The “Real” + Relevant South

Not just an understanding of the South as this region, but an understanding of how the things we associate with the South are really the nation, are really about all of us here in this country.

Danielle Purifoy

Danielle Purifoy

Danielle Purifoy is a writer, lawyer, and Assistant Professor of Geography at The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Her work focuses on roots of contemporary environmental inequity in the U.S. South, particularly in the development of Black towns and settlements. Danielle also serves as Board Chair of the North Carolina Environmental Justice Network and as the Race and Place editor for Scalawag, a media organization devoted to Southern politics and culture.

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The "Real" + Relevant South

Danielle: Not just an understanding of the South as like this region, right, like an understanding of how the things that we associate with the South, right, are really the nation, right, like a really about all of us here in this country.

Melody: Welcome to Southern Futures. I'm your host, Melody Hunter-Pillion, with the Center for the Study of the American South. In our Southern Futures podcast, conversations are about place and about the future. Our guest for this episode literally studies place. Dr. Danielle Purifoy is an assistant professor of geography at UNC Chapel Hill. Danielle, in addition to your PhD in environmental politics, you are also an attorney and an editor at Scalawag Magazine. Your work centers around the south and issues of environmental justice. Thank you for joining us on Southern Futures, Danielle. You're from North Carolina, is that right?

Danielle: That's right. And thank you for having me.

Melody: Of course, we're glad for you to be here. But you've lived in Louisiana as well.

Danielle: Yes.

Melody: Um, so you have this sense of the South—it’s not just one place, but many complex places with unique environmental challenges, and also unique populations dealing with those challenges. If you could just talk with me some about this, our idea of what the South is, and just as someone working with the issues that you work with, just how different places are in this what we consider the South.

Danielle: Yeah, I think one of the portrayals of the South, the dominant portrayals of the South and mainstream media and in a lot of our imaginations, is of this sort of monolithic landscape. Where I think people think of it as mostly rural. I think that there are a lot of perceptions about who the people who live in the south are, their levels of education, their levels of analysis, their politics. And one of the things that all of that sort of plays out when we think about landscapes, right? So, there's this, there's this overarching perception of the South and then there's actually the reality which is like multitudes of South that kind of exist. So, we live in North Carolina and if you were to go to Louisiana and Mississippi, there are a lot of folks who wouldn't consider North Carolina like the real south, right? And that has a lot to do with the histories of enslavement in this country, the politics of that space. I would argue that you start to see a lot of similarities, right? The differences are really in the kind of social, political, historical nuance. But a lot of the harms are the same or are quite similar, where black folks were enslaved and toiled in, in mass numbers and still live today. You see land grabs there, just like you see land grabs in eastern North Carolina. You see vulnerabilities to climate change in terms of floodplains and in terms of various forms of ecological disaster. You see the rise of what we call concentrated animal feed operations, right, like more so in spaces in the Alabama Black Belt. Those spaces have existed in eastern North Carolina for years and so there are parallels. But I think there's something distinctive about the politics that make a difference, make real actual differences in what people feel like is socially and politically possible.

Melody: When folks think about climate change and how our weather patterns are being impacted with the, you know, frequency and intensity of storms, that sort of thing. What exactly are we talking about when we say environmental inequality in a space where we think that this is happening to everyone, when we think about weather patterns?

Danielle: Yes, absolutely. Um, the way that I like to frame it, and a lot of the common parlance around this is environmental justice, right? Environmental justice is the remedy to environmental inequality. But environmental inequality and environmental injustice is the precursor, right or the predecessor to what we now call climate change. And so if we think about, like how climate change operates with greenhouse gases, right, those great same greenhouse gases that we're seeing are impacting our climate at large, are the same ones that have been admitted by industries that have been plaguing black and brown and indigenous communities for decades at this point, centuries at this point, over a century. So, had we paid a lot more attention to environmental justice movements of the 1980s, you know, Farmworkers Movements of the 1970s and 80s, so, you know, the environmental dimensions of the Civil Rights Movement, right, of the 60s, then we would not be dealing with the manufactured crisis that we now call climate change. And I think that's really important, like those things are, are often talked about separately, but they're really intimately connected. And it's not just that, yes, the climate change ultimately impacts all of us and even that impacts us unevenly and we can see that right here in North Carolina with who lives in floodplains. And that's, you know, when we talk about land not being neutral, right, like that's exactly what we mean is like, who lives on particular land is heavily political, right, who is vulnerable within those landscapes is heavily political and historical and we have to pay attention to that because that will always, right, have some heavy factor in who is impacted by things like climate change.

