Courtesy of Chuck Reece
Two years ago, Chuck Reece, who describes himself as a “sophisticated hillbilly” and former magazine writer who was born and raised in the Appalachian foothills of Georgia, decided to start a different kind of conversation about what it means to be from the South. Like many great American stories, The Bitter Southerner was designed in a bar. The digital magazine was launched in August 2013, promising a great story from the South every Tuesday.
In some ways, the timing couldn’t have been better. Bitter Southerner is tasked with analyzing the identity of the South at a time when the country is fixated on events in the South – the Confederate Flag controversy, incidents of police brutality, the black church shooting in Charleston, SC, – and what they might mean to all of us.
Reece and I share southern roots. I’m originally from Atlanta, now live in Washington, DC, and I also frequently write about the area (including, last month, a Bitter Southerner trial on the rebel flag). I called Reece recently to talk about our accents, the Confederate flag, and okra as a metaphor.
What makes you bitter about the way people view the South – and why do we Southerners still care so much?
I think everyone wants to be proud of where they are from. I remember having to deal with this when I moved up north. When you move to New York with an accent like mine, people think you’re a little dumb. (Laughs.) After they figured out that I could compose a complex sentence, I was fine and they were curious about me. My accent just got a little more charming, I guess.
Is that where the idea for The Bitter Southerner came from – the need to dispel this stuff?
Really, what motivated him more than anything else was seeing the media stereotypes. With most media you get one of two versions of the South: you sort of get the polished taste – and I don’t mean that in the political sense – the genteel and hospitable South, or you get the stereotypes ” redneck “. You never get anything in between. This is what bothered us.
We have all the great stories in the middle. Looks like we tapped into something that was latent there, that the southerners were hoping to find some sort of medium that portrayed good things in a clever way. The easiest way to explain it to you is to talk about okra.
Okra is something we wouldn’t have if it hadn’t been brought here from Africa, like seeds in the pockets of slaves. This vegetable is such an important symbolic vegetable for the South. This is what brings the gumbo together. Gumbo is a melting pot metaphor. You’ll never see us write about okra without acknowledging why it happened. You can’t just write just about anything about southern history that glosses over the bad sides. This is the thought that got us here.
When you launched the site, you couldn’t have predicted how much the South was going to be featured in national news at this point, two years later. Do you think the region is once again in a position to transform the country?
I never thought I would see this flag come down from Alabama State Park in my lifetime. It would be a mistake to think, “Okay, now everything is settled”, because that is not the case, of course, but it is a sign that a lot of people in the region want to move in the right direction.
When I was a kid and didn’t know any better, I looked at this flag and all I saw was rebellion, which a teenager loves. The reason we didn’t know better is because we haven’t been taught better. We were taught badly. We have been taught a myth.
Once you realize this, you might argue that it is your responsibility to learn the truth. It’s not that we can teach everyone the truth, but I think we can recognize the truths in the stories we tell. Maybe it takes us a step further, getting people to think about things differently, while celebrating the parts of our collective heritage that are worth celebrating.
We should be proud of our hospitality. We must be proud of our friendliness. What we should be looking at is how we share them. The Bitter Southerner cannot change the region, but it can document a changing region.
What publications inspired you at the beginning?
One thing I always stress is that of Tracy Thompson delivered, The New Spirit of the South. He entered the South Diversity demographics today. Tracy went to visit people and communities of different ethnic backgrounds and explored the subject of what Southern identity means now as the region becomes more diverse.
There were also pieces of music and bands that inspired us. We ended up writing a story about Killer Mike. In his album, he proudly proclaims his southern identity, and the fact that he does so really struck me at the time. Or you can go back to Outkast’s first Source Award win. [in 1995]. In Andre 3000’s acceptance speech, he said: “The South has something to say.”
When you look at the culture of the South, there are so many voices in it. Charles McNair [an Alabama novelist] To writing for us. He says, “There is no longer a single South, there are 10,000.” It may be a bit hyperbolic, but the idea is good.
Who isn’t The Bitter Southerner for?
The two things we’re just going to tell people is if you still buy a version of the “state rights“, you are never going to love what we do. If you don’t believe that we are all equal in the sight of God, you will not love what we do.
One of my criticisms of Southern publications is that they seem to whitewash Southern history. If someone who does not know the South read some people, he would think that black people do not exist. How would you say The Bitter Southerner represents the South, both in terms of storytelling and storytelling – especially as the place where most black people in this country live?
On the narration, pretty good; on storytellers, not as well as we should. I think historically what we’ve had in the South is white people doing publications for whites and black people doing publications for blacks.
What we wanted from the start is a publication that would bring voices from all cultures of the South. Is our list of contributors as diverse as I would like? Surely not. What I’m doing to counter that is one at a time, find people like you who see the value and want to contribute. We are still trying to figure out how to do this. This is important to use because we believe there is no such thing as a monolithic South. I want people to get as rich a picture of the South as possible by reading us over time.
Are there any stories about the South that The Bitter Southerner doesn’t cover that you wish you were?
One of the things I’m even more excited about than when we started is this new section called the Folk project. This section gives us the ability to react to events in real time. I had no idea this was going to be so important to me when we started the section, but here’s the thing: we can’t kid ourselves and think that we have the resources to cover an event like the one that happened at Charleston like other media organizations can.
So what is our strength? It is the fact that we have brought together a community of people who see us not only as a place to find stories, but as a place through which they can share their own stories. This allows us to have a variety of voices speaking out on issues that are important to the South.
I don’t mean to be cocky and say that people can pick one of our stories and get a clear idea of what the South is like, but I hope as the stories pile up over the years you will be able to take a selection and get a pretty good picture of what the South is like at the start of the 21st century.