When the South is everywhere and nowhere
Preparing me for a competition up South in Pittsburgh, my violin teacher in Memphis—blond, slight, perpetually young—had me practice how I was going to introduce myself before my performance in front of the judges. After I went through my lines hurriedly a few times, once with a sour-faced attempt at the smile my teacher had suggested, she said I needed to slow down so that the Yankee judges would be able to understand my Southern accent. I tried again, now actively attempting to stamp out what I had not realized was there. “Better,” she said eventually. “Better” was how she offered praise when she knew I had genuinely tried but somehow still managed to suck.
After the lesson, I darted out the front door and down the hill to where Mama was waiting in the car, slowing myself just short of a collision with the passenger door. “Mama, Mama!” I said into the open window. “You think I got a Southern accent?” She replied without looking up from her circulars, “We all have Southern accents.”
This was a revelation to me, and a devastating one at that. I had heard Southern accents, and I was certain I didn’t sound like Julia Sugarbaker or Whitley Gilbert or Elly May Clampett. I pondered this possible new thing about myself while Mama talked about that cheating Arkansas ho Bill Clinton’s accent and how people made fun of it even though he was the president. I tuned out her voice and tried to hear how I talked in my head, using the same critical, objective ear I relied on to know when my intonation was off.
At home in my room with the door closed, I practiced aloud, watching the shape of my mouth and the movements of my tongue in the mirror. I repeated my introduction in different accents: regular, valley girl, Southern, newscaster, New Yorker, and British. I still couldn’t hear how I sounded, but I was desperate to discern and attain a standard American accent—that is, one with no regional mark. I was sixteen years old, trying to make it in the world. I didn’t need no Southern accent perched like a twanging bird on top of my being black and a girl and precariously middle class and a precariously middle-class black girl whose hair wouldn’t get straight all the way no matter the strength or caliber of the relaxer. I switched on the television, hoping to find a Cosby Show rerun so I could study Mrs. Clair Huxtable. Instead I found the television where I had left it that morning, tuned to The Box.
OutKast’s “ATLiens” was on again, and I rapped along with the song’s lyrics, happy for a brief reprieve from my pursuit of proper talk. After the second refrain, I couldn’t help but say aloud, “Shut my mouth!” I muted the television and turned back to the mirror, repeating the hook slowly in all those different accents:
Now throw your hands in the airAnd wave ’em like you just don’t careAnd if you like fish and grits and all that pimp shitEverybody let me hear you say, oh yeah
By 1998, throwing one’s hands in the air and waving them like one just didn’t care—a standard New York City party chant—had long been mainstreamed. The third bar of the chant is improvisational. The emcee might say and if you rocking with the boogie down Bronx tonight, or if you ready for us to roc the mic tonight, or, my personal favorite, and if you got on clean underwear. OutKast had filled in that free space with markers of regional distinctiveness—fish and grits, all that pimp shit—an homage to funky food and Southern players. In the process, they had claimed the chant, and hip-hop, for the South. Their version sounded like this:
Now throw yo hands in the a-yer’n wave ’em like ya jus’ don’t cay-er’n if ya like fish ’n grits ’n all dat pimp shitEverybody lemme hear ya say oh yeah-yer
Repeating the refrain in my bedroom, I realized there was no difference between my “regular” voice and the “Southern” voice— my violin teacher was right. OutKast had been rapping in a Southern accent all this time and my slow ass was just now noticing it. For years, I had assumed OutKast was making fun of the way country white people talked, or offering them some kind of kumbaya pathway into rap music. Instead, they had been saying that they were country and Southern and black and rap, and they were damned proud of it. I had missed that message altogether. I felt a bit of shame for being embarrassed about my now-obvious Southern accent. The feeling came up in my chest and threatened to redden my brown face.
I switched off the television and went back to practicing, beating back the Southern border of my tongue until I made it.
I was gone be somebody and so was my sister. Even our local paper (which had once called Ida B. Wells all manner of things, the nicest of which was “darky damsel”) said so. Our nineteen- and eighteen-year-old faces pictured in the April 11, 2002, edition of the Commercial Appeal said so, too. On the left, me with my mouth open wide in a laugh, no South visible on my fresh pink tongue, no light between my teeth. On the right, my sister with an appropriate smile, pleasant but not gleeful, top-row incisors and bicuspids visible and even, the spaces between her teeth perfect and a blessing because they meant she didn’t have to floss as much. My hair, a lion’s mane crown. Her hair, hanging, curled gently on her right shoulder, still relaxed. My left shoulder behind her right, no real borders between our bodies, according to the picture, a two-headed black girl monster with a violin perched atop its shoulder. SISTERS HIT HIGH NOTES IN LEARNING in bold serif over our faces.
