Literature has a place in contemporary Southern journalism

The Deep South’s full history, with its complex roots tangled with insidious racism, is still being repaired and retold today. In journalism, it took Nikole Hannah-Jones’ 1619 Project to comprehensively tie together the ways our country was built upon the backs of slaves. And, in literature, stories rooted in that history and its present context are placing an even more multifaceted lens on the South and its legacy.

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Which is why some of the most important truth tellers in the South don’t identify as journalists at all. If you want to understand Mississippi and the rest of the Deep South, read its authors.

Kiese Laymon, Jesmyn Ward, and W. Ralph Eubanks are a handful that have devoted themselves to Southern writing that follow the legacies of quintessential Black storytellers like Margaret Walker, Zora Neale Hurston, Toni Morrison, and Maya Angelou.

Both Laymon and Ward published pieces in Vanity Fair this summer that, in their own ways, summed up the onslaught of tragedies in 2020 and how they affected Black communities in the South. Laymon is a contributing editor at Vanity Fair as well as the Little Rock-based journal Oxford American. Eubanks wrote a piece for the New Yorker after the former Mississippi flag saw its final days this summer.  

Eubanks, a professor at the University of Mississippi who has published two memoirs, one about his interracial family’s history in the South and another about Civil Rights-era Mississippi, says that while he wouldn’t call himself a journalist, his work focuses on “telling stories that may be lost in the silences of Southern life.” For Eubanks, these stories are both personal and more broad, including research into the Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission, a secret state agency made to maintain segregation.

It has historically served a purpose for politicians in the state to have stories and experiences missing from the record, for the hard questions not to be asked, or better yet, never to emerge altogether.

For years in Mississippi, a well-known Jackson-area newspaper, the Clarion-Ledger, was infamously intertwined with segregationists and pushed a white supremacist agenda. The publication began to shift away from that reputation in the 1970s, then was bought by Gannett. The paper has improved its reputation with work by investigative reporters like Jerry Mitchell, who stuck it out through its shrinking staff and editorial space before leaving in 2018 to start the Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting

In 2016, the newspaper met a modern foil in the digital-only non-profit news organization MIssissippi Today. The site focuses on in-depth, investigative reporting about the state, but before creating a new “Essays on Race” section this summer, it had never published opinion pieces.

Kiese Laymon’s first essay for the new section was titled the “The Front Row” and looped visceral images from the South’s terrible history of lynchings with a refrain now-Mississippi senator Cindy Hyde Smith said to a supporter at a 2018 event: “If he invited me to a public hanging, I’d be on the front row.”

When asked how writers can help advance social justice movements in a recent PEN America interview, Laymon responded, “We can write to folks who are rarely centered in American literature, and we can ask organizers how we can most be of service.”

In Laymon’s advice lies the link between journalism and literature. Between objectivity and advocacy. Between movement-forward and factual reporting. 

If someone is doing the work of telling important stories buried by the supposedly bias-less ideals of traditional journalism, then news organizations have a responsibility to amplify them, to give readers a different lens through which to experience and process the interplay between the past and current events.

“Writing that is essayistic rather than strictly journalistic helps balance out straight reporting and provides a necessary additional perspective,” Eubanks told me. “It was quite insightful for [Mississippi Today Editor-in-Chief] Adam Ganucheau to invite [Kiese Laymon] to write ‘The Front Row’ since in that essay he spoke to what many people in Mississippi were saying, but only quietly. Kiese is not afraid to say out loud what many of us will only say in private, which is the very definition of bravery. Kiese writes in the tradition of Ida B. Wells in that he is a Southern truth-teller.”

An editor’s note at the top of the section explains why they created a space for these discussions: Because Mississippi “desperately needs a deeper, more direct conversation about race.”

Eubanks published the second essay in the section. It’s about literature’s importance in teaching Southerners a fuller, more truthful historical reality of a place Southerners all grow up experiencing differently.

Eubanks said that the traditional “he said/she said reporting,” which Wesley Lowery referenced in an opinion piece for The New York Times, may not always serve readers well. 

In June, Lowery wrote that it “will take moral clarity” to challenge “neutral objectivity.” Without this, our view of the South, of our country, lacks accuracy, truthfulness, and fairness—some of the essential tenets of journalism.

“We need to focus on getting to the truth rather than being concerned with not calling out white supremacy in contemporary events [when] it is clear that it exists or is present,” Eubanks said.

Reporting in the South requires knowing that the systems in place here make its Native and Black citizens its most disenfranchised. It requires listening and connecting with those people, hearing their stories and trying to shoulder some of the burden that comes with, for instance, seeing a statue of a Confederate soldier every time you drive into town, knowing that that statue was probably erected long after the Civil War ended. It requires knowing the work that’s already brought the South forward—I’m thinking of Fannie Lou Hamer’s Freedom Farm Cooperative, or the work being done today by activists like Laurie Bertram Roberts, the executive director of the reproductive justice organization Yellowhammer Fund

It is this history of mutual aid and organizing that has brought the South — and journalism — forward. Movement journalism, Tina Vasquez wrote in Neiman Reports, is journalism that “meets the needs of communities directly affected by injustice.” 

This is an idea embraced by publications like Scalawag Magazine — which works “in solidarity with marginalized people in the South,” its managing editor Lovey Cooper explained in a recent round table for New Orleans Words & Music Literary Festival — and rooted in the type of reporting and work that Ida B. Wells did to expose and help end lynching. It’s visible outside the South in the work comprising the 1619 project. It goes hand in hand with living and trying to tell the stories of a place still inundated with injustice.

It’s impossible to record this place and moment without also considering its history and the stories of people who were affected by it. Because in the Deep South, that history is usually one that has been tarnished over and over again in ways that are cyclical. And, if it is literature that most widely captures the perspectives of all Mississippians, in the past and present, then making a space for it in the news cycle is absolutely necessary.

Zoe McDonald is a writer and editor from Mississippi. She studied journalism at the University of Mississippi and now resides in Birmingham, Alabama, where she works in digital media. In her free time, she likes to read and go on hikes with her dog.

This piece was edited by Janelle Salanga. Copy editing by Shine Cho.

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