• Sophie Poole

Among the Magnolias

Updated: Feb 28

Students from the South on misconceptions of their home.


By Sophie Poole.


On November 4, as the presidential election results filtered in from decision desks, North Carolinian Kristoff Smith, CC ’22, posted four pictures on Facebook with the caption “Some reminders.” At the time, North Carolina was too close to call but leaning toward Trump; the mail-in votes being counted in Georgia were pointing toward a Biden victory. Smith’s post urged his followers, particularly those not from the American South, to consider the region’s history of voter suppression, radical politics, and resistance as they shared their thoughts on the 2020 election.


One of the images in Smith’s posts depicted stereotypically Southern paraphernalia: a possum with a cowboy hat, a platter of cornbread, a cast-iron stove. The overlaid text stated, “Ignoring and writing off southern states as unsalvageable due to regressive policies does nothing to help those fighting against such policies, and only aids further regression.”

Two other screenshots featured tweets from Raquel Willis, a Black transgender activist and writer from Augusta, Georgia: “Y’all better speak precisely when talking about southern states. The most powerful and innovative organizers have been trying to transform the region for generations . . . . Honor that nuance at all times.”


···


Jackson, “the most radical city on the planet,” and Mississippi, the “hospitality state”

Sitting in his backyard in Jackson, Mississippi this summer, watching the trees sway in the wind and hearing the birds chirp, Wesley White, CC ’22, was home.

“For me, it literally is home. That’s the first word that I think of,” White said. “Growing up in Mississippi, I always felt cared for and I always felt safe. I think it also helps that Jackson is predominantly Black, so there’s also that type of affinity too, given the racial history in Mississippi and the South in general.”


By 8:15 p.m. on November 3, Mississippi and its six electoral college votes went to Donald Trump. Out of the 1,315,240 votes cast, 756,731, or 57.5%, went to Donald Trump. Since Jimmy Carter’s election in 1976, Mississippi has been a reliably red state. It hardly broke with tradition in 2020.


But White’s hometown, the state’s capital and most populous city, is overwhelmingly blue. 73.4% of the county voted for Biden. In 2013, Chokwe Lumumba, a Black activist, socialist, and civil rights lawyer, was elected mayor. Lumumba came to Jackson in 1969 as part of the Republic of New Afrika, a Black nationalist movement. Alongside Mississippian civil rights activists like Fannie Lou Hamer and Medgar Evers, he made Jackson a bastion of progressivism and collective action in the Deep South.


“I remember when Mayor Chokwe got elected. We were just looking at the TV with hope. As soon as Mayor Chokwe got in, things did change,” White said. “There was a radical hope. Tragically, he passed away in the middle of his term.”


Following Lumumba’s sudden death during his mayoral tenure, his son Chokwe Antar Lumumba ran in the 2014 special election. He lost, but resolved to run again in 2017. This time he won decisively, earning an unprecedented 93% of the vote.


At the beginning of his term, Antar stated that he wanted to make Jackson “the most radical city on the planet.” Three years ago, he ran on a platform of giving power back to Jackson residents. Through encouraging economic democracy practices like cooperative businesses and quarterly People’s Assemblies, he is working on giving Jackson residents greater agency. According to White, “He has been doing a phenomenal job” and “with a little bit more millennial flair.”

Illustration by Kat Chen

Inspired by an assignment in her sociology class, Jewels Faulkner Tauzin, BC ’22, named after the Mississippian literary icon William Faulkner, is documenting progressive residents in Jackson. While home with her family during the pandemic, she is interviewing and photographing young people who have chosen to live in Jackson.


“Being in Mississippi now, rather than when I was in high school, Jackson feels so much more progressive,” Tauzin said. “It’s because progressive people are choosing to stay and work on campaigns. Or even small things like run a coffee shop and have a Black Lives Matter sign, really small stuff. But people are refusing to leave and hand it over to the people who have always controlled the state.”


