October 2020 LibraRYAN Reading Group Pick/s & Updates on What to Expect from Here

Friends,

It took some time to figure out what our next group assignment should be.

On the one hand, I wanted to lean in to the election-year “PERSON X VERSUS DEMOCRACY” messaging that pervades our collective consciousness. On the other, I wanted to run — far, far away from it. I don’t know about you, but I tend to make better decisions after I learn from my fear rather than avoiding it. So, in the spirit of that acknowledgement, this month I’d like us to read one or both of the following:

1) Alexis de Tocqueville’s 19th-century masterpiece, Democracy in America. Find a translation that works for you. Mine is from Harper Perennial, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers, and edited by J.P. Mayer (1969). If this is also your version, do yourself a favor and read the Forwards for an interesting bit of historical context — for then, and sadly, for now.

and

2) Tim Marshall’s A Flag Worth Dying For: The Power and Politics of National Symbols (July 2016). This book was published by Scribner, an imprint of Simon & Schuster, just prior to our last presidential election. That we are reading it this month is absolutely by design. I trust this is not lost on you. And I hope you find more than one way to think about things a little differently before we have the responsibility of voting again.

Then, about the second half of this post’s title: where we go from here.

No, I don’t mean the country — though believe me when I say that this is very much on my mind and heart — I mean this group. It has been a huge honor to lead our small collection of readers through the first six months of a little book club I launched at the height of a pandemic. I intend to keep our momentum going. But, as with any responsible leader, I must also recognize when things don’t serve us well anymore, and make plans to adapt. So let’s talk structure, shall we?

I’ve been thinking for awhile that the structure of this little group isn’t serving all of us as well as it could. While I’d like to leave ample room for folks to have and continue conversations, both on- and offline, I am not convinced that we need my guided responses at the end of each month. Unless someone has another idea, what I’d like to propose is this:

  1. In the first week of each month, I will still post our books and themes for the month ahead. So, we are in the first week of October now, and I have just shared our October reads in this post. Hopefully that part is self-evident.
  2. In the last week, I will post my much-abridged responses and/or questions as comments to that original post, probably from my other blog account, liftingthevale. This will replace the separate response posts I had been sharing, for several reasons. First, because I grow tired of hearing myself speak (that was never the intention here, and I already know what my own thoughts are); second, because separate responses clutter up the category and tags (web site management is also crucial for what I do); and third, they make it harder to be in true conversation with dedicated readers like you, who are currently asked to respond in a democratic, but messily non-centralized fashion. This can be much improved. I am hopeful the changes I propose will encourage greater, still democratic, engagement for all us.

Again, if someone has another idea for how to make this work, I’m all ears. Can I ask a small favor, though? Let’s deliver feedback about the structure of this group as comments below. It’s good practice for the end of the month anyway, when we’ll meet again to discuss our thoughts on the reads we’ve just picked up. That way, we can make a use-informed decision about how it works (or doesn’t) for the months ahead. Sound like a plan? Great! I’ll see y’all back here in the last week of October. Much love — and bravery — until then. Lord knows we need it.

Dearest Loves

Stop your pointing fingers, loves,

Stop assigning blame.

Stop pretending you know better,

For we live by one shared, distant flame.

But how, you will ask, do I keep from falling,

Without first extending my hand?

How do I survive this Hell,

When nothing gets properly planned?

I feel so much better when I claw and I grab,

You will continue to plead.

And I feel so much better when it’s my hand that lashes,

When some other body breaks and bleeds.

I start to feel better when I pull someone down,

Into this dark, angry land of the damned.

So tell me why, self-righteous one, you’ll ocean away my sand.

No, Dearest Loves,

That’s not why I’ve come,

You’ve simply misunderstood.

I’d never dream of doing so, even if I could.

Let’s take a moment to understand, hard though it may seem,

That where we see sin,

There is neither you nor I,

Instead there is only we.

Sinners, broken, flailing about,

We’re inclined to stumble and fall.

But look for the light and soon you will find,

It’s each other we’ve had through it all.

When this we remember, it’s harder to feel

That one sinner bears all the weight.