Melody: Danielle, we are in the midst of hurricane season while still in the thick of COVID-19, this pandemic. So, what are your concerns as you look at vulnerable communities in eastern North Carolina?

Danielle: I think one of my big concerns is that there hasn't been a full recovery from the last two major hurricanes we've had. So, Hurricane Florence in 2018 and then Hurricane Matthew in 2016 really decimated a number of or severely damaged a number of eastern North Carolina communities. And as I mentioned, eastern North Carolina is our Black Belt, so to speak. It is the region of the state where black folks are most heavily concentrated. And it's also where slavery was most widely practiced in that region. And one of the things that's really important and reason why I keep going back to this history is because the lands on which black folks living today in eastern North Carolina, those lands or lands that a lot of their families got in the immediate post-bellum era after the emancipation of slavery and a lot of those communities have literally been there for over 150 years. And a lot of those areas and we can talk about, for instance Princeville, North Carolina, which is our—it's the first or understood as the first incorporated Black town in North Carolina, is in a floodplain. And that was by design, that was the undesirable land of the planter class from Tarboro, which is across the river. And so that really makes a difference in terms of the kind of structural vulnerabilities to hurricanes that exist today. So, something that happened 150 years ago, settlement patterns from that really impact how people's resilience and like people's vulnerability and in resilience to climate change today, on top of, sorry, on top of the hurricane recoveries, right? We're still battling against a number of toxic industries in that region. So, everything from industrial hog farms, which have these hog-waste lagoons, that spray hog fecal matter onto fields and onto people's homes and into the air, and overflow when it rains heavily, much less than a hurricane. We have wood pellet manufacturing plants, like those in North Hampton County, which, you know, are supposed to be producing renewable, quote unquote, renewable energy for much of Europe, but are in fact, polluting the air and the land of black and brown communities in North Hampton County and actually across the southeast region. We have the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, which people have been fighting for a long time. We have the emergence of a bio gas industry in which, you know, entities like Duke Energy want to use our Dominion Energy, want to use hog waste from these lagoons to produce energy, right, which ends up effectively, right, like sustaining this really toxic and harmful industry over time. So, all of those things are happening in the backdrop and then you have a global pandemic. And so, if we were—my core concern is, if we were to have a major hurricane in this moment, I think that it would, it would just, the devastation would just be compounded, right? Where are the spaces where folks could gather those shelters? How do you keep people safe during a pandemic when they're trying to evacuate from a storm? What we've seen industries really take advantage of this moment—industries and deregulation forces really take advantage of this moment to decide that industries can have carte blanche around pollution. That's already an additional factor here. So, yeah, those are some of those just, you know, some of my concerns. There are compounding and layering vulnerabilities, but it's also, yeah, testing like, the resiliency, like incredible resiliency and fight and power of Black and Brown folks in eastern North Carolina, in a way that's really unnecessary, right, like storms will happen, pandemics will even happen. This one didn't have to happen the way that it did, but like this is a social disaster because, or a potential social disaster, because of all of the other layered vulnerabilities that have been imposed on that region.

Melody: You are an editor at Scalawag and you created a special section about race and isn't race in place through storytelling? How do we help folks to or how do you help folks to better really understand this connection between race and place?