We were each valedictorian of our high school classes, 2000 and 2002, and I would have it no other way. Of me, my sister told the reporter, “She really wanted me to beat the other kids.” She was damned right; we were the Robinson super duo. I told the reporter I was on the “fast track,” finishing college two semesters early because I had so many other things to do. My sister was measured like her smile: the introvert, the calmer one, the planner, the saver. She said that our Suzuki violin lessons had taught her patience—just do your best, never give up. She was already a somebody better than me.
It sure took me a lot longer than my “fast track” suggested, but I finally made it and became a somebody, too. At twenty-four, I declared a coming victory over my tongue; I was going to get myself a Professor Voice, which I was going to develop while I was teaching five classes per semester at the community college downtown. A Professor Voice was even better than a standard American accent because it connoted that I was now President of Everything. I used that voice to say Heidegger and Sartre and Few-co and phenomenological and cognitive dissonance. When I read to myself, I sounded like Maya Angelou playing Vivaldi on her viola. By then, my sister spoke Japanese and was living in Kure City teaching English. We were both becoming somebodies in the world, me on one side and her on the other, both at our own paces and with our own voices, across the border of our sisterhood.
I thought I had crossed the street to greener, richer pastures, but I discovered quickly that I was still on the same side with the same pale-ass grass with the oddly shaped dead patches. That Professor Voice hadn’t provided childcare for my baby or paid nary a bill, nor did it shush collectors on the other end of my phone asking about when I was gone give them some of my adjunct nickels. Besides, the South had been in my throat all along, lurking like strep, coming out in my office (which doubled as department storage) when I counseled women students with black eyes and baby daddies like I was their big cousin. They asked me why I was there for them, and with them, and why I cared one way or the other—what was a black girl with a Professor Voice doing talking about fighting niggas in the street instead of lecturing on Few-co? And so again I was ashamed of my voice, for the new border it had erected between being Somebody and being somebody whose name nobody says when the lights turn off. I was a black girl who had jumped fences and fought boys and made them say my name and resisted death just like my students, and that’s why I was there with them in a storage closet with an old wood desk trying to get us all free. I had a lot of making up to do. To reckon with that shame, I started using my regular voice again—to do everything from teach sociological theory to holler down the street at a friend. (“Regular voice” and “holler” might be a bit redundant, I admit.)
Three years after I had set out to be victorious at the border of my tongue, I had gone from trying to wash the South from my mouth with lye soap to having “Southern Studies” in my job title. Turned out I found the region in everything, everywhere. There were variations—the “many Souths,” as it were—and I respected and celebrated intra-regional difference. I had lived most of my life in Memphis, but I felt an ownership over all of them. All the Souths were all mines.
I had also taken to defending the South’s borders from transgression—nothing in without an outsider stamp, nothing out without a Southern one. Soul music, Southern. Trap, Southern. Hot chicken, Southern. UGG boots, stranger danger. If I had to confess to being Southern, all the other tongues were gone confess, too. But I had my work cut out for me at the borders, real and imagined.
People from places like Texas and Florida and Delaware and especially Washington, D.C., like to act like they aren’t in or from the South. When I encounter these folks and endure their spiel, I like to explain how a whole entire white man, the sociologist and consummate regionalist John Shelton Reed, has dedicated a lifetime of scholarship to settling this question. Therefore, as far as I am concerned, the issue is closed. But it rarely is—the reluctant Southerners will counter with various reasons why their locale is not, in fact, the South. D.C. is too sophisticated. Florida has a Caribbean influence that excludes it. Texas, especially West Texas, is a whole other thing unto itself.
Raise your hand if your state had slavery, I’ll say, putting my Tennessee hand up and glaring at them until they raise theirs in the a-yer like they just don’t cay-er. If that doesn’t sway them, I’ll pull out a slew of very official white men to make the point. Like a good Southerner and a proper black person, I don’t trust the federal government for much. But the U.S. Census is not a liar. If the Census says Maryland, D.C., Texas, and Florida are the South, then they are the South. That’s really just that on that. Only wholly unreasonable people (and folks who say “pop” when they mean “drink”) don’t believe in learned white men like the great John Shelton Reed or the U.S. Census. For them, I just suck my teeth and bless their hearts aloud and go on.
In the states on the border of our nation’s enduring disagreement, the battle is the hardest. Missouri, that notorious border state, had a whole civil war in its legislature over the Civil War, but kept owning and catching and murdering people just the same. Delaware was about the same way, divided into its urban and agrarian halves. Maryland placed a dividing line and later a Mason-Dixon sign right inside of itself. West Virginia created a whole new border, chopping off that left arm of Virginia, making itself the only limb of Tom Jefferson’s great state that would rather not own people. At its southern and northern borders, eastern and western limits, at the borders between valley and mountain, city and country, the South appears and recedes, and things blend. Kentucky, Oklahoma, Kansas, and Missouri became the Midwest; Delaware, D.C., and Maryland became the mid-Atlantic region of the Northeast; but only the South had slavery until the bitter end, we say. Holding the line at those borders is harder than beating back a pumpkin spice latte inside a pair of Lululemon yoga pants on good public transportation while sky high on legal weed.