We’re all fully culpable, yes indeed,

But we can also all be redeemed.

And when this maddening struggle is over,

We’ll stand once more side-by-side.

And then, Dearest Loves,

We’ll be truly United,

Still in name,

New in heart,

New in mind.

Wishes Upon Joining The Ranks Of Trigenarians

This fall, I entered the vaunted thirties. In case you didn’t know, they’re the new everything. They’re when your life begins. By this time, you will have achieved some sense of normalcy and happiness. You’ll be a fully-fledged, largely secure adult. And even though you’ll be drowning in student loan debt and the rent will always be too damned high, at least you’ll be on your own. Wait, what? Yeah, that’s where it starts to fall apart for me too.

The trouble with being on your own is that you’re also on your own. As in, look out for number one because no one else will. As in, watch your back to avoid an affront. You get it. That is what we’re working towards? So that when we get “there,” to that imaginary definition of success, all we can do is wonder what it was all about? So that we can climb ladders to nowhere, just as alone and afraid as we were at the bottom? Apparently so, since many of us run — not walk — toward it for the duration of our teenage and young adult years. Just like we were taught to do, just like our parents were taught to do, just like their parents and their parents and their parents were taught to do.

I’m no different. I’ve been consciously looking forward to my thirties since the day I turned 21. In those nine years, I mostly thought about life as a series of finish lines to cross. I needed to graduate from college and get a master’s degree (check, check). I needed to explore careers and find a purpose (check, yes!). I needed to settle down with someone I couldn’t imagine life without (check, ❤ Hubs). I needed to be an equal partner in putting down long-term roots (check-ish). I needed to do a lot of things, and while I accomplished many of them, I only recently remembered that life isn’t a checklist. Those are not the standards by which I want to measure my life. At least not any longer.

A journeyer, that’s what I am. I realize this makes me counter-cultural — sometimes even unpopular. I’m okay with that, because I’ve worked really hard to own that identity, and I don’t need validation from others to affirm its worth any longer. I no longer need to engage in the chase, to get caught up in the dizzying work of pursuing what society wants for (read: expects of) me. Because, to be perfectly clear, these demands are more about keeping order than ensuring anyone’s happiness, health, or genuine ties to community — all things I care about deeply. There are simply too many opportunities for creating a meaningful life outside that prescriptive lifestyle. The “highly suggested” route to “the good life” no longer computes for me. Seeing that, I’ve decided to forge my own. Something tells me life is about to get a helluva lot more full.

I should note that privilege is inherent in my position. I am a middle-class white American female. While much has been expected of me, much has also been given. And while I’ve certainly worked really, really hard in this life, before that effort could be expended, my status afforded me opportunities I’d never have to dream of earning. This includes opportunities to reject definitions of success set by the very culture into which I was born and by which I was afforded extra opportunity in the first place.

I also recognize that part of my responsibility in having that privilege is to speak truth on it. I don’t just mean how it affects my life. I mean the ways in which it is organized, systematized, and allowed to continue so that those who control it are also its primary beneficiaries. To clarify, that’s white America, and white America, we can do better, regardless of political party or any other identity marker. We can. We just have to invest our privilege in more than ourselves.

Just so we’re all clear, this is meant to be a positive force. It is not a hall pass to advance division. Division, hatred, and dismantling of systems for the sake of these things alone solves nothing. I hear an awful lot of people on both sides of the aisle encouraging “resistance” as a response to the times. Fewer verbalize what they are resisting, the ways in which they are resisting, and why. That’s scary. I’m also not convinced this is what our ultimate goal should be. Resistance as a tool tends to rest on the foundation of defining ourselves by what we aren’t, and that’s a half-definition at best. What about what we are?

America, we need the other half of that equation in order to move forward, as individuals and as a nation. I’d like to see us all invest more time and energy into a much-needed introspective moment before we do irreparable harm to ourselves. This moment isn’t a good look for us, no matter how we identify. And the world is watching. Closely.

Granted, we all start somewhere and part of doing this work is respecting the journey at every stage it exists, allowing time and space for growth and change. What we can’t wait for is for someone else to start the healing work on our behalf. That someone else is YOU. And you’re needed right now.

