied earlier.

This essay isn’t for my fellow Southerners, unless you’re foolish enough to buy into this kind of backwards thinking. This is for all the folks like Bellafante who think the South is simply a place to indulge in their privilege cheaply.

We’ve had enough of your condescending entitlement, thanks.

If you have an inkling of solidarity with those of us here working against oppressive laws, then by all means, put your precious Northern money to good use by supporting the organizations doing the work on the ground in the South.


** Correction: An earlier version of this article referred to Kay Ivey as the first woman to be elected governor of Alabama. Lurleen Burns Wallace was actually the first woman to serve the in office in 1967—Ivey is the second.

  • Katherine Webb-Hehn

    About

    Katherine Webb-Hehn is the Alabama Political Reporter for Scalawag. She's a Birmingham-based writer whose work has appeared in The New York Times, The Bitter Southerner, In These Times, The Nation, PANK and elsewhere. You can follow her on Twitter @KAWebb_.