There’s no shortage of dangerous narratives about the South: that people vote for their own oppressors, that the South is decades behind, that it can’t be saved. Perhaps on the last note there’s a kernel of truth: the South doesn’t need saving. If you read Scalawag magazine, you know that Southerners are saving themselves.
Since 2015, Scalawag has produced essential coverage of Southern organizing for collective liberation. From investigative deep dives on Alabama prison facilities to expansive meditations on Black women’s grief, Scalawag grapples fearlessly with the crises of police violence, mass incarceration and capitalism, and spotlights organizers and movements that are fighting towards the world we so desperately need.
In These Times spoke with Sherronda J. Brown — essayist, author, horror lover and Scalawag’s new editor-in-chief about abolition journalism, covering the Black South and the liberatory promise of the horror genre.
What does it mean to cover the Black South? What are the challenges — and the joys — that come with the territory?
It means highlighting the perspectives often not found in the mainstream, because they are often actively kept out of the mainstream. A resilient, radical, organized, community-focused South doesn’t fit the established mainstream narrative about the South, especially the Black South. We are seen as a collective of inept, politically-backwards people who refuse to help ourselves. That is far from the truth. There’s a reason why Robin D.G. Kelley emphasizes that “the reason why the South is so repressive is because it’s the most radical place” in this part of the world.
We are constantly wading through this globalized disdain for the South, which is of course a byproduct of global anti-Blackness. Even within the U.S. itself, those outside of the South are often more than willing to write us off and blame us for the conditions we live under, conditions that were created and are continually being recreated because of anti-Blackness. The majority of Black people in this country are in the South, and that is because the South is the site of the plantation in the U.S., it’s the site of Jim Crow, it’s the epicenter of the Civil Rights Movement. That fact cannot be divorced from our contemporary understanding of the South’s repressive politics.
But Scalawag’s coverage of the South will also focus on the joys we are able to find here, and our relationship to the land as descendants of people who were first trafficked and enslaved here, and then found ways to resist and thrive here. An inordinate amount of what is considered Southern Culture is actually Black Southern Culture, things that our ancestors preserved or elevated and passed on to us. Scalawag celebrates those things alongside the aesthetics of Black life and survival in the South, the ways we are able to creatively preserve, reinvigorate, sustain, and nourish ourselves in the midst of it all.
Natascha Elena Uhlmann: What does it mean to be a publication dedicated to abolitionist coverage?
Sherronda J. Brown: One of my biggest priorities is to ensure that we continue the work of publishing currently incarcerated and formerly incarcerated people, as well as people in open air prisons. We are covering abolition and the prison-industrial complex with reported pieces as well as firsthand accounts from people who have direct experience with the prison system.
Scalawag is also ripe with opportunity to create space for folks to ask and attempt to answer the hard questions about abolition. I want to reach people at every stage of the abolitionist journey — folks who are just beginning to ask questions, folks who have been engaged in abolitionist work for years, folks who are developing theoretical frameworks around abolition, and folks who don’t even know what questions to ask yet.
When abolitionists say we can imagine a better world, what does that mean and what does that look like? I see Scalawag as a platform where we can grapple with the grotesque nature of the neo-slavery that is the prison system — and all the pipelines that lead to it — while also acknowledging the reasons why abolition is a difficult thing for some people to wrap their minds around.
Beyond that, we will highlight the array of systemic oppressions that overlap with the prison. I have written for Prism about the connection between trans liberation, gender justice, the medical industrial complex and the carceral state in an interview with Ash Williams, a Southern abortion doula and abolitionist organizer. I’ve also written about the criminalization of abortion and how that is about reproductive justice but is also distinctly a function of capitalism, fascism and the carceral state. There’s so much more to name when it comes to prisons and policing. Scalawag will be doing that work, tracing the threads and unraveling the tapestry to reveal things that others may not always consider when they think about the prison industrial complex.
Scalawag has published several stories about Palestinian liberation recently. Can you talk about why this coverage is so important?
Connecting the material conditions of Palestinians with our material conditions here in the U.S. is imperative to Scalawag’s abolitionist coverage. We absolutely want to continue working with Palestinian writers and artists, but it has certainly been challenging. Contributors sometimes say things along the lines of, “I will aim to send you a draft by the end of the week if I am still alive. They are dropping bombs near us.” I think a lot of people in the U.S. don’t actually understand that this is the level of violence Palestinians are facing day-to-day, that they are constantly sitting with their own mortality in this way.
Of course, many Black folks can relate to that feeling on some level, with the violence we are also faced with here. When we walk out the door, when we get in the car, when we go to sleep, we don’t know what might transpire and whether it might lead to our state-sanctioned murder. We can also relate to a robust, militarized police force being eager to learn tactics that will ultimately help them control, surveil and kill us more efficiently. A lot of people don’t know that the Israeli police forces share training tactics with U.S. police through exchange programs, and urban warfare facilities like the proposed Cop City in Atlanta are meant to facilitate and extradite this type of collaboration. These are the connections that need to be highlighted and that is why this work is important.