This is not to say the work will be quick and easy. No, please don’t mistake urgency for these things. In actual fact, the work is complex and will take a long time. But it’s worthwhile. It’s about protecting our democracy for all citizens, and while this means more than those with white skin or male gender markers, it also must include them. No one is exempt, but no one is left out, either. Quite simply, we must decide if we are 50 states’-worth of people united — or not. I pray it’s the former, and I hope that you can identify and enact at least one way to support it in your corner of the world.

On one level, nothing would make me happier than to see our constitutional system support that effort, to create long-term, positive change for our nation. While it isn’t a perfect system, it is a living system, which means it does its best work when we let it work. It does, however, require periodic maintenance to serve us all, and to serve us well. It can and must grow with us, but before we criticize it too heavily, or assign full blame to documents dating back hundreds of years, I wonder if we might take a moment to think on how many of us actually use our constitutional rights to their full advantage. I’m betting many don’t, and that’s something we can start to change any day we like. Today is as good as any.

On another level, I fear most people will hear that message and think only of elections. This work mustn’t be confined; we can and should invest our energies here, but regardless of whether or not it’s election season, we all have a responsibility to live our values forward every single day. It can’t begin and end every other November. Our votes are not our only opportunities to make our voices heard or our values seen.

The work our country needs must be done daily and with intention. Indeed, it already is, but perhaps we are not aware of the moments when this happens, or how much power individual moments have. Every choice we make is a reflection of our values, of our beliefs, of our greatest hopes and our deepest fears. I ask you, as I often ask myself, what do your choices say about you? Hopefully what you want them to say — and hopefully something that doesn’t imperil your fellow humans.

Here’s the good news. Even if you weren’t happy with your answer to that question, it is never too late to readjust, reaffirm, realign. I have learned that lesson many times in my short life. It’s been one of my favorites — and one I try to keep front-and-center. I use it to examine my past, my present, and my future. Most of the time, it’s helpful. Especially at what feels like large crossroads such as this.

As I look ahead, I hope my thirties are marked by more actions I feel represent my honest, true self. Moments of grace and love, of solidarity and inclusion, of hope and hard work. Sure, I will mess up, I will fall down, and I will make mistakes. But I’ve got to try. More than anything else, arriving at my thirties has given me the confidence — no, the strength of character — to finally do itwhich is a good thing, because I was losing patience with myself for awhile there.

Admittedly, this would not be possible without the support of my world-class family and friends, whose love is so freely and routinely shared. That love makes all things possible. Not just in my life, but in general, for the world. Love transcends movements, it outlasts lifetimes, it alone stands infinite and incorruptible. It is the standard by which I measure everything. And I don’t think that’s unreasonable.

Already, love has formed me into a better self. I have no doubts that it will mould me further still. But before that happens, I’ve got to acknowledge its gifts. They are innumerable, but my best guess is that I’ve received four principal gifts thus far, for which I feel at least halfway undeserving. But maybe that’s the point of it all — maybe we’re all called to grow into the gifts we receive. And, if that’s the case, I pray that we may all come to receive them in whatever form and time they arrive. As for me:

(1) Love lets me know who I am. After 30 years in this body, it’d be a damned shame if I didn’t know myself by now. I’ve still got a laundry list of things to learn, I’m sure, but at this point I’m confident I understand who I am and what I’m here to do. Praise be. The struggle has not been in vain.

(2) Love lets me know what I stand for. At this point, the things I care about most seem to have arranged themselves in a compact but meaningful list. It looks a lot different than most of what I see around me, but you know what? I’m totally fine with that — in fact, I relish it. Do you know how liberating it is to finally step into yourself, stand up for yourself, and have the strength to stand up with others? I pray that you do or otherwise that you will soon.

(3) Love lets me fight for these things, no holds barred. Now that I know who I am and what I stand for, I am no longer capable of exclusively observing the world. I must contribute something of substance. It’s not just a calling, it’s a commandment, one which I finally feel strong enough to answer. Even though I am a nobody. Even though I’m imperfect. Even though I will most certainly fail — repeatedly. There are no more excuses. It’s time.

