Photo by Chris Jackson. Courtesy the artist
How Beautiful My Land Is
By Danielle A. Jackson
As I write this, a little over a month has passed since the announcement of a number of changes for the Oxford American. My appointment as interim editor means that, for the first time in its twenty-nine-year history, the “magazine of good writing,” dedicated to documenting the complexity and vitality of the South, is helmed by a person of color, a Black woman. In addition, our new executive director, my colleague Sara A. Lewis, is the first woman to lead the nonprofit that directs the publication, as well as the first openly queer person to hold a position of leadership with the magazine. Dr. Lewis has been an invaluable member of the OA’s team for four years now—editing and writing stories, leading the relaunch of our website, creating our National Endowment for the Arts–supported podcast from scratch. I am a newer member on the team, having joined just over a year ago to lead our annual music issue, a publication close to our hearts and beloved by our readers.
The announcement of our new roles and their historic nature prompted emails and warm notes of appreciation. It also prompted some incredulousness: deep as we are into the 21st century, many firsts remain to be achieved. Mainstream media must continue to reckon with questions of power and representation in its storytelling, in the same way the entire nation does. What makes such reckoning notable in the South is that the region is so multicultural in our foodways and aesthetics, which have been examined beautifully by the OA throughout the years. Central Arkansas, where the magazine has been based since 2003, ancestral home of the Quapaw and Osage, is more than thirty percent Black. Growth among Latinx communities is faster in the South than anywhere else, while the population of Asian American residents is accelerating quickly. Our identities are not incidental to our genius. The complexity of our literature, the vibrancy of our language, the truth encoded in our music are all wrapped up in our multiplicity. To be truly of the South is to recognize there are many Souths.
This issue focusing on the idea of place invites you to consider the transitory nature of “home”: the ways who we are creates it; the ways the past and future converge; the ways the very land we exist on changes each day.
I’d lived away from my hometown of Memphis for more than twenty years when I moved back to the region. If you are from a certain sort of family, Memphis is the kind of place you leave. My siblings heard of Elton Hayes, a seventeen-year-old Black boy beaten to death while in custody of the police department, when they were small children. The woman who helped my mother raise us, our aunt Odia Mae, was a romantic Taurean who baked beautiful caramel cakes and wonderfully layered banana pudding. She made her living for years working for the Wades, a white family out East who owned an antique shop, and was a skilled, gregarious conversationalist. She talk-sang her stories, breaking into laughter, tears, or vivid asides—her body invested and fully committed to the endeavor. When her voice lowered, I knew it was time to quiet my breath. So I could better hear the music encoded as memory, regret, lessons. These stories had sweat in them, and sex, strife, blood, and transcendent joy.
Remembering her makes me remember Caroline Barr, the formerly enslaved Black woman whom William Faulkner called “the matriarch who raised me.” Some biographers claim she was his most important storytelling inspiration, but her influence on him is understudied, and, in publicly available documents, details about her are scant. This is why we turn to exile.
It is also why we return, according to Lauren Stroh in her Points South essay “Where I Was From,” on the aftermath of Hurricanes Laura and Delta in her Louisiana town. “I have fought against it for years, ran away from it, damn the bulk of it to hell, and still I drive back,” Stroh writes. Because we are called, because our work isn’t done and, in a sense, can never be.
Throughout this issue we honor sweat, toil, leisure, transition, transit, the cycles of decay and rebirth. Martha Park meditates on our shared hometown in an illustrated essay on Mud Island River Park, the man-made recreational center which opened in 1982 in downtown Memphis on a peninsula bordered by the Mississippi and Wolf rivers. It houses an amphitheater, where I have fond memories of a Maxwell concert in 1997, has statues of Elvis and B. B. King, and unspools a scale replica of the lower Mississippi, from Cairo, Illinois, to New Orleans. “As the climate grows wetter and warmer,” Park writes, “the Lower Mississippi faces increased flooding and drought; growing dead zones in the Gulf; and increasingly frequent saltwater incursions that damage coastal wetlands.” The river is not static, just like we aren’t. “So much can happen, still,” she writes. The waterways that sustain us in leisure and in nourishment are poignantly depicted and called on in pieces by Anjali Enjeti, who visits Lake Lanier, a reservoir in northern Georgia with her daughters; James Seay, who remembers a trip on a Cessna to Errol Island, in the Gulf of Mexico; and Neesha Powell-Twagirumukiza, who reports from her hometown of Brunswick, Georgia, on the coastline, and nearby St. Simons Island. The will to survive, her resilience, is in the core of who she is, Powell-Twagirumukiza realizes, as she confronts the polluted waterways that threaten subsistence fishing and begins to reclaim her Geechee identity. “Gullah Geechee fishing culture isn’t going anywhere as long as Gullah Geechee peoples live, breathe, and eat.” Vanessa Angélica Villarreal expresses a similar sentiment of reclamation and recapitulation in her essay on her father, his musicianship, and the fame he didn’t find in the Rio Grande Valley, while Garrard Conley finds grace in an unexpected lineage of queer artists in folk artist Howard Finster’s intricately constructed Paradise Garden.
My colleagues Eliza Borné and Ryan Harris led the Oxford American with great heart and soul, and it is nothing short of an honor to play a role in shaping the future of the OA while helping it remain authentically itself. It is bittersweet to turn the page without Borné, an editor I’ve admired for many years, who’d helped me see, in the words of Carl Napolitano in his short story in this issue, “a way to be.” Borné made history when she became the first woman at the top of the masthead in 2015.
“Art is endless even if life isn’t,” Conley writes, while wondering what brought New York City–based Keith Haring, who was dying of AIDS, to Howard Finster and Pennville, Georgia. In our art and vocations, in the ways we make our homes and care for our neighbors, we make and remake history every day.