As an essayist, researcher and activist, among other things, you bring a lot of different skills to this position. How are you thinking about this role and the direction for Scalawag?
One of the things I am most grateful for is that I get to bring my whole self to work at Scalawag. I get to bring all of my Black, Southern, neuroqueer, gender anarchist, analytical, horror-obsessed self and it is not only welcomed, but embraced and appreciated. I have the room to flourish both creatively and professionally here, and I want to ensure that this space affords the same expansiveness to everyone on the team.
Beyond that, my editorial vision for Scalawag includes revamping the verticals we offer on the website and the newsletters that come to your inbox. They will each be dedicated to different aspects of Southern life. Particularly, our goal is to amplify Black, queer Southern perspectives. I also want to bring on guest editors and contributing writers whose work is aligned with Scalawag’s mission but who will also push us to new depths with their creativity and insight.
You’ve written of your “truest and most abiding love” — that of the horror genre. What draws you to horror, and how does it inform your work?
I always say that I can find the horror in almost anything, especially as someone raised in a Southern Black Christian household. I grew up sitting in church every week, sometimes multiple times a week, hearing what were essentially horror stories. They were just never framed in that way. The stories of my childhood were always punctuated by the looming presence of a man who raised the dead and was then reanimated after his own death. Is it really a wonder that I grew up to be a self-proclaimed zombie scholar? I fell out of favor with the church long ago, but that fascination with the horrors it introduced me to has remained. The body horror of the Bible is a lot of people’s entry into the horrific. There’s very little distance between the Saw franchise and the crucifixion. I think that’s an interesting aspect of our culture, even as there continues to be cognitive dissonance around it.
What draws me to horror, at least in part, is its malleability and the opportunity for catharsis. The same way I am captivated by the numerous ways we are able to find and access joy, I am also interested in the many different ways we engage with the horrific, how we both articulate and explore fear. Horror takes so many forms and it has a massive cultural impact, despite the fact that a lot of people fail to see how profound the genre is. I often talk about horror as a mirror, as a reflection of society’s deepest anxieties. Horror analysis is an extremely useful tool in that it is an avenue to critical engagement with the things that horror often contends with — from the familiar experiences of isolation, grief, trauma and loss to the capitalist exploitation, colonial and imperialist brutalities, gendered violence and racial containment evident in our reality. Horror has the ability to distill these things and more into contagion, invasion, possession, infestation and other monstrosities. I genuinely believe that horror is our most important genre in that regard.
As a publication, what does it mean to be in community with social movements?
This year we hosted a Week of Writing from people who have been on the ground and directly touched by the Stop Cop City movement. That was a series helmed by our editor-at-large Da’Shaun Harrison, and I fully supported their vision to shift the narrative around Cop City. Mainstream coverage was not naming the proposed Cop City for what it is, which is an urban warfare training facility. We wanted to both explicitly name that and also provide context for how something like this is able to happen in the South, particularly in the city of Atlanta, which has been building towards something like this since the years leading up to the 1996 Olympics. The South is often the proving ground for oppressive tactics and policies that get exported elsewhere.
And now, it’s imperative for us to contextualize the RICO charges that have been laid against Stop Cop City organizers, in addition to domestic terrorism charges. These are suppression tactics by the state. There’s no doubt about that. This is about quelling resistance, fracturing community, disrupting organizing efforts, and silencing the people. More importantly, it’s about further criminalizing resistance against the state. This is why many liberation movement leaders, organizers, and activists have criminal records; their protest is a criminal act in the eyes of the state. This is the long arm of fascism at work.
Being in community with folks involved in movement work like this gives us a direct line to the truth. It gives organizers a platform to tell their own stories in the face of mainstream journalism and copaganda that will almost always side with the cops and the state or will use language that diminishes the impact of what is actually happening and the violations that are really occurring. We will never shy away from the truth about the things impacting our communities, at the hands of the nation-state or any other entity.
You’ve written for Scalawag on how platonic love is devalued in a culture dominated by romance. What do you see as the role of love as you embark on this new project?
I think communal love is central to liberation work. Even if I don’t like you, I want you to be free because I love you. Romance has absolutely nothing to do with that. My love for community will always outweigh, will always be more important than, will always be stronger than any level of animus I might feel for a few people. That’s what guides my politics and that is what will guide my work at Scalawag.
In this new book, longtime organizers and movement educators Mariame Kaba and Kelly Hayes examine the political lessons of the Covid-19 pandemic and its aftermath, including the convergence of mass protest and mass formations of mutual aid. Let This Radicalize You answers the urgent question: What fuels and sustains activism and organizing when it feels like our worlds are collapsing?
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Natascha Elena Uhlmann is the Audience Engagement Editor at In These Times. A writer and organizer, her work has appeared in The Guardian, Truthout, Rewire News, and Teen Vogue. She is also the author of Abolish ICE.