Y’all’s top Scalawag picks of 2019

At Scalawag, great reporting is our bread and butter. And today we are pretty excited to share with y’all five of the top Scalawag stories that mattered—to us and y'all—in 2019. Not to toot our own horn, but these selections are rife with interrogation, nuance, humor, and hope. These articles were chosen as our top pieces based on their views, clicks, and shares, sure—but most importantly their impact. They grapple with some of the most important issues affecting our region, representing Southerners from Appalachia to Alabama, from Memphis to small-town North Carolina.

These stories highlight what our team hopes to do everyday at Scalawag: let Southerners be their full selves, tell their own damn stories, and fiercely love their own communities. We’re grateful for all the writers, reporters, photographers, lovers, thinkers, and organizers who make our communities visible.

From Silent Sam to Poetry & Playlists, 2019 was a banner year for Scalawag’s hard-hitting content. Here are Scalawag’s most impactful, shared, read, and talked about stories of the year.


“Brooklynization” my ass
—Katherine Webb-Hehn

“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.”

Katherine Webb-Hehn's rejoinder to a New York Times column claiming that the South got its culture from Brooklyn––and that the worst part about Southern abortion bans is that northern transplants would leave and take the culture with them––topped our charts. With wry humor and deft prose, she set the record straight on everything from Northern complicity in the South's oppressive conditions, to the real origins of New Orleans' magic. No wonder her follow-up, "Toothless, Cousin Loving" was also among our most-reads stories this year. ~Anna

#NotKeisha: Spelman students protest Atlanta mayor as commencement speaker
—Ko Bragg

“Keisha may be inspiring little Black girls to run for mayor, which is beautiful and important, and representation absolutely matters. But the material reality is that as she’s inspiring those girls, she’s conspiring with the developers and big-money people who want to push her out of her neighborhood.”

The outcry over Keisha Lance Bottoms serving as Spelman's 2019 commencement speaker was about more than the Atlanta mayor's track record. Reporter Ko Bragg laid bare how Bottoms has fueled gentrification, waged war on homeless people, and turned a blind eye to police killings. But Bragg also dug deeper to masterfully explore the flaws in Atlanta's image as a place of opportunity for all Black people; the conservative culture that limits activism at some HBCUs; and the difficulty of navigating accountability within marginalized groups. ~Anna

Poetry & Playlists: ‘Mom’s Mabley at the Apollo 3022,’
—Jalynn Harris

This year the arts editors of Scalawag decided to develop a series recognizing the fact that poetry, particularly as a Southern tradition, has never been confined to the page. “Poetry & Playlists” allowed poets to combine their text with a curated playlist of songs. The result was collaboration—collaboration across influences, genre, and soundscapes. Collaboration is where poetry is at its most powerful, culling and remixing from all the various tenses of setting; it can’t be caught.

Jalynn Harris’ contribution ‘Mom’s Mabley at the Apollo 3022’ was a particular favorite. Harris brilliantly imagines the legendary Black comedian 1,000 years from now, still laughing at settlers and speaking to her people in their own kind of shared secret language, with the beat of South African House music emanating from the screen. Marx was right in predicting the immiseration of workers under the never-ending greed of the owners. To write towards inhabiting another kind of society requires plotting the immanence of Black joy, still here in spite of the violences of extraction and domination. “im older than my birthday. so oldlike / Columbus did my first tattoo.” European colonialism is old as shit, but the laughter of non-colonized people is even older. ~ Zaina

A Black kingdom in postbellum Appalachia
—Danielle Dulken

"In the Appalachian tradition of speaking back, I hope I have made clear: Appalachia has never been all white. Many peoples have intimate connections to its mountain landscape." 

