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.