If you heard federal legislators shouting overtop one another about Hillary Clinton's emails last month, you might believe that American political discourse is completely broken. But that's only true if we let it be, say the editors of Scalawag, a new, Durham-based magazine devoted to political and social narratives about the South told by Southerners. Following a successful Kickstarter campaign this spring, the quarterly's first issue was unveiled in June.
"Stories are one of the most fundamental ways to speak across constituencies," says co-founder and Atlanta native Sarah Bufkin. "What makes the South so great is that our political discourse has always been a bit different, and that storytelling has always been a way of other getting people on board with a political vision and telling how struggle and change happen. That's going to be a basis of what Scalawag will do."
The second issue was released in September, with the third slated for this month. A glance at September's table of contents immediately differentiates Scalawag from the hard-edged, left-leaning Jacobin or the well-heeled blend of cultural critique and consumption of Oxford American and Garden and Gun.
A personal yet conflicted essay on living in the West Virginia mountains. An interrogative history of Berlin's obsession with blues and roots music. A photo essay of post-Ferguson protests. Poems about Southern gender politics by an NEA fellowship winner and racial justice from a spoken-word activist in Atlanta.
Bufkin and co-founders Jesse Williams and Evan Walker-Wells are shooting for something different—serious political discourse that's readable, too.
"We focus a lot on the idea of untold stories in the South," says Williams, who was born and raised in Winston-Salem. "Those are present in first-person narrative as well as in academia."
National media sources still rely on old stereotypes to tell a narrow, outdated story about the South, Bufkin and Williams say. Along with the rest of Scalawag's editorial board, they wrote an editorial in their debut about the disconnect between North Carolina's conservative turn, with its "reckless and downright mean" legislative actions, and the genuinely progressive development they saw all around them. Looking at lively, innovative commercial and cultural efforts, they committed the magazine to telling tales of "braver folks than we [who] had formed the backbone of a moral, populist movement unparalleled in the modern history of the region."
"Scalawag is for the South and from the South," Williams says. "But it's important that it exist in the national conversation as well. It's not only looking into the future to imagine how it might be different, but it's looking backwards and realizing that the past is probably different from what we think we know. We would speculate that you can't really imagine the future properly unless you have a detailed and honest view of the past."
The print publication is just one plank in the Scalawag platform. The editors are planning a diverse range of panel talks, film screenings and reading groups, starting in central North Carolina and spreading throughout the South. A film series at Winston-Salem's a/perture cinema debuted last month with a screening of the documentary Old South. The Durham-based editors have held open-invitation pitch parties at Motorco Music Hall to hear the most diverse set of voices possible.
Williams sees that openness as an essential part of the Scalawag mission: "If we as a country are going to be having honest conversations about our problems and our future together, there have to be strong voices from the South that force the rest of the country to deal with it on its own terms."
This article appeared in print with the headline "Mag on a mission"