Nashville’s Margaret Renkl: Dear Liberals–Come On Down!

From a New York Times guest essay by Margaret Renkl headlined “Dear Liberals: Come On Down!”:

NASHVILLE —

Dear Liberals,

I greet you from the Medieval stronghold of the American South, where things are every bit as bad as you’ve heard. They may be worse.

Red-state legislators have perfected the art of voter suppression, which you probably know. They have also gerrymandered the South’s blue cities into political irrelevance, which you may not. These cities serve as their states’ economic engines: According to Mark Muro, the policy director of the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Project, the counties Joe Biden won in 2020 account for 71 percent of U.S. gross domestic product. A bunch of those counties are in red states, and they are growing.

Come help us grow. The new gerrymandered district lines are based on current data. With your help, we can outwit craven G.O.P. calculations about where residents reliably vote Republican. Once you’re here, you can help us register voters in disenfranchised communities, too, and drive them to the polls on Election Day.

Changing what happens in red states is the surest way to change what happens in Congress, but railing on social media from your blue state won’t change a thing down here. To legislators, the only opinion that matters is the opinion held by the people who vote in their districts. If you want to change Joe Manchin’s mind about climate change, you’ll need to move to West Virginia.

So y’all come on down and help us flood the Capitol and all these red statehouses with constituent concerns. Maybe you could stand on some plazas and wave angry signs while you’re at it. Local media outlets love to cover protests, and in a lot of places down here what constitutes a “protest” is seven people and one clever sign.

Don’t believe hardcore right-wingers can be moved by public outcry? Just consider what happened in Tennessee when video obtained by Phil Williams, the chief investigative reporter for NewsChannel 5, caught the president of ultraconservative Hillsdale College claiming that American teachers “are trained in the dumbest parts of the dumbest colleges in the country.”

Gov. Bill Lee of Tennessee, who was present for the speech, has made no effort to denounce his friend on this point, and it looks like his complicity will cost him the 50 charter schools he invited Hillsdale to open here. Republican legislators applauded when Mr. Lee first announced the partnership. Now, facing a ceaseless outcry from teachers in response to the video, pro-charter legislators are walking back their support. “When the General Assembly convenes again next January any hope that Hillsdale will operate in Tennessee has been shattered,” the chairman of Tennessee’s House Education Administration Committee, a Republican, said last week.

Plenty of people have pointed out that red-state officials are shooting themselves in the foot as they merrily slash rights, ignore the unignorable realities of a heating planet, and attempt to create a Christian theocracy in a nation founded on a bedrock belief in the separation of church and state. Smart red-state children will grow up and leave, this theory goes. Out-of-state companies looking to set up shop in a low-tax, low-regulation state will think twice before relocating to a place where their employees would not have the same rights that citizens of other states enjoy.

I don’t disagree with these predictions. History certainly bears them out. During the Jim Crow era, Black people left the American South in such numbers that we now refer to their exodus as the Great Migration. Six million Americans fled to escape virulent racist violence and economic suppression.

But here’s the other thing history bears out: Leaving in search of something better is no guarantee of finding what you seek. Racism, for example, doesn’t magically disappear once you cross the Mason-Dixon line. I left the South once myself, determined never to come back. But as it turns out, what I love about my homeland is bigger than what provokes me to despair. And I don’t think I’m alone.

All the tropes about how awful the South is — governed by thoughtless ideologues, fury-soaked and gun-littered — they’re all true, but these aren’t the only truths that hold in this tragic, broken, history-haunted place. In this green, green land shot through with creeks and rivers that smell so deeply of life.

I’m sure you’re rolling your eyes. How could you not? This troubled region is only ever in the news when the trouble reaches fever pitch.

Still, hear me out.

Southern hospitality is a real thing, and generosity is endemic. You can count on almost anybody you meet down here to give you a ride when your car breaks down, fetch your sick child from school so you don’t miss your shift, help you clean up when a tornado roars through, even bring you supper when your dog dies. They won’t ask if you’re a liberal or a conservative. They won’t ask where you go to church, or if you go to church. They’ll just pitch in.

We tell a good story down here, too. The lassitude of life in the un-air-conditioned South left behind a legacy of storytelling that continues to this day, even if screen doors and attic fans have mostly gone the way of ice delivery. (Sweet tea is going nowhere. Likewise the best barbecue, but that goes without saying.) The storytelling gene is so strong hereabouts that eavesdropping on strangers may become your favorite pastime.

And the music! My God, the music! The South has been the nursery and proving ground of virtually every original musical genre this country has yet produced. When people are isolated long enough, or brokenhearted long enough, or beaten down long enough, a lot of the time they turn to art.

Nobody moves to the South for great music and barbecue, or even for its lush landscapes and rich biodiversity. Those are reasons to vacation in a place, not to move there. But here’s a more serious reason: If you come, you will not be alone.

There are more people like you here than you would possibly believe: social justice organizations, voting-rights advocates, nonprofit media outlets holding power to account, environmental groups, criminal-justice reformers and so many more. Some people are on the front lines making good trouble, as the civil rights hero John Lewis advised, and some people are just quietly working for change. But every one of them is fighting for all they’re worth to keep the mean, ignorant people from making life a living hell for everyone else.

It might seem like the entire region has been transformed by its mendacious leaders into the ninth circle of hell, but there are reasons to believe it’s not too late for us. We are fighting for our lives here, and we could use your help. Come on down, and help us throw the despots out.

Margaret Renkl, a contributing Opinion writer, is the author of the books “Graceland, at Last: Notes on Hope and Heartache From the American South” and “Late Migrations: A Natural History of Love and Loss.”

 

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