I had tried to trespass the border of my tongue, to make a new mouth with a new voice, but I was foiled by my own self—the fact of my geographical location, the fact of my history, my body, my mama and daddy. I had tried to trespass the border of class with this new mouth, my violin in tow, but I had found paycheck-to-paycheck weariness. Other shoes were dropping all the time. I had tried to trespass the borders within me, my internal borders, the border between who I thought I was trying to be and the pain I had experienced, the monstrous Southern things that had happened to me. I got tired of fighting, so very undone by the two sides, so I tried to sit still, somewhere in the middle, and reconcile it all. No matter my mouth or voice, or how many times I work twice as hard, I am bound by the strictures of race, class, gender, and history. And the closest borders, the ones in ourselves and in our families and homes, are the most difficult to discern.
Kentucky is where I learned to reckon with those borders—geographical, structural, familial—and ponder whether or not they are real, or if they matter, or if I can or should cross them. Kentucky had called itself neutral when the Civil War began, an admirable if preposterous thing, especially since it acquiesced to Union control but still wanted its slavery. Kentucky held tight to the peculiar institution, even when others were at least lip-service outlawing it, until the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment. Kentucky, where the black population fell to below ten percent after slavery and the Great Migration, and most of that is still in just two counties. Kentucky, where my all-time-favorite cousin got possessed by the devil and was trapped for fifteen years. Kentucky, the southern-most state in which I have been certain that I was called a nigger. Kentucky, now the border between my sister and me.
Kentucky: Where I learned that borders are never neutral or safe, and that I shouldn’t search for rest there. It’s where I learned that the way across a border is under it.
My favorite cousin became pregnant in college. She moved to Fulton, Kentucky, in 1995 so she could be near her daughter’s father. The younger of two sisters, my cousin was my favorite because she was the nicest and the prettiest, could whup anybody on her block, always poured me extra Frosted Flakes, did my hair pretty and grown, and told me to watch out for those mannish-ass little boys. She was even-tempered until pushed, with a border in her that held back rage, the tension from which you could sometimes see in her jaw and top lip. I didn’t know then that all of us, every set of sisters, had those kinds of internal borders, walls that spring up when we’re defending ourselves from the worst hurts.
As adult sisters raising sisters, our mothers were close for a time, different and the same, familiar and uneasy, one side and the other. My sister and I spent the night over at our cousins’ house often, and like younger girls are, we were fascinated by the older girls, their hair and makeup and clothes and dressers and trinkets and chest of drawers and songs. We watched them go to junior high and then high school and prepared for our turn to cross.
My favorite cousin was like a black Cinderella, scrubbing and cooking and cleaning and making sure my auntie’s food was hot off the stove when she got home from work at Kimberly-Clark. I thought the younger child was always the favorite, but my cousin had a fraught relationship with her mom. Like my mother and my aunt, my favorite cousin and her sister had different fathers, and hers wasn’t around. The older sister’s daddy was some kind of well-to-do. I figured he must have given her that straight hair and mean streak. Some borders we didn’t cross.
Soon my favorite cousin was a mother of sisters, like my mother and her mother. Although Fulton was just across the Tennessee border—just a line somebody made up stealing some indigenous folks’ land—Kentucky revealed itself as more distant than the miles would suggest. It was a battleground for my cousin. Frenemies abounded in that tiny town, which seemed to have negative-two degrees of separation between lovers who traversed the border between good and evil, friend and enemy, in a matter of weeks, or sometimes days.
It was inevitable, then, that some other young woman—egged on by bored and horrid young men and jealous like young women can be in a small town—would start some shit with my favorite cousin. The other woman sent word that she was coming for a fight, and that she was bringing a crew to video. (Those were the days before WORLDSTARHIPHOP became the internet porn of fight videos, when fight compilations were distributed on videotape along with bootleg VHS movies at the barbershop.) When my cousin got the word, she put her daughters, seven and four, in the bath and headed out to her porch, barefoot, to wait. The rival came shortly thereafter. Sometime during the early moments of the confrontation, my cousin became trapped inside herself, she later said, and she could no longer hear what her rival was saying—some kind of devil got her. She had not realized she was fighting until three-quarters of the way in. Before that, she had lost a quick weave, but not much else. But then she fetched and wielded a metal dog chain.