(4) Love lets me pursue health and happiness along the way. Taking care of the world is a worthwhile enterprise, but if past seasons of my life have taught me anything, it’s that you can’t fight for the big stuff until you take proper care of yourself. I’ve been doing a better job of this, but I have to admit that, until recently, I viewed it mostly as a chore. Now I see it’s a joy. It is a gift to be cherished, and with that knowledge, I will cherish it.

If this is my starting point for the next thirty years (God willing), then life is shaping up pretty well. I’ll continue down the road and see where it takes me. But for now, please permit me to share a brief birthday wish — or perhaps more accurately, a prayer. May we all have what we need to fight the good fight. May we encounter each other more often, learn from each other more often, and support each other more often. May the journeys we start alone find ways to converge, so that together we can proclaim the power of love, a love that knows neither beginning nor end, a love that is boundless, timeless, and ever-present. Amen.

TIME’s “Special Issue on the American South”

“[…] I grew up, as we all did, on tragedy and promise, past and present, myth and music.”

Edward Felsenthal

Editor-In-Chief, TIME

From the Editor,  August 8 / August 13, 2018 Special Issue on the American South

This weekend I sat outside on our not-quite-level, not-quite-presentable, not-quite-sittable porch. Plastic patio furniture and a small outdoor rug made this possible, covering its loose paving stones and the holes between them in a setup that functions less as a disguise and more as a bandage until we can fully address the brokenness.

That the porch is falling apart isn’t a reason for us not to be there. We love it and we know it will take time to shore up its foundation. Even as we’re cursing the coffee that doesn’t sit, the chairs that can’t help but rock, the ankles that won’t do anything but roll, we find joy in this part of our home. It’s broken, but it’s ours. And that means something.

We’re aware of this all the time. But this weekend, as I sat there with my magazine, TIME’s Special Issue on the American South, I was even more tuned in to the irony of my porch enjoyment. The physical experience of sitting on our busted porch is about the closest analogy I can draw to what existing as a native Southerner up North feels like. It’s really hard. And also full of holes that subject people to destabilization, consternation, and occasionally, grief.

Go ahead, chuckle, that was intended. However, the after-effects of my busted porch and Southernness (that I’m a Southerner with a love for porches is not lost on me) can be unsettling, and it would be gauche to laugh at that reality. What reality am I speaking of? It’s complicated, but here’s the short answer.

Best case? People offer unsolicited advice about ways I can improve it (the porch, me), hide it (the porch, me), and maybe — if I’m really, really lucky — manage to convince the powers that be that it (the porch, me) never actually existed in its current state. Worst case? When I am silent, I am complicit. When I speak up, I must be complaining, ungrateful, or — my personal favorite — just not adjusted yet.

Sure, some of my views are unpopular. This is, I believe, largely because they’re uncomfortable. But Heavens to Betsy, if they are uncomfortable, that’s because they are intended to be. As uncomfortable as my opinions may seem to others who seek to silence them, I promise, it is much more uncomfortable to live the experiences that spur their development.

I wish more people would open their eyes to this reality, not so that I am pitied (please, spare us all from that), or that I’m cast aside (one person’s discomfort does not make another’s experiences less valid), but so that we can continue to dialogue and grow in our capacity for solidarity and love. Together. This is important work on the larger scale, but it cannot begin until eyes, hearts, and minds are open to doing it, even when it’s hard, even when it’s unpopular, even when “likes” and “followers” and “retweets” are on the line.

I acknowledge that this is difficult in our post-modern, teched-up, brand-obsessed, lightening-speed world, a world where you’re only as good as your last win or your competitor’s last loss. I fully see that. I too live in that world. Which is why I know it’s so hard. But I implore us, dear readers, to push past the pressures we put on ourselves, in order to do the work we’re capable of doing once we opt to actually do it. That’s part of why this blog exists, to lean in to those challenges, and to address them from a place of love. Because in the long run, love wins. Every time. Every. Damn. Time. Sometimes, it just takes awhile longer.

What keeps me going? Knowing I am not alone, however alone I sometimes feel. Friends. Family. Neighbors. Occasionally, strangers. Many of whom will go unnamed or unrecognized by the larger world, because these people are here to do the work, rather than get recognized for something that cheapens or exists by proxy of it.