White was one of her interview subjects. Tauzin became friends with White in high school after he transferred from a public school in Jackson to a private school in the suburbs.

In her interview with White, Tauzin includes a photograph of him from February. It’s a close-up shot, and he’s smiling widely. Underneath the photo is a quote in which White calls upon Mississippi, the “hospitality state,” to do away with “upholding tradition” and instead uphold “unconditional love.”


From White’s perspective, Mississippi is making progress. But, unfortunately, structural statewide change is slow. Under the guise of “upholding tradition,” the state’s strict voter ID laws, gerrymandered districts, and restrictions on absentee voting disenfranchise Black voters.


In addition, at least 55 Mississippi precincts changed their polling place locations ahead of the 2020 election. Monica Boose, CC ’22, recounted witnessing this form of voter suppression in her own Lauderdale County.


“In one of the precincts in the closest city to me, they had an incident of voter suppression on the day of the election. They claimed that over the summer, in June or July, they sent out notifications to the voters within the precinct that the actual voting poll location was changed,” she said. “They said they got no responses at all. So they took everyone within that voting precinct off of the active voter list.”


“On the day of the election, everybody went to the wrong place and that’s when they found out. Even the person who owned the building still had the idea that his or her building was going to be a voting poll location. It’s obvious that foul play was involved. Luckily, the voters still were able to vote. It just prolonged the process.”


Despite widespread voter suppression tactics, two ballot measures passed this November that indicate a changing state. Ballot Measure 2 revised the electoral vote requirement for statewide elections, so popular votes will now decide statewide races, not totals from gerrymandered districts. Supporters hope that this measure will help the state to elect candidates who better reflect Mississippi’s diverse electorate.


Ballot Measure 3 will change Mississippi’s state flag, which was the last to still include a Confederate symbol. Now, the flag will feature a magnolia flower designed by artist Rocky Vaughan. Boose is happy about the change, but frustrated by the amount of time it took and the ultimate reason it passed in the State Legislature in June.


“I feel like the only reason why they changed the flag was because the SEC said they were not going to play any more [championship] college football games within the state of Mississippi unless they changed the flag,” she said. “That’s why I feel it’s not because they saw anything wrong with the flag or any discriminatory ideologies that come from the flag. It’s good that it’s changed, but it’s not changed for the right reasons.”


White also acknowledged the nuances of Mississippi politics: the ups and downs, the progressions and regressions. He emphasized the simultaneous stagnancy and progressive potential of his home, saying that “even though Mississippi is looking forward, there is still so much holding the state back from truly propelling itself forward.”


Once White transferred to private school, from an “all Black school to an all white school,” he became aware of the state’s oppressive power structures and his relation to them. “Let’s just say I got way more aware of my identities and how the world viewed me. Senior year I was like I’ve got to get the redacted outta here,” he joked. “I just can’t be the bastion of hope or the one person—I need a community that’s already built.”


White described coming to Columbia as “a mixture of fate, dumb luck, and wanting to leave Mississippi and experience something new.” But once he arrived, he found “a lot of the same shit, just in the Northeast.” He pointed to systemic racism and generational wealth as common denominators in both regions: “Instead of old slave families being entrenched in these institutions, it’s people who make ships—I don’t know what they do. It’s just in a different context or with different packaging,” he said.


Despite finding community at Columbia at Q House and with fellow Southern students, White clarified, “I wouldn’t call myself a New Yorker. I live here to go to school.” At an indeterminate time in White’s future, he plans to return to Jackson and build his own nurturing community.

An ambulance wailed past his Wallach single, interrupting a sentence. “I miss the quiet,” he sighed. He misses the slowness of Mississippi, too. He misses the miles of grass he can see from his window. He misses the long drives where he can sit in his car, roll his windows down, listen to music, “and just watch things be and be with those things.”