The resulting sentence had my cousin trapped across the border for a decade, some of those years on probation and the latter years getting back on her feet, before she was able to come home to Memphis. In those years, I became a young mother myself, full of all kind of fight and fire. I did my daughter’s hair pretty like my cousin had done mine, glad I had remembered something from her since everybody knew my mama didn’t do hair. I missed my cousin terribly while she was gone and haven’t seen her enough since she returned. Both our daddies died the May before we voted against Trump, mine on a Friday and hers the following Sunday. We went to their funerals back to back. We cried for each other. For a minute, I wished we could go back, that I could be sitting between her knees getting my hair cornrowed, eating Frosted Flakes, and watching cartoons. Our daddies were gone, and her daughters were grown and in college. She goes to church with Mama now. We both do what we can to keep the borders in us, of rage or tears or too much joy, at bay.
Before I had accepted that I would not win over the border of my tongue, OutKast had already mapped a new Black South and gone to war at its borders. At the now near-mythical 1995 Source Awards, André 3000 uttered our regional rallying cry—“The South got somethin’ to say”— when OutKast won for New Artist of the Year. This became black Southerners’ “The South shall rise again.” In hip-hop, the region had won a place on the map, making old borders raw—those of rural and urban, South and North, nonviolence and self-defense, Martin and Malcolm, passive and aggressive, Black capitalism and Black liberation, stay or go, Great Migration and reverse migration, borders that had undergirded the Great Black Intellectual Wars from Du Bois and Washington to Dyson and West. The South threatened to take over the rest of the nation, to move its borders up and out, to swell and expand to many Souths—an up South and an out South and a down South—to blanket the country’s hip-hop landscape so every scene pledged allegiance to the Third Coast.
The East and West Coasts struck back. 50 Cent, the Jamaica, Queens–raised artist who gave us such classic lyrics as “I’ll take you to the candy shop / I’ll let you lick the lollipop,” implied that Southern rappers just wanted to party and didn’t take their craft seriously. Wu-Tang Clan’s RZA, who purchased substantial portions of Memphis’s Stax Records catalogue to sample for his Yankee use, said Southerners didn’t have hip-hop in their blood. And Nas, whose Natchez-raised father once had a band called “The Okra Orchestra,” maligned Southern crunk music, and Southern crunk dancing in particular, as the death of hip-hop. The borders between North and South had long been ruptured, and the South had invaded and won with r&b and soul and jazz even before the war had begun. Either Nas and RZA and 50 Cent simply did not know they were the champions of hip-hop’s Lost Cause, or they were manufacturing the kind of fake border walls that we all do when we realize too late that the line we imagined isn’t there at all.
It was not enough to cross the border to mainstream America—to the North. Not enough for Southern hip-hop to be played on stations across the country, or for Southern hip-hop artists to top all of the relevant Billboard charts. Southerners joined forces across place differences to bolster their strength, becoming rap confederates who would destroy the rap union and create a new United States of Hip-Hop with Southern presidents, senators, flows, and production. The 2007 cross-South collaboration “Int’l Players Anthem (I Choose You)” and its accompanying video was an announcement of this new Southern syndicate. The video is about a wedding, which stands in for the marriage of these different styles of Southern hip-hop, the formation of an international players community, and the creation of an anthem under which to unite the South. Memphis’s DJ Paul and Juicy J produced the song with a sample from Dallas-raised Willie Hutch, combining a classic soul sound with a trap beat. The outerposts of the Southern rap diaspora, Houston (represented by UGK) and Atlanta (OutKast), provided the South’s two lyrical styles over the Memphis production. It was past, present, and future. Texas, Tennessee, and Georgia. The “Int’l Players Anthem” was Southern hip-hop’s “Battle Hymn of the Republic.”
But no need for more of that story, because we know how it ended—the South won. It had triumphantly annexed and renamed and reclaimed hip-hop by pushing the border to the oceans and gulfs and beyond. Today, the sounds of Southern hip-hop—the lyrical cadences, the drum patterns, the style—are so commonplace that, writing for the Observer in 2016, music journalist Shawn Setaro asked in a headline, “Are the Sounds of Regional Hip-Hop Going Extinct?” Drake is at once Houston, New Orleans, and Memphis (and Toronto and Jamaica). The NYC-based A$AP Mob is regularly whispered about as warmed-over Atlanta trap music. Indie artists in California are reviving Cleveland’s Bone Thugs-N-Harmony’s rapid-fire, eighth-and-sixteenth-note flow, which those Midwesterners had stolen from Memphis’s Gangsta Pat. Atlanta’s Migos earned global popularity for a sound that came from Memphis. If regionalism hadn’t already lost its murderous, rigidly policed borders before, Katy Perry’s “Dark Horse,” a pop trap song featuring trap pioneer Juicy J, signaled its ultimate and vulgarly appropriative taming.
How far we have come, cognitively if not temporally, from that history of coastal hip-hop battles, of East versus West and the Dirty Third versus everybody. So far that there are now documentaries of sorts about that war. They aren’t Ken Burns– style PBS epics, but they are no less instructive in their messy and messily told histories, as well as in their clinging to the notion of neat, clean borders between East and West, antebellum and Reconstruction eras, pre- and post-1995 Source Awards, pre- and post-Obama America.