Danielle: So, I think people have some sense of it already. Right? They have certain terminologies for different places, and they have, they have very clear imaginations and perceptions about who lives in those places, right? So, if I were to say suburbia, people have a very clear image of who lives there. If I were to say inner city, right, people have a clear image of who lives there, right? Even though at this moment, I think, right, the racial contours of what an inner city in a suburb look like are actually drastically changing and have been changing for a while, right? So, the suburbs are actually, there are a lot more people of color. The majority, right, like people of color now, and we know the story really well of urban gentrification and displacement, where the white population is rapidly rising in a lot of urban centers, but be that as it may, those terminologies still trigger racialized imagination in people. And, you know, the problem with that is not only like the kind of inaccuracy at any given time of that understanding, right, but is also a, I guess, the analysis, or there is no analysis, kind of the picture stops there, right. It's very fixed in people's minds. And it's, it's even naturalized in some ways. And so, people think that space just is, it's sort of natural, of course, we're going to develop this way, of course, whatever. And it's very hard for people to imagine not only that, there could be a world in which the spaces that we live in, don't look at all like they look. Much less than that, you know, maybe 10,15 years ago, they actually didn't look like they looked. And so, the race and place section is really trying to connect people to, again with the histories of place so they understand like, the places that you see were created. They were all invented, we invented all of this, right? We imposed all of this on these various landscapes. And I think that's an important point for folks to get as a departure point of fate, that something could be different, right? That these landscapes don't have to look this way, this fixed sense of who lives where and what they have access to or don't have access to is all invented. And we could create and otherwise. And that literally means for folks, right? That they not take space for granted, right? They not take the where they live as some sort of neutral space where, you know, all of that is invented. And so, if all of that is invented, all of it can be changed.

Melody: I want to get back to Scalawag, though, just very quickly, and then we'll move on to reading. But tell us a little bit about what Scalawag is and what it what it does, what's the purpose of that particular publication.

Danielle: Scalawag was a five-year-old media organization focused on southern journalism and storytelling. It came about as a result of, I think, frustration on the part of its founders with how typically larger mainstream national media outlets were portraying the South in ways that were holy unnuanced in ways that really got you know, there—It was sort of a one take, you know, that goes through a new cycle and you never hear about it again. And then also a frustration with a lot of publications about the South that actually don't take on politics because it's seen as controversial, right? We don't want to discuss, particularly, like the racial politics of, of this region, which is really the racial politics of the country, right? And so, Scalawag exists at this, at this nexus of southern politics are in culture because we don't want to forget right the richness and the vastness of the culture but we don't want to be reduced to cocktail recipes or southern food, biscuits, like those sorts of things, right? As lovely as those things are, there's a lot more about, there's a lot more to this region, these multiple Souths then —is really given air and so that's the purpose.

Melody: So um, since we're already on the subject of storytelling and especially storytelling about the south and southerners telling stories, I want to head right into the Southern Futures reading corner. So Danielle, anything you've been reading this summer or this year or, you know, even if it's something you've read in the distant past that you just, you know, like reading again, we would love for you to share it with us and tell us about your choice.

Danielle: Today I'm going to read the first page and a half of Toni Morrison’s Sula. I read this book back in some summer, during some summer in high school. And it was, I believe, the first book by Toni Morrison that I've read. And I remembered really vividly the relationship between Sula and Nell, two of the main characters, but I didn't remember it wasn't until I really started with my studies of black places and black towns that I circled back to this book and realize that the place in which Sula and Nell lived was one of these black places that I was writing about. So, I'm just going to read—and it's also an environmental justice, like, there's an environmental justice component to this as well that I think is really important and a really important element of some of the work that I do. So, this is from part one of Sula.

