It is important, I think, in the crafting of a certain identity—be it national, regional, personal, et. al—to call upon the identity-crafting work of those who came before. So Chuck Reece, editor of the online magazine The Bitter Southerner, does in his attempt to explain the origins and purpose of the magazine. In his editor’s note (“We Are Bitter”), Reece quotes William Faulkner in Absalom, Absalom, as Mississippi-bred Quentin Compson’s Canadian roommate demands of his Southern friend: “Tell about the South. What’s it like there. What do they do there. Why do they live there. Why do they live at all.” Reece builds on this in his own writing: Why, and how, to live with so much historical baggage, so much collective guilt? To what degree is the guilt even collective?
The solution for some, it seems, is to refashion the South’s regional identity into something at once sweet, edgy, and newfangled (hence the ever-popular branding of the “New South”). I worry that this branding, in an effort to make amends, sidesteps the loaded history that our region has moved through, and that has placed us where we are now—it gets over without the work of having got over, so to speak. When he visited Duke and UNC a few weeks ago, Reece talked about the work his publication is trying to do in contrast to a quick and easy celebration of a “renewed” cosmopolitan South. Perhaps paradoxically, The Bitter Southerner offers beautifully designed multimedia stories about the South every Tuesday—stories so beautiful I might even call them sweet, edgy, and newfangled—while their content attempts to get at the confusing, bizarre, unique, and—dare I say—ugly aspects of the contemporary South.
The story published this week is called “Made in Durham,” and it’s an excerpt from a larger multimedia zine project by local photographer Justin Cook. I think it’s powerful and worthwhile for several reasons. It’s likely the first mainstream media photo essay consideration I’ve seen of the interplay between the ‘old’ and ‘new’ Durham(s), with an attention to who, specifically is making said claims—and who’s reaping the benefits. (See the Fullsteam water gun shot, contrasted with nearly every other photo in the series). It brings the incessant talk about “urban renewal” into glaring contrast with what residents of Durham’s Southside neighborhood call urban “removal.” Perhaps most importantly, Cook’s photo essay doesn’t shy away from talking about urban violence and incarceration and how these things are bound up with race and civic responsibility. Cook’s individual note is especially potent in its grappling with questions of agency and empathy that should come up in any serious conversation about the claims we stake for the cities and regions that we live in. “We hope these images will celebrate Durham,” Cook writes, “but also challenge us to create the best Durham for everyone.”