Both Southern hip-hop’s victorious march to the mainstream and Obama’s victory over the highest racial border wall in the land were violent, pyrrhic, and increasingly bizarre as the realities of victory set in. Notorious, the biopic about the life and death of the East Coast’s giant, came out in theaters days before Obama’s inauguration. White folks thought that if a biracial, black-identified man could make it to inauguration day without being assassinated, then for sure that day would bring about the double-death of racial and regional borders between black and white. But shortly thereafter, even robots on the internet, entirely of their own volition, were calling the president a nigger.
A couple of years later, at the 2011 White House Correspondents’ Dinner, Obama was able to joke that his white supremacist successor-to-be, having put rumors about the president’s birth certificate to rest, could get back to investigating more important things—like the whereabouts of Biggie and Tupac. These black men’s unsolved murders and the coastal war their deaths reflected were a punchline for a black president whose race enabled him to make the joke just as much as white folks’ belief in him as a post-racial symbol did. He had equated birtherism with our national lack of care for black lives and black deaths, which is only funny because we accept this absence of empathy as not conspiracy but as empirically proven, mundane reality. Birtherism, like the prospect of Trump’s election to the presidency, was absurd then.
In 2012, when Trayvon Martin was murdered in a Florida suburb, Obama was running for re-election and said the slain teen could have been his son. Two months after Martin was murdered, Tupac Shakur was resurrected as a projected image on the Coachella stage in California to perform for a largely white crowd. We were all wearing hoodies then, which had become newly associated exclusively with black maleness, and I wondered, if Trayvon had been shirtless—like Tupac was on that stage, like white folks liked him and other black men in the 1990s—would he have lived? I wondered if George Zimmerman would have stood his ground against a hologram. At the Africa in April Festival in Memphis that year, I saw a framed print for sale that included images of, among others, Biggie, Tupac, Barack Obama, Martin Luther King Jr., Nelson Mandela, and Rosa Parks. The borders were down. Political prisoners and presidents, rappers and actors, martyrs and live talismans, were imagined together in ways respectability politics would not have allowed before. Looking at the faces on that print, I thought the Mayans were right after all: the world had ended.
Tupac’s biopic, released in June 2017 for the artist’s forty-sixth birthday, had the potential to give us some real regional grounding (like Straight Outta Compton had given us the previous year). But the film’s release was so thoroughly ensconced in the turbulent and frenzied campaign of our nation’s “first white president” (in the later words of Ta-Nehisi Coates) that its assertion of the borders that animated the 1990s threw our current borderless state, temporal and geographical, into sharp relief. We already couldn’t tell where the loop ended and real life began, checking to see if we had been shot when videos of police murders of black people autoplay on our newsfeeds. We already had trouble distinguishing video from the L.A. riots from that of the Baltimore uprisings without date-stamped footage. The Tupac biopic was thus doomed in theaters and on the internet and in history. Seizing on the Fake News that an iPhone appears in the movie though the device would not have been invented until over a decade later, Black Twitter conjured a Trump-era Tupac— swiping left on Tinder, dropping albums on SoundCloud, and unfollowing Biggie on IG. Perhaps he would have moved back to the East Coast after Suge Knight’s incarceration. Still up for debate is whether Tupac would have met with our Orange Caesar at Trump Tower about racial reconciliation.
These memorial projects for regional hip-hop battles and their iconic leaders—their Grants and Shermans and Lees—reveal a difficult truth about the war’s outcome. Southern places, those “many Souths,” joined forces to make a unified coast, taking over the national sonic landscape. In doing so, Southern hip-hop, artists and consumers alike, has contributed to its undoing and remaking into an image we don’t recognize and can’t quite locate and bind. Today, the average listener, and even a fair number of musicologists, can’t tell where a particular hip-hop artist is from just by the sound.
Whither and wherefore the South now, Third Coast? The South indeed won the war, but at what cost? To make a place for itself, Southern hip-hop had laid claim to the fiction of regional borders. This is the same fiction that says black folks are doing better or worse or different in this or that place rather than being disproportionately killed, quickly or slowly, everywhere we are.
My favorite cousin was in Kentucky from the end of Clinton’s first term through midway into Obama’s. Off probation but still financially unable to move, she had set her sights on getting back across the border, back South, back home. In the second term of the Bush II years, I had begun coming back and forth to Kentucky, having gotten myself a boyfriend who was from the suburbs of Louisville. Fulton felt much farther from Louisville than the geographic distance indicated, and when I would see the sign indicating I had crossed the Kentucky border, I would look west, wistful and sad and ashamed of the distance between us. But my boyfriend’s face was there in the way, as he was usually the one driving. He was handsome and a legacy Morehouse alum, while I had gone to the local public schools from kindergarten up to my Master’s program. When we would arrive at his parents’ home—his childhood home—the snow on the outside and the ice on the inside made me think perhaps the North started there, after all.