“I think we’re all taught how to love well enough in the South, and how to care for each other well enough, but there are these foundations we need to break apart,” he said. “People need to stop being racist and homophobic and classist—once that’s done, we’ll be okay. Even now, with those things plaguing our state, people are finding amazing, beautiful ways to care for each other and be there for each other. It’s a work in progress.”


···


The Rural-Urban Divide in Collinsville, Mississippi and Spanish Fort, Alabama

Coined by linguists Susan Gal and Judith Irvine, the term ‘fractal recursivity’ refers to large-scale oppositions—differences used to other a group of people—that are then applied on a smaller scale by people within that group to other their fellow members.

Hailing from the rural South, Boose experienced this fractalization. From her first experiences in New York, at Columbia’s admitted student days and orientation events, she recalls being judged for her Southern accent.


“It’s very obvious that people judge Southerners just from the conversation,” she said. “The way people would be like, ‘Where are you from?’ And I’d be like, ‘Mississippi.’ And they were like, ‘Yeah, I can hear it.’’ Boose mimicked their judgemental tone. “It really discouraged me from doing a lot of things.”


She experienced the same judgement from fellow Mississippians from urban centers. “There is disparity between the rural parts of Mississippi and the cities, kind of like how going to New York and people portray Southerners as being dumb, the kids from the city do the same with the kids from the rural parts.”


Boose grew up in Collinsville, Mississippi, in Lauderdale County. In 2018, the population of Collinsville totaled 1,606 people. She always knew she wanted to leave; even among her family members, she felt different. “I didn’t want [Collinsville] to be my end-all be-all,” she said. “There’s not much opportunity. The place that I live is so small it’s not even a town. It’s very lifeless here and very backwards thinking.”


West Lauderdale High School, Boose’s alma mater, focuses on preparing students to attend the local community college. Going to a state school like Ole Miss, Mississippi State, or Southern Mississippi was unusual. So Boose, who applied through Questbridge to elite, private universities, was an anomaly.


“I didn’t want to even settle for a state school. I wanted to go to an Ivy League school.” As the first Black valedictorian at West Lauderdale and a Columbia admit, Boose expanded definitions of success in her hometown.


In 2018, slightly fewer than 9,000 people lived in Spanish Fort, located in Baldwin County, at Alabama’s southern periphery. This is the town where Julia Coccaro, BC ’22, lived from the age of eight.


“I’m from bumfuck middle of nowhere,” Coccaro said. Even when she meets other Alabamians at Columbia, they are usually from Birmingham, the largest and most liberal city in the state.


Her frustration with her hometown and the ignorance of many Barnard and Columbia students about rural America is evident in her blunt language. “People haven’t been to places like this. The most rural part of the country they have been is someone’s cabin in Vermont or some shit, you know what I mean?”


In Coccaro’s senior year at Spanish Fort High School, she became the subject of local and national media attention after filing a formal complaint with the Baldwin County Board of Education. The summer before her senior year, her AP Government teacher assigned a book report. The list of books to choose from included Liberalism is a Mental Disorder by Michael Savage, Guilty: Liberal “Victims” and their Assault on America by Ann Coulter, and Liberty and Tyranny: A Conservative Manifesto by Mark Levin.


Coccaro was ostracized for voicing her disagreements. Her senior year consisted of peers purposefully shoving past her in hallways, neighbors attempting to get her fired from her job at Publix, and a one-day suspension for leading a walkout in support of gun reform. She has only been back to Alabama once since starting college.


Boose, from an even more sparsely populated town in Mississippi, articulated the dangerous underbelly of Southern hospitality. “I would say that my idea of the American South is that it’s like a comforting fakery. People smile in your face, but as soon as you have a hard conversation about race or religion or anything, how people actually feel about you comes out. If you have a differing opinion, you’re shunned,” says Boose.


For Boose and Coccaro, southern hospitality is a mirage. Behind niceties was the expectation of conformity. For people who “never fit in” or challenged the alt-right status quo, leaving was inevitable.


