Southern, But No Belle

Recently,Vanity Fair published a photograph of the literary women of Atlanta.  The women are posed in front of the Swan House which is not a plantation house, it just vibes like one.  This is one of Atlanta’s hallmarks, these not-plantations.  Since Atlanta was burned in the Civil War, there are no ante-bellum structures to romanticize, so the good citizens of my hometown make do with lavish Victorians.  My favorite example is the Margaret Mitchell House.  It was built in the 1900s, long after Rhett Butler said he didn’t give a damn, but it feels like Tara and that’s all that matters.  When we agree to accept an illusion, it takes on a kind of truth and this is why the photo spread is so disturbing.

Atlanta is one of America’s “Chocolate Cities.”  Along with Washington, DC and Detroit the city was famous for its critical mass of black folks doing anything you can imagine— I grew up believing that any range of human experience could be enjoyed by a black person.  My parents never had to wring their hands over whether I saw teachers who “looked like me.”  Growing up in Southwest Atlanta, I had no idea that black Americans were a numeric minority.  And even when I was old enough to know this, I never believed it in my soul.  It’s like when you are told that your body is 75% water.  You believe it, but you don’t believe it, since you know yourself to be solid flesh.

Of course, I was glad to see Natasha Trethewey included in the photo—as a Pulitzer Prize winner, if she is not a literary celebrity of Atlanta, then who is? But everything else about the spread stuck in my craw.  In the photo, you see half a dozen white ladies—and I use this term deliberately. The way they are posed does not evoke “women”.  I see “ladies”.  And there is Natasha tucked in there, the one woman of color. (Is “ladies of color” even a term?) 

The title of the piece is “Belles, Books, and Candor”.  I never call myself a southern belle, though many people here in New Jersey try and put that label on me.  It’s not that I deny my southerness, but “belle”, for me evokes images of slavery and hierarchy.  I know black women who have reappropriated the term, but I would rather not be wrapped in that filthy blanket.  I do sometimes call myself a Georgia Peach, which is what girls at my high school called ourselves.  Once, a man called me “Georgia” when he was feeling affectionate and it’s one of the reasons I fell for him, because knowing where I am from is key to knowing who I am.  I am not from the world of this photo.

I would love to ask Kathryn Stockett, author of the blockbuster THE HELP how she feels about the problematic optics of this photo.  Fans of her work say that she is an advocate for the black women who worked as maids in Mississippi.  I’ve been told that she is a fierce critic of white privilege. How does she feel to be touted as leader of “Atlanta’s literary sorority” which does not include any black fiction writers.  Did she say to the photographer, “Wait! Where’s Pearl Cleage?”

Today marks Confederate Memorial day in the state of Georgia. This “holiday” is characterized by a nostalgia for a fictional past in which the (white) men are all gentlemen, the (white) women belles, and the fallen Conferderates heroes, all. I shudder to think about how the rest of us fit into this fantasy. So, on this day, I look at this photo and see an opportunity lost. What a powerful rhetorical statement would be made if standing before the Swan House were a group of writers representing the real Atlanta. Imagine even that the net were widened to include women writers from other southern cities. I would love to see Shay Youngblood, Olympia Vernon, Lorraine Lopez, Dolen Perkins Valdez and Alice Randall featured in the pages of Vanity Fair. The south has never been mono-racial, and as the demographics of the country have shifted, the face of southern writing is becoming increasingly diverse– and increasingly rich.

I am aware that many white southern writers feel pigeonholed by the term “southern.” They complain that their publishers will send them to Square Books in Mississippi, but will never send them to City Lights in California.  They feel that the “southern” label keeps them from being seen as American writers.  Black southerners can feel their pain, because we, too, know what it’s like to be excluded from the American canon.  But we know another pain, which may cut deeper: we know how it feels to have our roots dug up, to be told we don’t exist.

About TayariJones

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17 Responses to Southern, But No Belle

  1. Carolyn says:

    Those “ladies” look uncomfortable. It’s a terrible photo and a worse image.

  2. This pic came up on my fb page with your title, Southern, But No Belle. The picture looked extremely odd to me at first sight…the foreground not fitting with the background…really. And that was before I had even read your post! Then I thought more about it further. Pairing a NON-plantation house with a faux representation of Atlanta’s literary “women,” was sort of metaphorical, in a twisted sort of way. Albeit, I dislike things false being portrayed as true — otherwise know as…deceit. And that’s the only “good” I can find in it…other than what you’ve already pointed out.

    I’ve been to Atlanta. It is rich in black culture that should be touted a lot more than it is — to be honest and true. If it’s any comfort, when I think of Atlanta and writing, I think of Tayari Jones. For reals. You are all Georgia, girl…and I’m not just shinin’ you on :~)


  3. Jennifer says:

    Girl … I almost couldn’t find Natasha in that photo!