I had dated rich boys before and been refuse and refused by the mothers, who were generally the same whether they were high yellow or Jamaican coffee brown. But this one, skin somewhere in the middle, had come further than the others. Amongst other things, she had been a higher education administrator on the East Coast while her husband finished his residency, then she had compromised and moved to the Midwest—that’s what they called Kentucky—for him to start his medical practice. She longed to be back on the East Coast, maybe Baltimore this time. Her husband had promised her that they wouldn’t make a life in such a provincial place as Louisville, one that mispronounced its French name, but here they were, two college-educated children later. Still in Kentucky.
She and her husband both joked that she had been a country girl he plucked stick-legged up from poverty, but if there was any trace of that, it, like the lines in her face, did not matter. Her eyes, tiny behind her glasses like her son’s behind his, peered at me, searching for something to recognize and discard, and I tried to hide from them so I wouldn’t become refuse so quickly. She admired and resented and pitied my clawing up the class ladder, a single mother with a graduate degree and a baby’s daddy who had died, and she wondered what her son saw in me. She would casually question me in a beautiful upstairs listening room, or reading room, or maybe it was a sunroom, with fine rugs and elegant plants that craned carefully toward the sun, so bougie they appeared to enjoy the Thelonious Monk playing on the fancy speaker system. I had made it across the class border, but not really. I could pretend, and I could achieve, but I was still the woman with that tongue, adjunct-teaching and striving with past-due bills and collections, and not enough money or will anywhere in my family to get my cousin the one hundred miles south back to Memphis. Never have I felt as stank in life as I did on that settee in that upstairs room with the unclear use. Me and him—and them, and that border—broke up the same year my cousin finally made it home. I swore off Kentucky for seven years.
Through the Coast Wars, Kentucky tried to stay neutral like it did in the previous century, but it still didn’t want to be in the Union—clearly not. No state that births a rap group that calls itself Nappy Roots and allows said rap group to name an album Watermelon, Chicken & Gritz wants to be a part of the United States of America. Nappy Roots certainly didn’t want to be neutral. Aided by and spurring on the South’s ongoing sonic and cultural victories, Nappy Roots had pioneered mainstream rap success for country boys from Kentucky. Even though I was still fire-hot at Kentucky for trapping my favorite cousin there, I thought Nappy Roots’ choice to commit to a recognizable South, complete with gospel organs and soul beats, meant that the border might stop being as wretched as it had been to her. Maybe there was a home away from home for her, and maybe after her probation was over, the border would relax and stop gripping her so tightly.
From Bowling Green and Louisville, Nappy Roots seemed to go to the borders to search out the real country, a racially diverse but unequal middle America where small-town folks got along despite and because of differences. Black Southern bohemians added Nappy Roots to their playlists alongside Common, Lauryn Hill, and Mos Def, so-called “conscious” artists from the North, preferring the country gangstas to the city ones busy crafting trap music. This group had brought back Arrested Development’s vibe, but instead of gestures toward the African continent as Motherland, the Kentucky country, and other country spaces like it across the South, was the destination.
Nappy Roots’ video for their single “Po’ Folks” has wizened white folks, barns, overalls, and an elderly black man opening the video, saying, “Welcome to Kentucky. We deal with friendship. We love to get along. Kentucky, I love you!” When I first saw it in college, I was baffled by the presence of white folks because their country wasn’t like ours. In retrospect, there’s both sincerity and satire in the old man’s declaration, and there’s an invisible interchangeability between “love” and “have” to get along, made possible by the speaker’s Southern accent. I reckon you “have” to get along in a border state that didn’t want to give up slavery, one that sent Great Migration movers flowing across the river to the real Midwest, and one in which your people are ten percent of the population. If that black man is still alive, I bet he doesn’t think ending the Obamacare Medicaid expansion in Kentucky is “dealing with friendship.”
Nappy Roots’ Southern strategy affirmed the Third Coast’s victory in the border wars and also resisted the inevitable and inequitable progress of their hometowns, which meant becoming Midwestern and leaving the South, and its past, behind. “Them country boys on the rise” with “them big fat wheels” and “vertical grills” knew where they stood. While OutKast gave Southern hip-hop country accents and city critique, Nappy Roots gave us the actual country, way up North—or up South, as it were—something to hold on to, a border to maintain on the outskirts of the rapidly homogenizing mainstream.
Outwardly, the state was redefining itself as the Midwest, proudly reminding folks that the Cincinnati airport was actually within Kentucky’s borders, selling Appalachia as a region all its own, and championing its mid-size cities as new homes for the droves of millennial and Gen-X whites being displaced from the coasts by richer whites with tech jobs. There is room for regionalism in this landscape of new cities with millennial amenities, but not the kind that calls up painful, palpable borders—just the kind that sells well.