In that place, where they tore the nightshade and blackberry patches from their roots to make room for the Medallion City Golf Course, there was once a neighborhood. It stood in the hills above the valley town of Medallion and spread all the way to the river. It is called the suburbs now, but when black people lived there it was called the Bottom. One road, shaded by beeches, oaks, maples and chestnuts, connected it to the valley. The beeches are gone now, and so are the pear trees where children sat and yelled down through the blossoms to passersby. Generous funds have been allotted to level the stripped and faded buildings that clutter the road from Medallion up to the golf course. They are going to raze the Time and a Half Pool Hall, where feet in long tan shoes once pointed down from chair rungs. A steel ball will knock to dust Irene's Palace of Cosmetology, where women used to lean their heads back on sink trays and doze while Irene lathered Nu Nile into their hair. Men in khaki work clothes will pry loose the slats of Reba's Grill, where the owner cooked in her hat because she couldn't remember the ingredients without it.
There will be nothing left of the Bottom (the footbridge that crossed the river is already gone), but perhaps it is just as well, since it wasn't a town anyway: just a neighborhood where on quiet days people in valley houses could hear singing sometimes, banjos sometimes, and, if a valley man happened to have business up in those hills--collecting rent or insurance payments--he might see a dark woman in a flowered dress doing a bit of cakewalk, a bit of black bottom, a bit of "messing around" to the lively notes of a mouth organ. Her bare feet would raise the saffron dust that floated down on the coveralls and bunion-split shoes of the man breathing music in and out of his harmonica. The black people watching her would laugh and rub their knees, and it would be easy for the valley man to hear the laughter and not notice the adult pain that rested somewhere under the eyelids, somewhere under their head rags and soft felt hats, somewhere in the palm of the hand, somewhere behind the frayed lapels, somewhere in the sinew's curve, He'd have to stand in the back of Greater Saint Matthew's and let the tenor's voice dress him in silk, or touch the hands of the spoon carvers (who had not worked in eight years) and let the fingers that danced on wood kiss his skin. Otherwise the pain would escape him even though the laughter was part of the pain.


Melody: What is it that appeals to you or compels you to study Black towns?

Danielle: A lot of the writing about them tends to be about the past, intends to discuss those places as though they no longer exist—discusses them as though they're dead. And so, yeah, so, my aim is really to kind of not only stop the autopsy, I guess, in a sense, but to think about what we can actually learn from these places about what it means to make a place and what it means to make a community. It’s a patchwork of places that have very different political views and have very different images of what the future, our imaginations of what the future of rural places should be and their place in our national conversation.

Melody: How do you reimagine the American South, in particular in the context of your work and your personal life, if I could ask that?

Danielle: You know, I moved back to North Carolina in 2012. So, I've been back for about eight years now. And or actually, almost exactly eight years. And one of the things—and I was moved back that time I was moving from Boston, out from Massachusetts, Boston, Cambridge are—and I think one of the things that I didn't understand then that I understand now is how pivotal the South is to so many of the fights that we're fighting nationally right now. So, you know, people say like, “as the South goes, so goes the nation.” And that really, we need to be a bit more nuanced about, like what that means, right? It means that the South is intimately connected to the rest of the country, you know, historically, with its economy, everything kind of really derives from this origin story of this country, right? And our understandings of how—understandings of our moment right now Black Lives Matter, our understandings of the police, right, the history of the police, our understandings of where someone like Donald Trump comes from and why? You know why, if he's from New York, there's this distinctly Southern Confederate element to how his politics go. Like, those are things that like really require an understanding of this region. And so, our future really depends on that, right? It really depends on not and not just an understanding of the south as like this region, like an understanding of how the things that we associate with the south, are really the nation, like are really about all of us, here in this country.

Melody: Danielle, thank you for illuminating some key issues we're facing right now and doing it in a really different way that's been insightful and instructive. Thanks also to our listeners. And please join us for our next episode. For executive producer Dr. Malinda Maynor Lowery, associate producer Ellie Little, and sound editor Mark Meyer, I’m Melody Hunter-Pillion. Southern Futures is a podcast powered by the Southern Futures initiative, a new collaboration between the College of Arts and Sciences, UNC Libraries, the Center for the Study of the American South and other units of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Southern Futures, reimagine the American South.