    • I did, too, and I knew she was there–I knew about the article, and that she had been the only black writer featured. For the first three looks I wondered if they’d left her out of the shoot. But no, she’s in the back, and doesn’t she look uncomfortable? What were they thinking?
      But that’s VF all over. I had a friend, a respected expert in bioterrorism, who was posed in a haz-mat suit unzipped to show cleavage. They go for these over-the-top controversial images. I’d be willing to bet they knew exactly what they were doing.

  4. Gigi says:

    My very first thought was, where is Pearl Cleage? Very bad form Vanity Fair, typical of your publication, but still very bad form.
    Did anyone else notice you can’t post a comment on the Vanity Fair page?


  5. Persistence says:

    A picture with Wren’s Nest in the background might of been a more acceptable start…

  6. jbelt8 says:

    Sometimes I think only Southerners can really understand the dichotomy that is the South. Where else in history are the lines between “us” and “them” so blurred? Some of “us” and some of “them” fought for and against the same ideal during the Civil War which makes for some interesting hero choices. I love the contradiction that comes from seeing the high Cherokee cheekbones of my father’s side of the family while marveling at the green and blue eyes of my mother’s side of the family. And nobody willing to elaborate on either. Who else but a Southerner really gets that.

    Gwendolyn Parker, Pearl Cleage, Tayari Jones, Tina Ansa, Alice Walker, Marita Golden, bell hooks, AA Packer are among the Southern writers not selected for this Vanity Fair piece. Could the writer/magazine be unaware that more than a token should have been in that picture? We all know the answer to that one. I mean no disrespect to Ms. Treatheway and she was an excellent choice, but she exists in great company that was ignored.

    Having said all that, I wonder how many black people are really in that picture (one drop rule)…

  7. Tea says:

    I didn’t realize such a day existed. Yes, we know what the word “belle” typifies in the South.

  8. lynn says:

    Thank you, Tayari, for this cogent and restrained analysis of that truly absurd photograph. Any image that suggests the big house and privileged women posed as decoration is problematic for the reasons you state as well as the weird misogyny it presents. Your list of writers suggests more interesting fiction than what might come from these “ladies.” There’s something racist, classist, anti-intellectual, and anti-creative in this vapid photograph. I don’t want to read books published by women who look like this, even in “jest.” Yet I know these writers do write compelling and wonderful books. Thank you for being a voice to bring attention to the gross errors this photograph presents.

  9. revved says:

    I am really feeling your essay. So much has been made of the “New South,” how it complicates and even defies traditional ways of looking at Southern life, history, and culture. Then, we get this Vanity Fair piece? In this “New South,” black people representing a true Southern authenticity are somehow virtually nonexistent. It’s probably worse for brown-skinned Hispanic people who have made the South their home for generations. The so-called deciders of all things Southern might concede that black people are part of the Southern fabric–even we may not be considered to be the face of the South. But brown-skinned Hispanic people? Brown-skinned Hispanic people are not even allowed to be Southerners (or Americans!) even if they, their parents, and grandparents were born in the USA. I say this as black, multigenerational Floridian who considers himself to be a Southerner. However, I have to admit that in this day and age, most Florida residents probably don’t consider themselves to be Southerners, especially if they or their families are transplants from another state or another country. Still, people forget (or perhaps don’t know?) that Florida was once a slave-holding state of the Confederacy, that it has four HBCUs still in operation, that the Rosewood Massacre occurred there, that black people lived in Florida before and during the time Florida was admitted to the union. Yet when people finally acknowledge and seek out the history of Florida’s Southern identity, they almost always look to the so-called Florida cracker for answers. Even Zora Neale Hurston—one of Florida’s most famous chroniclers what is often referred to as “Old Florida”—is not thought of as Southern. To hear some people tell it, Hurston was part of the Harlem Renaissance, so that makes her black, not necessarily Southern. Sometimes, it as if we black Floridians didn’t exist until public schools were desegregated.

    • jbelt8 says:

      As a native Floridian, I get what you are saying. Some people are so new to Florida they think the State didn’t exist before they showed up.

  10. ADamali says:

    Excellent observation, and it highlights one of the very reasons why I let my Vanity Fair subscription lapse a few years ago. We are constantly told that these slights are not personal, that they are just unaware of our contributions…but isn’t it their job to make the public aware that artists of color do exist and create wonderful art? It looks like the “New South” still resembles the Old…

  11. Doret says:

    I am not happy with this photograph and even more upset after reading the entire article. . It does a disservice to literary scene in Atlanta and the whole entire show.

    Three more Southern writers I would love to see included, Deborah Johnson, Attica Locke and Liz Balmaseda.

  12. LaTosha says:

    Thank you for this post. The south is an absolutely amazing part of the country!!!!!! I am looking forward to reading more of your work.

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  13. All I can say is thank you for writing this.

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