You know proxy work when you see it. It’s what’s done when the right light is shining, at the right time of day, in the correct month of the opportune year, when it’s sexy and exciting and, like, so on-trend. You also know when actual work is being done, which is basically any time the former isn’t. You probably won’t read about it or hear about it. But if you look around, you’ll see it in your everyday lives. Small acts of resistance. Small acts of courage. Small acts of love.

Where can you find them? Get off the internet, first of all. Get out into the world. Form and keep loving, supportive relationships with people and places that you are willing to love and support in return. That, my friends, is one of the greatest privileges any of us will have in our short lives.

Never underestimate the power this brings you. Not just the power of social capital, but the kind of power that exists when you have real humans in your real life who really love you, through whatever ups, downs, successes, failures, opportunities, or challenges come your way. In this may you be blessed — and, of equal importance, may you also realize your blessings.

And then honestly? Sometimes you don’t find blessings, they find you. In this case, TIME’s Special Issue found me, by way of a loving and supportive husband, who knew what I needed in this season of my life. The magazine — by all accounts a national (read: Northeastern) authority, provided a surprise blessing this weekend. I was surprised to get it, sure, but the contents were just as arresting. Boasting inclusions by Jesmyn Ward, and about Stacey Abrams and 31 other incredible humans, all of whom are Southern, it rocked me to my core.

Why? This South wasn’t a South of people who traveled to it or through it, looking only for reasons to react to it for one brief moment in time, on a short assignment or for periodic gain. No, it was a South of Southerners, in all their complexities, however beautiful, turbulent, or painful. Even more importantly, it was a South of Southerners in their own words. Edited, I’m sure. But in their voices just the same.

Please, stop and contemplate the magnitude of that reality. Someone in New York City, the cultural capital of the Northeast (or, as many New Yorkers will tell you, of the world), decided that this was something worth pursuing. Which means that someone in New York City thought that New York City wasn’t the only place with opinions worth hearing, stories worth telling, histories worth teaching.

I assure you, this is radical. It’s also just. Which is exactly why, through most of my Saturday afternoon spent reading on that old, busted porch, I cried. I cried tears of relief and exhaustion. Tears of acceptance and renewal. Tears of knowing that, for one brief shining moment, someone in New York City suggested that, perhaps, the South deserves another read, and for reasons that may surprise its readers.

This is an important moment in our cultural history, America. And, contrary to what we’re taught in school, our history is not over. In fact, it is constantly unfolding, and we are the actors. We are the ones who will decide what our children and their children and their children learn. What do we want them to remember? Why? With whom? These are all questions we should be asking ourselves. Many already do, and it shows in their work, whether or not the rest of us are aware of it yet.

Meanwhile, we can do more to help this work come into focus, and garner the attention and support it deserves, in all its forms and places. That’s the other part of why this blog exists. I sincerely wish that more people knew about the forward motion already in progress — and, to clarify, this work is far from new. No single person has “the answer” to any of our most intractable problems, just as no single person can take credit for our most glorious successes. It is our responsibility to recognize good work around us, and to give credit where it’s appropriately due, especially when that work is not our own.

I’m talking about the work incredible humans have done over decades, over centuries, to elevate our understanding, further our conversations, and improve our treatment of each other. Oftentimes, this work comes from places that “mainstream” America might not have guessed. Politicians and academics, sure, but also chefs, nonprofit founders, novelists, struggling neighbors working multiple jobs to make ends meet, you name it. And again, to be perfectly clear, it’s not always White, Middle-Class Men in these roles. The people changing history are not always those in positions of power.

If you’re wondering whattttt?, then I encourage you to dig a bit deeper in whatever learning or research you may have already started. Once you do, you’ll find that the examples are too numerous to count. To reduce them to a list here would be to miss the point almost entirely.

First, I’m not in the business of ranking people. Second, I’m not in the business of prescribing explicit instructions for anyone’s journey through life. I am in the business of asking questions that could inspire journeying in the first place. Especially knowing how transformative journeying together can be.

