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More Than Enough: The promise and challenge of today’s Southern cities

Illustration by Delphine Lee.

From MDC President, John Simpkins (featured in January issue of “Gravy” from the Southern Foodways Alliance).  Illustration by Delphine Lee (“Gravy City”).

A city boy found himself in the country. “We’d be walking on these dark country roads at night,” he said, “and all of a sudden this music would seem to come out of nowhere, out of them spooky-looking trees that everybody said ghosts lived in. […] That kind of sound in music, that blues, church, back-road funk kind of thing, that southern, midwestern, rural sound and rhythm. I think it started getting into my blood on them spook-filled Arkansas back-roads after dark when the owls came out hooting.”

Sound marked the place. And the place marked Miles Davis. Got into his blood so bad that he left his comfortable, bougie East St. Louis life for New York City. He was ostensibly going to study at Julliard, but he really was on a quest to find another creation of back-road funk: Yardbird, a fellow Midwesterner, with that Bama-sounding nickname that would be shortened to just Bird. Charlie “Bird” Parker had elevated “that kind of sound.” And Miles set about chasing that high, too. What the ghost-filled trees of the country first revealed, The City would polish, burnishing Miles’ ethereal instrumental voice into legend.

That’s what The City can do. That’s what it has done since it first came to be. The City has always been the ultimate destination. Miles might have found himself in the country, but he became himself in The City. Back then, it was New York. Or Chicago. Maybe Philadelphia. Washington, DC. Each one was imperfect, possessing its own geographic peril, a special terroir of racism that served as a civic identifier. Still, cities were places of possibility. You could get as high as you wanted, as long as you didn’t get too close, a kind of tacit separation agreement, an American apartheid intended to delineate appropriate spheres of racial activity. Nevertheless, opportunity was opportunity. Better to play a club on Lenox Avenue or U Street than some funky-ass backwater juke joint.

As it was with Miles and his music, so it is with Rodney and his food. Rodney Scott—the rarely identified species known as James Beard Award–winning pitmaster—found himself in the drudgery of hog-tending that transformed into a drug. From the rhythm of the dripping fat to the separation of meat from skin, he found himself—and perhaps his purpose—in the wood, the wire frame for the flayed body, and his own “kind of sound” in Hemingway, South Carolina, a place in the middle of nowhere. But to Rodney, it was in the middle of everywhere. Watching airplane contrails overhead, perhaps he dreamed of getting out someday.

He had to go to The City to become himself. Or at least to find another version of himself. While Miles left St. Louis for New York, Rodney took his talents from Hemingway to Charleston. And Birmingham. And Atlanta. His destinations are popular these days. Others like him are making the journey to a new version of The City in search of food and beverage fame. Members of the Black professional class, specifically, are reversing the Great Migration and leaving New York, Chicago, and Philly in the hopes of becoming themselves in places like Greenville, South Carolina; Nashville, Tennessee; and Charlotte, North Carolina. One-eyed outsiders enter as kings in The City of the Blind South, where low wages, low or no taxes, and poor education make for easy pickings. The places where, once, you could get as close as you wanted as long as you didn’t get too high, have now become modern repositories of hope. New places of possibility.

For some, these possibilities aren’t new. Greenwood Avenue in Tulsa, Farish Street in Jackson, Morris Street in Charleston, and Parrish Street in Durham have long nurtured their share of dreams. Hat shops, juke joints, banks, restaurants. FUBU before FUBU. “Black Main Streets” displaying the hidden half of W.E.B. Du Bois’ double consciousness. Here, Black people could just be. They could dress up, get to’ down, and live in every shade along the spectrum of sacred to profane.

Those places no longer exist as they were. They’ve been cleaned up, sanitized to protect the sanity—and safety—of some. To retain too much of what they were would only put into sharper relief what they are not. And to explain why they no longer are what they once were requires passage to dark places, occupying a sharp edge of truth on which we prefer not to exist. The behavior that led to the extermination of Black Main Street is so inhumane that no one would claim to have done it or even to have been related to people who would have done it. But somebody must have spit on those students integrating the school. Somebody must have shouted, “Nigger, go home” to the young, trained stoics who were just looking for opportunity. Somebody must have decided that a highway needed to go in that precise location. And those Somebodies are not all dead. In fact, some are still town fathers, community leaders, shapers of our political, social, cultural, and built environments.

Miles Davis talked about ghosts in the country, but there are just as many in The City. The absence of community is felt in urban areas across the country, but intensely so in The Southern City. What was this neighborhood before the apartment building went up? Who attended classes in this old school building, now a coworking space for start-ups? Urban space holds secrets it won’t tell. The ghosts remain among us, silently reminding us of their presence. Tapping us on the shoulder to say that they were once here.

Modern ruins don’t lie buried in the dust of centuries. They sit, uneasily—perhaps even unbelievably—in the minds of aunties and uncles, granddaddies and Big Mamas.

Did they really do that to that boy?

She just left town and never came back.

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