Louisville’s r&b darling, Bryson Tiller, is exemplary of the border’s end, smashing together two genres—trap and soul—so we will understand who he is in America’s new post-border-war, post-racial sonic landscape. Soul is a black Southern sound, made an American export, returned to the States with the British Invasion, and made pop over a generation of sonic appropriation. Trap, born in Memphis, chopped and screwed in Houston, and made popular in Atlanta, is at once an Atlanta sound, a Southern sound, a hip-hop sound, and an American pop sound. When we say the words “trap” and “soul,” we know what they mean and what they sound like, but we may have forgotten when, whence, and wherefore they came. When everything is Southern, nothing is.
To be sure, the symbols are there. In the video for “Don’t,” Tiller’s most popular single, he dons a cap that bears the words KENTUCKY LIFE marking place in a post-place landscape. There is the insistent staccato rap of the classic trap snare, slowed down to fit the purposes of Tiller’s r&b, less the crooner variety and more the soft, airy, emo sounds popularized by Toronto-raised artist the Weeknd. The sound is from everywhere and from nowhere. While Nappy Roots moved between Bowling Green and Louisville, Tiller narrates “Louisville to Lexington” trips on “Exchange,” those two cities placeholders for young commuters traveling for school and work and love between cities anywhere and everywhere. Tiller is a product of Kentucky’s rebranding as something other than Southern, a border that can contain and produce American multitudes. Perhaps Kentucky is who and what America has been all along.
I can still empirically enumerate place differences, quantitative and qualitative, and why they matter. I still know the borders. I remember them, and I recall trying to cross them in myself and on my tongue. I remember wanting to destroy them, their walls and how they separated me from who I thought I should be, and me from my cousin, and Southern pasts from Southern futures. But if they are gone now, I wonder if they were ever there, and if they will someday be back unexpectedly.
“Don’t,” the single from everywhere and nowhere that Bryson Tiller released first on SoundCloud, had reached No. 13 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart a few weeks prior, but that didn’t mean I had any business being lost in the backroads of Central Kentucky by myself in a rental near dusk. The Father, Son, and Holy Ghost knew Kentucky was still the South and had warned me—but technology had supplanted the Holy Trinity. The white GPS lady wasn’t loud enough for me to hear her over Missy Elliott on full volume and over me singing Missy Elliott on full volume, too. I may also have been dancing too loud. But there I was, now half an hour away from what before was only ten minutes away, and the white GPS lady had grown silent after telling me to continue on some sloping rural road for fifteen miles.
I did as she said but I did not trust her, especially when rolling yard after rolling yard had TRUMP-PENCE signs blooming at their edges, which seemed both fair warning and a setup for an ambush. It was March of the presidential election year, an early and pleasant spring, and I was headed to Centre College for student-of-color recruitment weekend. I knew I was wrong to be there. I knew students of color weren’t welcome in small, majority-white college towns like Danville, no matter what the brochures full of blacks and browns might imply, and I felt complicit and wrong because I planned to give my diversity workshop and keynote without telling the prospective students to just turn up the Missy and run.
“This is my country,” I said aloud to fascism, gripping a perfect ten and two and holding out hope the GPS lady wasn’t a white supremacist. The computers are coming for black people first.
Arriving in a college town after being on rural roads is a breath, an ease, because there are stoplights (invented by a black person) and thus some kind of order. The violence of those towns is familiar and quotidian—unlike the uncertainty of those roads, with their lying mile markers and suspicious, distant porches. Every part and place of them harasses you until they know you are affiliated with the college, and they perpetually harass the townspeople who look like you. College towns typically have a couple of darling spots for respite, a well-appointed square, a tea shop, or a sparse but surprisingly good gallery. These comforting spots mute the palpability of that violence for a bit.
After I survived the white GPS lady and the specter of Kentucky Trump supporters, I went to Danville’s version of that place, a wall-to-wall whiskey shop with good food. I ate and drank and ate to spite fascism, talked town-gown relations and campus rape culture with the sociology-major bartender, bantered with the patrons about Kentucky basketball, and finally strutted back to my on-campus cottage in the dark. Then I felt all kinds of safe and satiated in a way a black girl never should. I felt guilty for feeling safe and satiated because of how many black girls were right then unsafe, and I had done nothing to deserve safety or satiation over them.
In Danville seven years after I had broken up with my Kentucky boyfriend, I had made it across the border of questions about class and race and legitimacy and belonging, evidenced by my ability to walk into the town’s lovely places, have some fine food and drink, and be welcomed despite my blackness and history and life in the Deep South. I had brought my Professor Voice, but I didn’t even need it. No need to hide who I was. Maybe I had been wrong about this place. Maybe everybody here listened to Bryson Tiller. Maybe I would tell the students just to be themselves from the start, to not worry about the borders in and beyond themselves, and they could be just fine anywhere they wanted to be in this world. Maybe the border had finally been neutralized. Maybe the border was over.