To that end, I hope this space is not your destination, but your beginning, or perhaps your renewal. We are all here to learn, to listen, and to love greater than we did the day before. If this space takes us even one small step forward, then I will have succeeded. This is  — and I am — a work in progress.

And I know I cannot do this alone. So, I would like to issue a commendation, share a thank you, and offer a prayer that this good work continues. Not just with TIME, but with other people who find the courage to present stories that are complex (be wary of the term “real”). It must continue, but the work must also grow, it must welcome new voices, it must act in fact how it purports to believe and do elsewhere.

Make no mistake. This is difficult work. It comes with as many scuffs and bruises as it does medals and successes. But that is where the magic happens. In that uncomfortable, unruly, unpresentable growth. Not just when it’s timely, not just when it’s relevant, not just when it looks good. But now, because it’s critical, and because it always has been.

Before we go, I wish for you: a profound, abiding love for your roots, wherever and however deep they grow. May you also know love for the roots of others. May you recognize that love takes work, but may you also possess the courage it takes to practice it daily. Because that alone is a blessing worth examining, worth protecting. No matter where you call home. God Speed.

***

P.S. To find this Special Issue, visit TIME’s website here.

To discover why TIME created this issue, read Edward Felsenthal’s From the Editor here. You might recognize the opening quote from this piece if you read his.

And, if you don’t know much about Mr. Felsenthal, here’s some more information from TIME’s Media Kit. Maybe I shouldn’t be surprised that he’s a Southerner.

Thomas’ “The Hate U Give”

“What’s the point of having a voice if you’re gonna be silent in those moments you shouldn’t be?”

Starr Carter, p. 252

The Hate U Give

If your skin is white like mine, for most of the hours of most of the days of your life, you probably won’t think about your whiteness. Why? Because the culture white America created over centuries makes it really easy not to on the daily. And, in fact, it makes it that way precisely so you don’t think about it … ideally at all. If you did, things might be very, very different.

If that makes you feel uncomfortable, good. It should. It means you’re thinking. It means you’re on the journey to awareness. And from that point, you have the potential to make a serious difference — not just make things different. Yes, that subtlety matters. A lot.

I came to this uncomfortable realization for the first time in middle school, when I was given a chance to study the life and works of two incredible Americans — the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Dr. Maya Angelou. The realization I had from these studies bothered me. Not so much because the reality itself was hard to acknowledge (though it was), but because I knew, without having the vocabulary to properly vocalize this yet, that I’d have few — if any — other white people to talk about it with. So I kept my feelings and opinions close to my heart. That’s about as far as they went back then, and since then I’ve learned lesson after lesson about the importance of speaking truth to power.

I could cite countless other examples of uncomfortable realizations like this. Between school and work, across three states and six cities, and yes, also in my personal life, confronting race in a post-racial America has been challenging. This means it’s worthwhile — and ultimately, of importance. But I’m not here to give you a run-down of these moments. The point is that I have them, and yes, white America, you have them too, whether or not you’re aware of it yet.

What I am here to do — in this post, but more globally on the blog — is to remind us that life is about understanding and compassion, rather than hatred or fear. Life is about striving for justice and equity, rather than perpetuating systemic oppression (in all forms!). Put more simply, life is about learning to love, choosing to love, and then, critically, actually doing it.  And sometimes love means we must do difficult things, uncomfortable things, things we aren’t sure we’re brave enough, ready enough, smart enough, strong enough, anything enough to do. That is usually when we need to try the most.

In the spirit of that message, I’d encourage you to read Angie Thomas’s masterful work, The Hate U Give. It’s been nominated for a National Book Award. It’s a best-seller. And, if you’ve been following the news, you may have heard that it’s becoming a major motion picture. It stands on its own.

But much more importantly, and I don’t say this lightly, it’s the essence of life itself. It’s a call-to-action we all must learn to answer. Not just for one person, or one movement, or one pivotal moment in history, but all the time, everywhere, for everyone. It’s that important. Please read this book. And when you’re ready, go in peace to speak, write, act, and generally L-O-V-E. Just remember that peace doesn’t have to mean silence.

***

P.S. Interested in other voices who’ve joined this conversation?