Joan Tate, CC ’22, who grew up in Virginia, concurs. Despite its appealing emphasis on forging tight-knit communities, Southern hospitality showed its ugly side as soon as Tate came out as trans. “With southern hospitality, I’m personally very jaded about it,” she said. “Being trans, one of the things that comes with it is having family members say, ‘I love and support you, but also [it’s] a sin. You’re wrong.’ It’s this idea that politeness can make up for not actually trying to understand.”


···


Growing up in God’s country (and Trump country)

There’s a saying in Tate’s family: “It’s hard to swing a dead cat without hitting a pastor.” Tate’s father is a fifth-generation Southern United Methodist preacher. For many families in the South, religion is integral to daily life. And like many young people grappling with their strict religious upbringing, Tate became a self-described “vicious atheist.”

In recent months, however, Tate has explored her spirituality. “Part of it is kind of just being back home all summer and transitioning and getting closer to my family, I think I’ve become more religious.”


Tate takes care not to conflate her spirituality with the broader ideas of Southern religion, particularly the Southern evangelical sects. “My family’s religion is much more progressive, much more accepting,” she said. “You’ll live in the South and you will be surrounded by people who believe themselves to be religious, believe themselves to be following Jesus, and then have these really hateful beliefs about pretty much anything.”


Some of Tate’s old friends have refused to accept her since she came out. Tragically, she has had to cut off relationships with these friends and with some relatives because of identity-based “disagreements”—a word she pauses after deploying. These are, after all, “disagreements” about Tate’s humanity, not what she is ordering for lunch.


In a photo of the city center of Fayetteville, Arkansas, the white steeple of a church building towers over the city. This is Central United Methodist Church, where Thomas Deen Baker, CC ’22, spent every Sunday of his childhood.


“Growing up in the South is growing up in God’s Country, like the Bible Belt, so my experience of home is very intricately woven with my experience with religion. Christianity, that is,” Baker said.


Like many of his Barnard and Columbia peers, Baker described the South in terms of community, religion, and family, and framed New York as a place for individuals and independence. Baker described Fayetteville, nestled below the Ozarks, as a “great place for human connection” that “is synchronized with the natural world.”


This is one of the many cultural differences between places like Fayetteville and the city, and these differences manifest everywhere in Baker’s life. After his grandmother’s sudden death in November, Baker found himself leaving Brooklyn for Fayetteville. He describes it as “the craziest back and forth between New York and Arkansas since coming to college.” The two days he spent in Arkansas this November were the two days after the election.

“Like that”—he snapped his fingers—“I’m standing in a room with people who very well might have voted for Donald Trump. Whereas that space is not common at all at Columbia. And then suddenly I’m there.”


Baker recognizes that to reach those adults in Arkansas who he might disagree with politically, human connection is imperative. “I have accepted that the environment I grew up in, politics aside: great, beautiful, loving people who are trying their best,” he said. “And that’s the case anywhere in the world. You’ll find human beings who want to be loved and want to give love.”


···


“A fish out of sea”: Shifting Identities as a Southerner in New York

Most NSOP group get-to-know-you sessions, club interest meetings, and sweaty dorm parties include introducing yourself. Along with your name, an integral part of this introduction is saying where you are from.


According to Columbia College, Columbia Engineering, and Barnard College’s statistics on geographic diversity, no small fraction of undergraduates arrive at 116th & Broadway from Southern states. For the Columbia College and Engineering Class of 2024, 21% of the class is from the South; for the classes of 2023 and 2022, 18%; for the class of 2021, 16%. At Barnard, 15.3% of first year students, 13.7% of sophomores, 11. 4% of juniors, and 13.6% of seniors are from the South.


Still, White has felt “very aware” of his Southernness in New York and at Columbia. “I’m a fish out of sea,” he said.