The next day I fancied myself just as fine as the food and drink and cross-racial conversation I had had the night previous, and likely finer, throwing my booty back and forth in a form-fitting dress across that same sidewalk on the way back to my cottage. They say Mama came out pigeon-toed and switching, but I had acquired my walk much later when the grown-woman thickness could no longer wait. I was headed back to gather my things for my keynote, deciding whether or not I would keep on the blue tights or change into the maroon ones. A car pulled past me on that safe two-lane college-town road, slowing up a bit as if to ask for directions. Its front-seat passenger threw out a Styrofoam cup full of ice and liquid, and spit out a “nigger” to go along with it. The driver hadn’t well calculated the speeds—my big-booty walk, the speed of the car, the velocity of the projectile relative to the volume of liquid in the cup—so the cup and its contents somehow missed my ass and thighs and landed with a quick thud-crash at my feet. I stopped and watched the car accelerate off, attempting half-heartedly to commit its license plate to memory, looking around to see who else might have seen, wondering if the driver had recognized me, and deciding too late to curse. I looked down at the mess at my feet. The ice was there, ejected and sad and afraid to melt on the sidewalk. The liquid was busy integrating and darkening the concrete. Kentucky couldn’t even do one-shot drive-by racism right. I wore the maroon tights.
My sister liked to stop overnight in Bowling Green on her drive home from her interpreter job in Indiana, where she worked some sixty hours a week. She would stay in the same hotel and in the morning she would get up and have breakfast and go to her favorite place, Bargain Hunt. Then she would head home. Bowling Green was a halfway point of sorts, a stop, a respite, before the rest of the journey to Memphis. And on her way back to work, from holiday or bereavement leave for our father’s funeral, she would set her old GPS for Bargain Hunt, Bowling Green, KY, and head there first.
After our fathers died, my cousin told my sister about the voice she’d heard during that fight all those years previous. My sister, in telling it to me, said demons like that try to talk to us all the time. She said we needed to plead the blood of Jesus over whatever we touched to make sure the demons couldn’t cross the border to us; we needed to leave them no access portals. She bought new things from Bargain Hunt to replace her old things, including her own lamps that she brought to the hotel in case the hotel lights were access portals.
On Good Friday the year after Daddy died, those demons came for my sister and she succumbed, with her own kind of spiritual leash chain. She was supposed to make the trip home to Memphis that Resurrection weekend, but she had planned to visit a friend in Nashville instead of making her usual stop in Bowling Green. But she had a psychotic break before she set out and never made it to the border, institutionalized in Indiana. To get back to her, help her fight the holy border fight, and bring her home, I’ll have to drive through Kentucky, across the border, to the Midwest.
Real or not, for black folks, region and regional borders have been part of strategies we used to lay claim to the co-creation of the nation, of national identity and culture. They have been how we have claimed home when and where there was no quarter, and when home doesn’t seem accessible in this country or in the vast continent from which our ancestors were brought. And how fitting that a thing that is ours becomes, again, a thing that is everyone’s. Paul Mooney has said “everybody wanna be a nigga but don’t nobody wanna be a nigga”—that folks want the spoils without the burden. But isn’t riding through Ole Miss’s campus blasting 2 Chainz from a pickup adorned with a HERITAGE NOT HATE sticker a damn good spoil? Isn’t 2 Chainz a kind of son of the Confederacy, the one comprising UGK and OutKast and Cash Money and No Limit and Juicy J and DJ Paul and Nappy Roots? Aren’t we all in one trap or another? Didn’t Obama end racism?
Everybody wants to be Southern but don’t nobody want to be Southern, too. To enjoy the culture, to have gentrified ham hocks, but not to deal with ham hocks’ relationship to slavery or slavery’s relationship to the present and future. Folks want the fried chicken and Nashville and trap country music (an actual thing) and sweet tea, but they don’t want Dylan-with-an-extra-“n” Roof or the monstrous spectacle and violence in Charlottesville or the gross neglect and racism after Katrina. No one wants the parts of the South that make America great again. It’s high time we move beyond the border sketched out in John Egerton’s provocative 1974 book, The Americanization of Dixie: The Southernization of America—the South has been everything below the Canadian border all along. If the Black Lives Matter chapters across Canada weigh in, then the South is above the Canadian border, too. Though I’ll admit that “everything below the Arctic circle” doesn’t have a good ring to it.
Things are dirty on both sides of our nation’s internal border, it’s just that some folks won’t confess it. The borders in us and between us seem ever more real, even as we strive to tear them down in service of one sound, one nation, undivided. But one side always wins, and borders are never neutral. I’m just glad that the border wars in me are over for now. When it’s time to cross Kentucky again, I’ll know exactly what I’m getting into, and I’ll be ready. I wonder if America ever will be.
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