Here’s a few. I encourage you to find more — or even better, contribute alongside them:

(1) The Atlantic’s review of T.H.U.G., available here.

(2) An interview with Angie Thomas and Balzer+ Bray/Harper Collins, her publisher. Heads-up, their chat is about 20 minutes long, but you’ll want to listen all the way through over here.

(3) A Huffington Post review, available here.

Full concept and content by Ryan Vale McGonigle

Edge’s “The Potlikker Papers”

“[A]sk questions about who we are and how we got here, about who cooks, who cleans, and who earns a seat at the welcome table.”

– John T. Edge, The Potlikker Papers, p.5

A few months ago, I wandered into my local bookstore looking for something medicinally Southern. After I paced a few uninspiring aisles, I found a hardcover someone had clearly misplaced.

I used to work in retail, and I get how maddening it can be for associates to constantly find and replace items that people scatter across the floor in the moments where they find something “better” than what they’ve got in-hand.

Unable to resist, I picked up the book and resolved to put it back where it belonged. That book was The Potlikker Papers: A Food History of the Modern South, and as it turns out, its proper place was with me.

Since that day, I’ve seriously savored Potlikker. And while I’m not a professional book reviewer, I do want more people to hear about this text, so I’m thrilled to feature it as my first Reading Words entry on the blog. Here we go!

As a Southerner, history major, food lover and woman, I was given so many reasons to fall “in like” with Potlikker Papers. Among them:

(1) There’s a cohesive narrative about how the famed “New South” came to be, and it does justice to both the opportunities and consequences of this cultural shift. In the process, Edge helped me realize that I wasn’t totally out of my mind to worry about the idea of home — both up North and in North Carolina.

(2) The book treats women as the serious contributors that we are — and indeed, always have been. To see this done, and to see it done in a way that doesn’t just start with Julia Child and end with Ina Garten, was refreshing. Not all women make the history books, but our stories are part of something that matters. It is never a bad day when someone else realizes this.

(3) It’s near-impossible to strike a true balance between hyper-local foodie writing and something that most people would label as “capital H” history. Edge’s people’s history has come pretty darned close. Many cultures contribute to the beautifully complex tapestry that is the American South. Edge has a knack for making sure we know about more of them, without presuming to have “found” or “discovered” them himself. Bravo, sir.

More broadly, my reaction to Edge’s book would not be complete without addressing how the South gets viewed. In many respects, Edge and I are in agreement. The South is not perfect — far from, as a matter of fact. But this does not excuse or explain America’s long, bizarre tradition of “yo-yo-like” changes in our cultural acceptance threshold.

Up and down, our perceptions of the South go up and down on the tiniest of threads, controlled by what feels like one user at a time, many of whom are ignorant to how the South has changed, is changing, or will continue to change.

In times of professed love, I’ve seen a range of reactions, from cultural appropriation, to patronization, to relocation, and everything in between. And I’ve only been on this earth since the ’80s, which is to say, not that long.

In times of disdain, reactions are more sinister, and usually kick off with a piece from someone who feels they “know better” in their chosen medium of record. Even if you don’t recognize their names, you’d recognize their voices, because the attitudes and beliefs they communicate invariably trickle down to everyday people like you and me.

The tragedy is that, in both of these times, Southern culture as it really exists — in all of its complex people, places, looks, sounds, feels, smells, and tastes — gets completely lost. And to be perfectly clear, this is dangerous for more than the American South.

So, what can we do in the face of this challenge? We can keep the conversation going, keep sharing stories of what life is really like, keep asking important questions, keep welcoming others into the fold as things grow and change. And we’ve got to start, like many foods we should probably eat more of, from the ground, up. It wouldn’t be a bad idea to pick up a copy of Edge’s book in the process. Let’s get cooking.

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P.S. For those with further interest, I’d recommend starting with:

This interview with NPR/The Salt.

This interview with Saveur.

This interview with the Southern Register / Center for the Study of Southern Culture.

See what nags at you from these pieces, then keep digging, keep reading, keep listening. This region, its people, their voices have been ready to be heard for a long time.

How ready are we to hear them?