“When we’re talking about the South, first ask: Whose South?”
Written by: Coco Wilder
Professor Susan Irons posed this question to my Southern Literature class early last year. Its simplicity and truth still resonates. She argued that the idea of “the South” invokes a crafted, monolithic narrative of slave owners to segregationists to Bible Belt conservatives. Anyone who actually lives in or studies the South, however, knows it is so much more. I love the Southern Oral History Program because it is committed to documenting the histories of diverse and often overlooked Southerners.
Take Mandy Carter, for example. Carter is a life-long activist and her work ranges from the anti-Vietnam war movement to the Civil and Women’s Rights movements. Because of her race, gender, and sexuality—Carter is an African American lesbian—she experienced isolation within each movement. After moving to Durham, Carter organized the gay community to vote against Senator Jesse Helms in the 1990 election. In her interview with the Southern Oral History Program, Carter explains the coalition’s strategy and reflects on lessons learned:
“We have to be visible, we have to be viable, and we have to organize a massive voter drive within the gay community….I think the thing we learned was that to strengthen the movement you’ve got to have a combination of electoral and grassroots…It was such a phenomenal thing we did, and even though we didn’t win the election, I mean we won because no one in the state of North Carolina had ever put something together like this before. No one has ever gone after Helms as visibly as we did, so even to this day you’ve got people saying ‘Oh, I can’t believe you did all that.’”
Carter’s interview reveals historic cross-pollination among movements and the urgency of resistance today. Her interview is a gem, and exemplifies the need for an inclusive historical record. In an effort to broaden the record, my internship class is working to document the Carolina Gay Association and related activism at UNC. Last semester’s interns made great headway into the project, but several of us are now collecting oral histories from lesbians and queer people of color. Carter’s interview sets a great precedent for our research, but we are focusing on students activists this semester.
To get energized about the project, we interns collected a mini group oral history from senior Ping Nguyen about his experiences as a gay Vietnamese immigrant and activist at UNC. Nguyen exuded passion and love, and he generously reflected on his experiences with racism, sexism, and apathy within the gay community at UNC today. I left questioning how I, as a white queer woman can do better and educate myself about my white, economic, and “passing” privileges. I think my fellow interns left with a more nuanced understanding of how contemporary queer issues and activism transcends marriage equality campaigns.
On Saturday morning, I ran into Nguyen and SOHP Field Scholar Katie Womble at Historic Thousands on Jones Street in Raleigh (HKonJ). HKonJ puts the “Long” in the SOHP’s Long Civil Rights Movement and Long Women’s Movement archives. The NAACP coordinated this “Moral March,” along with progressive faith leaders, labor and education unions, women’s organizations and others to demonstrate for a more just North Carolina. This year, HKonJ mobilized crowds to resist legislation that disproportionately affects already under-resourced communities of color. It is estimated that between 80,000 and 100,000 from all across North Carolina marched in protest, including two buses and countless carpools of UNC students. Reverend Barber, a key organizer, referenced the work of Dr. Martin Luther King and Ella Baker and implored the crowd to not just “curse darkness,” but work for light and justice in North Carolina. Regardless of one’s political persuasion, 100,000 North Carolinians assembling on a cold Saturday morning to non-violently protest is powerful.
I left the march exhausted, inspired, and needing to use the bathroom. As I stood in a long line at McDonalds, I watched older black women and young white women organizing to take over the men’s bathroom. I joined in—nothing makes me happier than women conspiring to occupy the men’s room. One man standing behind me wore dreadlocks and the jacket of a historically black fraternity. He turned to the woman next to him and said, “you know, today was great, but we need to make sure all of us turn out to the polls and vote come November.”
I smiled, reminded of what speaker after speaker that morning had spoken into the microphone: this is not a moment, this is a movement. Now that’s the South I’m committed to documenting. That’s the South I love.