👏APPALACHIA👏IS👏NOT👏WHITE👏. This infinitely interesting piece explores The Kingdom of the Happy Land, a Black communal society that flourished in Western North Carolina during Reconstruction. Nestled in the valleys and ridges along Lake Summit near the small town of Tuxedo, North Carolina, The Kingdom embodied a larger history of Black rural place-making and an early vision for Black settlement in the southern mountains. Today, its history is mainly known through irregular references in local news articles reflecting on the curious story of a lost Black Appalachian utopia. Today, The Kingdom’s structures have mostly toppled, some from rot and others from intentional removal. There is a violent irony that the site of a historic Black commune is now a private cannabis farm, an industry that profits from the legal sale of a substance that claims many Black lives in the United States carceral system. Black communities across the region are doing critical work today to advocate for their health, their homes, their children, their families, their neighborhoods, the Affrilachian artist movement, and so much more. ~Lovey

Shrieking Sam
—Danielle Purifoy

When Silent Sam was toppled on UNC’s campus last fall by students and community members who were sick of the administration’s refusal to make the right decision—endorsed by the governor—to have it removed, the backlash from neo-Confederates was swift. Emboldened by administrative enabling and the general climate of white supremacy that has been stoked in the last three and a half years, they continued a campaign of harassment and threats to those on campus who dared to make themselves visible and outspoken in opposition. 

Then there was a $5.3M proposal by the Board of Governors to erect a mausoleum to Silent Sam on campus, complete with the kind of round the clock security that students themselves could not rely on to protect them from white supremacists. When that plan was shelved, things got quiet.  An campus wide initiative entitled Reckoning: Race, Memory and Reimagining the Public University launched this fall to engage undergraduates in the work of learning about the university’s history of slavery, racial violence, and other forms of structural harm that have permeated across generations. A piece we published in January, “Shrieking Sam,” was selected as one of the required readings. Silent Sam was lying under a tarp in an undisclosed location, and as far as most of us were concerned, it could just stay there. 

“But why move forward with reckoning when you could fund white supremacy instead?” said the UNC Board of Governors. One day before Thanksgiving, they staged a “settlement” with the Sons of Confederate Veterans for ownership of Silent Sam and $2.5M for its preservation. We found out later that 1) the settlement was really a payout because the Sons of Confederate Veterans did not have had legal standing to successfully sue UNC for Silent Sam; and 2) In addition to the $2.5M `payout, the interim President of the UNC system arranged another $75K payout to keep Sons of Confederate Veterans from flying Confederate flags on campus for the next five years. 

In sum, UNC both deceived and sold out its students, faculty, staff, and alumni to support white supremacists who had no right to a red cent. They didn’t even fight. And all of this after several key institutions at the university, including the UNC Center for Civil Rights, have seen funding and staff stripped away. 

But this is just the beginning. Several lawsuits have been filed to stop the payout, including one by the very attorneys fired from the UNC Center for Civil Rights. Payback time. Stay tuned. ~Danielle

That’s not actually true
—Kiese Laymon

“I have far more disappointment, distrust, and disgust for Southern white brothers than for white men in socks from up north, or lefty white sisters from New York; because one, Southern white brothers inflict so much damage on the rest of us, and two, though Southern white brothers don’t know us Black folks, they could.”

Who are your people? What does it take to make honest, vulnerable, Black art capable of reckoning with the South? And do white folks have any role, at all, to play in that? Kiese Laymon is the author of the bestselling book Heavy: An American Memoir, the audio version of which won the title of 2018 Audiobook of the Year. In this exclusive essay, Laymon questions things he doesn’t want to question, about racism, intellectual class, economic class, and making art in the South, asking what it takes to give authentic voice to Black Southern selves. ~Lovey

Poor southerners are joining the globe’s climate migrants
—Lewis Wallace

"Buck is a ‘squatter’ in her own home, permanently evicted but still living there with no heat or hot water.”

One of the lesser-explored ramifications of climate change is how public officials are using disasters to downsize the social safety net. In this story co-produced with Environmental Health News, Lewis Wallace brings us to New Bern, a 308-year-old city on the North Carolina Coast, where public housing residents were evicted in the wake of Hurricane Florence. Their plight is part of a growing pattern of displacement, as housing authorities use storm damage to justify demolition and privatization. ~Anna