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The Southern Fabric

September 4, 2019

Scholar Malinda Maynor Lowery reflects on a photograph by Southbound artist Jerry Siegel. As part of our Call & Response series in conjunction with Southbound: Photographs of and about the New South, we’ve asked artists, writers, and poets to respond to a photograph of their choice in the form of short written pieces.

By Malinda Maynor Lowery

Jerry Siegel, Shooter, Dallas County, Alabama, 2007

Jerry Siegel, Shooter, Dallas County, Alabama, 2007. Jerry Siegel’s work documents the cultural landscape of the South, with a particular interest in the Black Belt region of Alabama, the area where he grew up. Siegel was the winner of the inaugural Artadia Award in Atlanta in 2009. ON VIEW AT THE POWER PLANT GALLERY AT DUKE UNIVERSITY.

In 2019, the Confederate flag triggers me like it never has before.

 
This photo fulfills my wish to destroy that which abuses us on a daily basis, so much abuse and so quotidian as to seem normal, part of the southern fabric. But the Confederate flag is not the southern fabric; there is nothing normal about it or the fantasy racial hierarchy it represents. Its normalcy exists only in the white supremacist imagination, yet the violence it provokes is very real.

The woman in this photo is therefore enacting a kind of secret fantasy for me: “meeting violence with violence,” as Robert F. Williams demanded in his 1962 memoir/manifesto Negroes with Guns. This photo brings to mind a black & white picture of Williams’s wife, Mabel Williams, posing with her pistol, confident in its power to defend and persuade. A power to overcome fear. But the gun is merely a vehicle; that power comes from within and it is she who overcomes. Adding to the photograph’s power, neither Mabel Williams nor this shooter in Dallas County, Alabama, serve an exotic or hypersexual girl-with-a-gun fantasy. They are not Charlie’s Angels, Bond girls, or videogame vixens playing a role for men. They are Black women channeling their tenacity and the power of their history through a weapon and toward an enemy that is equally relentless.

Performing violence helps illuminate how the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves structure our identities, our presentation of self. From there, it is not hard to see how identities actually structure events, not just how we remember them. These identities can enact events of liberation, but also terror and enduring trauma. In 2019, shooters haunt me as they never have before. Racial resentment and toxic masculinity take ruinous form in mass shootings, where enemies are in the eye of the beholder and violence is the corrosive evil within. Siegel’s photo also triggers a fear—what would I do if faced with a shooter? Why is my daughter obsessed with lockdown drills at school? How can we be safe from what race and patriarchy have wrought?

Malinda Maynor LoweryMalinda Maynor Lowery is a Professor of History at UNC-Chapel Hill and Director of the Center for the Study of the American South. She is a member of the Lumbee Tribe of North Carolina. Her second book, The Lumbee Indians: An American Struggle, was published by UNC Press in September 2018. The book is a survey of Lumbee history from the eighteenth century to the present, written for a general audience. Her first book, Lumbee Indians in the Jim Crow South: Race, Identity, and the Making of a Nation (UNC Press, 2010), won several awards, including Best First Book of 2010 in Native American and Indigenous Studies and the Labriola American Indian Center National Book Prize from Arizona State University. She has written over fifteen book chapters or articles, on topics including American Indian migration and identity, school desegregation, federal recognition, religious music, and foodways, and has published essays in the New York Times, Oxford American, The North Star, and Scalawag Magazine. She has won fellowships and grants from the Mellon Foundation, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Sundance Institute, the Ford Foundation, and others. She has produced documentary films, including the Peabody Award-winning A Chef’s Life (5 seasons on PBS), the Emmy-nominated Private Violence (broadcast on HBO in 2014), In the Light of Reverence (broadcast on PBS in 2001), and two short films, Real Indian (1996), and Sounds of Faith (1997), both of which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival.

Southbound: Photographs of and about the New South is presented by the Power Plant Gallery in collaboration with Duke’s Forum for Scholars and Publics and the Gregg Museum of Art & Design at North Carolina State University. In this iteration, guest curator Randall Kenan, author and NC native, organizes the many framed photographs of the exhibition around the twin themes of Flux, on display at the Power Plant Gallery, and Home, on display at the Gregg Museum. The full program of events includes slow tours, film screenings, “Sit + Chat” sessions, and FSP@PPG panel discussions that engage with the issues in and around the works of art and explore the topics, places, and styles of Southbound. Southbound: Photographs of and about the New South was organized by the Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art at the College of Charleston School of the Arts in Charleston, South Carolina, and curated by Mark Long and Mark Sloan. Visit the exhibit online at southboundproject.org.