For some people from the South, accents are giveaways. White describes using various strategies to fit in with the predominantly white culture of the Ivy League. He noticed himself changing his language and adopting a more monotone, nasal, “Valley girl”-esque tone.

“When I came to Columbia I had to code switch a lot. I had to alter the way I carried myself, the language that I used in certain spaces. I was like, okay, I kind of have to lose my Southern accent, too. Even though I don’t think I ever had a deep Southern accent.”


Although Tate doesn’t have one, her mother, who grew up on a dairy farm in North Carolina, has a pronounced Southern accent. “I’ll be in a dining hall and a friend of mine will make a joke and use a Southern accent to sound dumb. And I’ll be like, ‘My mother has an accent.’ Then they’ll immediately feel awkward because being Southern doesn’t mean you’re dumb,” she said.


Interactions like these prompted Tate to think of herself as a Southerner. She is not protective of the South, however, and has never felt protective of it. And since arriving at college, her relationship to her Southernness continues to shift.


“I started to realize how little people at Columbia really understand what goes into being from the South and how confusing it is for me,” she said. “The South has a bad history. I think people try to say it has a majestic history. It’s just a bad history that needs to be understood. I think a lot of Southerners aren’t taught exactly what the history is—which makes it all the more confusing. Now, after coming out as trans and after this whole election, I think I’ve slowly tried to distance myself from being called a Southerner. In that it’s a part of my identity, but I definitely don’t want it to define me.”


When Afra Ashraf, BC ’21, who trained herself out of her Southern accent, first came to Barnard, some people were surprised to learn she was from Alabama. “The reactions I’ve gotten: “‘Oh my god. How did you do that? That seems really hard,’” or “‘I don’t think you’re from the South,’” she remembered hearing.


“With people our age, especially people who know they want to leave Alabama, I’ve noticed there are less accents,” she pointed out.


Cati Lopez, BC ’22, grew up in San Antonio. “Whenever I would tell people, ‘Oh I’m from Texas,’ people would be like, ‘Oh.’ And it was kind of like a judgement,” she said. “I don’t understand why people would immediately judge me. It’s not my choice that I lived there.”


***


Astrophysics and Alabama

Many of these students are unsure whether they’ll want to return home after college. Like just about any college student, what they thought yesterday may change tomorrow. As Tate put it, “The future is incredibly uncertain.” It is certain, however, that their Southernness weaves through their academic interests and passions.


Tate, who is a poet, is interested in the aesthetic production of nature in the South. Speaking about poet Frank Stanford, who is from Arkansas, she remarked on Stanford’s perception of a Southern ethos. “A lot of blood, knives, bar fights, and getting drunk and stuff like that. But also these kind of really spiritual images that I think are deep in the South. The moon, rivers,” she said. “There are these really profound feelings of being down South and being on a porch. It sounds super cliche but there is something mystical and beautiful about being in the South.”


Lopez plans on studying sociological medicine in a master’s program, then attending medical school. She is considering returning to San Antonio to practice medicine in low-income neighborhoods.


Her dad would certainly be happy if she moves home, and is working on convincing her. “He’s like, ‘You’ll never find a greater community.’ And it’s true. Especially in San Antonio—because it’s predominantly Hispanic, Mexican culture is really valued there.”

Ashraf majors in astrophysics and her undergraduate research focuses on an extremely niche topic: brown dwarves, which are failed stars. Research on failed stars is a precursor to studying other planets around other suns.


“No one really knows about them, so it feels special studying them because I feel a part of a really small community of people,” she explained.


“I feel tied to the idea of searching for community in space, like other life. That whole endeavor is very human to just want to find other things that we can relate to in the stars. I think that, to tie it into Birmingham, it makes me feel like I’m a part of another small community. Birmingham and Alabama. Not a lot of people care about either of those places, but I do, and there are few people who do and it feels like we have this very small and secret thing. And it’s sad because more people should care.”

#December2020

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