Editor's note: The INDY called Southern Accent "life-changing" when it opened at the Nasher Museum of Art last fall, so we wanted to know how it played elsewhere in the South—namely, Louisville, Kentucky, where it opened at the Speed Art Museum in April.
Is I wrapped up a phone interview for an article, the subject wanted to know where I lived. In response to my answer, she asked me, "Kentucky—what's that like?"
I laughed. What was that like? It was a question I'd been asked many times in the eight years since I'd left Louisville and moved out west. I usually responded with what I'd heard tourists say: "It's really, really green." That was simpler than getting into how Kentucky did and didn't live up to barefoot, backward stereotypes. As I prepared to move back home last summer, more than one friend expressed concerns about what life would be like for me as a black woman in the Bluegrass State.
Kentucky, which is celebrating its 225th birthday this month, is what you might call a Schrödinger's state—it both is and isn't. It sits below the Mason-Dixon line, but many would argue that it belongs to the Midwest. It was the birthplace of Abraham Lincoln, who issued the Emancipation Proclamation, and the birthplace of Jefferson Davis, the Confederacy's sole president. During the Civil War, it was a Union border state with a Confederate shadow government, earning it the center star on the Rebel flag.
Winston Churchill said that history is written by the victors, but throughout the South there is still controversy over the removal of Confederate monuments that tell the losing side's story. The University of Louisville and the city's mayor came together last winter to remove a monument honoring the Confederate dead—a monument identical to one on the Raleigh state capitol's grounds. As an undergraduate at the university, I must have passed by that monument hundreds of times, living and learning under the gaze of spirits who fought vehemently for my oppression. I am certain removing the statue was the right choice. I want new monuments that tell the true story of the South and represent all the people who now make their lives here.
Southern Accent: Seeking the American South in Contemporary Art tells that story. It's a joint effort by Trevor Schoonmaker, the Nasher Museum of Art's chief curator, and Miranda Lash, the Speed Art Museum's contemporary curator. At the Speed's pre-opening party, supplied with Southern music and strong mint juleps, I befriended the poet Ada Limón, whose "Field Bling" I'd referenced in my preview of the exhibit. I felt like it spoke to the mysticism that washes through the South. Her poem about lightning bugs made me feel the same way hearing Allen Toussaint's luminous "Southern Nights" on the exhibit's playlist did—a sense of nostalgia for what was good without ever losing awareness of what was not, like a half-awake, half-dream state.
I buzzed through the exhibit tipsy on that feeling, and bourbon. I admired Diego Camposeco's "Quince," a photograph of a young Mexican-American woman in a blue dress with a voluminous skirt, standing in front of an orange Home Depot roll-down door and surrounded by cardboard boxes. For me, the photo felt like a callback of Tupac Shakur's book of poetry, The Rose That Grew from Concrete. It speaks to the vibrancy young people of color create in life, even in the most oppressive circumstances.
I also relished the opportunity to see several of Gordon Parks's famed photos in person. "Outside Looking In, Mobile, Alabama" shows the backs of five little black girls and a little black boy, their fingers clinging to a wire fence as they stare at the segregated park and amusement rides on the other side. I thought about all the metaphorical fences I'd clung to in my life, witnessing the excesses of whiteness.
The next time I visited the exhibit, I brought someone I'd worked under for several years. An amateur historian, he was in town to give a lecture. We went in the late afternoon, when there were only a few other people there. He, a white man in his fifties, and I, a black woman in her thirties, stood side by side in the dark, watching the video "8 Possible Beginnings or: The Creation of African-America, a moving Picture by Kara E. Walker." On the screen, as a black silhouette of a slave owner raped a slave, it occurred to me that it'd been a relatively short span of time that a friendship like ours has even been possible.
As we wandered the museum, the art directed the conversation, creating a bubble in which it felt comfortable to broach topics of race. In front of "Ain't Gonna Let Nobody Turn Us Around," Hank Willis Thomas's series of protest images on mirrored glass, my companion told me about his upbringing in Texas and his grandparents' less-than-liberal mind-set toward race. Near a Radcliffe Bailey painting, he asked me for my thoughts about another amateur historian's argument that Southern slaves who fled north during the Civil War were "refugees." Looking at Rachel Boillot's photos of decommissioned small-town post offices, he wondered, "Why can't the coal miners find new work?"
"It's the only story they have of themselves," I answered. Coal miners, like many people in the South, needed to see their history told in a new way so that they might be able to write themselves into the future, separated from the only identity they'd ever known. The fall of Confederate monuments, the rise of exhibits like Southern Accent, and the persistence of artists like Sonya Clark—who, in October, will help Louisville weave a new story from its past by unraveling a Confederate flag at the Speed, just as she did at the Nasher—give us all vital new ways to see ourselves.
This article appeared in print with the headline "To the Victor Goes the South ."