It’s not everyday that a new single drops from Barbara Fields, the masterful historian who has spent decades trying to disabuse those credulous types known as “scholars” about their dubious notions about race. Indeed, Fields has always been the epitome of quality over quantity, having authored or co-authored a handful of books since the 1980s (as well as several influential essays that are read by grad students the world over). So when Fields, as president of the Southern Historical Association, offered her address last Fall at the SHA convention in Little Rock, it is an occasion for careful attention.
As Comrade Suarez pointed out, it is noteworthy that a writer and teacher who is so famously fastidious about language would coin a term—dysplacement—when she has tended to be suspicious of neologisms and buzzwords like whiteness and identity over the years. (And, yes, Fields would scold me for using the word “famously,” one of her many linguistic pet peeves.) For Fields, dysplacement is what people experience when they are uprooted and their homes are either destroyed or rendered unrecognizable by forces outside their control—for example, the disaster that scattered New Orleanians to Houston and Charlotte, the evictions that cast many out of their homes in the financial crisis, or the gentrification that pushes people out of familiar communities in subtler but no less disruptive ways. Dysplacement is a kind of place lag, like jet lag, a disorientation that is experienced when “all that is solid melts into air,” as capitalism cannot help itself from doing.
This dysplacement is particularly curious for the South, that reviled, beloved, nostalgized, candied, packaged and repackaged part of the United States that still seems to retain a regional distinctiveness. If the weight of Office Depot and Jack in the Box rendered Des Moines and Denver and Bakersfield and Portland, Maine increasingly alike over the years, the South—at least in the popular imagination—still seemed to be a little different. Gone with the Wind, The Dukes of Hazzard, the Dirty South. Perhaps the South was (allegedly) more racist, dumber, more backward or stuck in the past. But it was different.
Yet, as Fields points out, even the most “placed” place cannot resist the churning tide of capitalism, which threatens to sever the connection to community that makes democratic representation possible. If people are forever in flux, like the many who were forced to flee New Orleans during Katrina and never quite made it back, they lose the chance to become part of communities, where meaningful membership and recognition allows them to take part in the critical decisions that shape the future of the block, neighborhood, or city. The violent uprooting of the most vulnerable and marginalized citizens by forces as dramatic as disaster or as quiet and seemingly anodyne as gentrification makes those bonds of community tenuous, perhaps even impossible. In this sense, Fields’s impassioned argument against the radical reworking of the Southern landscape makes perfect sense—historic black communities in cities such as Charleston, Atlanta, and New Orleans are being erased as the logic of property values and urban redevelopment work themselves out, in ways that local elites probably find unimpeachable. (More affluent, educated, young creatives—and higher property tax revenue!)
But it feels like Fields misses something in her unrelentingly pessimistic perspective. Place is not a scarce resource that, when lost, becomes irretrievable and unreplaceable. It is not as finite as the shores of the Maldives or Marshall Islands, inexorably receding in the face of rising tides of salt water. Charleston is certainly not the place it once was, memorably chronicled in the works of writers such as Dubose Heyward (author of Mamba’s Daughters and Porgy & Bess)—it is an elite museum-cum-playground for tourists and vacationing Eurotrash who can afford to buy up million-dollar-plus homes in its most historic (and often formerly black neighborhoods). There’s the high-arty Spoleto festival and high-dollar shrimp and grits. The same transformations have swept other iconically Southern cities, while nouveau-riche upstarts like Charlotte and Raleigh have created whole new communities from whole-cloth, inviting privileged bankers and chemists from India and Connecticut to brand-new suburban landscapes that are Southern only in the remotest sense.
But to say these places are not places because they are different or simply new does not recognize that the South is malleable, dynamic, changeable—that the people there forge their own senses of what it means to be Georgia, or Atlantan, or Tennesseen, or Southern. As comedian Aziz Ansari said in his role as Tom Haverford—the white, Anglo name he took on to succeed in society, “because you know, brown guys with funny-sounding Muslim names don’t make it far into politics”—in the NBC sitcom Parks and Recreation, when people asked him where he was from, he said, “South Carolina.” When they asked again where he was really from, he got impatient and said, “My mother’s vagina!” Ansari, the son of Indian-born Muslim immigrants, was as South Carolinian and Southern as Governor Nikki Haley or the Appalachian-trail-hiking, lovesick puppy-dog Congressman Mark Sanford. His South is a different one—certainly different from Ben Tillman or Strom Thurmond or Septima Clark’s South—but he was still a South Carolinian.
You can see a different South emerging in the Asian suburbs of Houston or the multiethnic corridor of Buford Highway, just on the edge of in-town Atlanta, where one finds a kind of exurban Chinatown alongside Vietnamese, Peruvian, and Korean shops and restaurants. (As historian Julie Weise points out in her book Corazon de Dixie: Mexicanos in the U.S. South since 1910, Latinos have been a part of the Southern landscape longer than most people realize, even if the large-scale influx of Mexican migrants has shaken up Southern communities large and small in unmistakable ways since NAFTA in the 1990s.) A changing sense of place need not be tied strictly to demographics, either, in a lazy “just add immigrants and stir” kind of argument. The landscapes of cities such as Huntsville, Alabama, Raleigh, North Carolina, and Alexandria, Virginia have been remade by the in-migration of professionals who work for tech industries, universities, and government since World War II. Historical forces shaped each in unique ways: defense spending, investment in healthcare and biotechology, good, old-fashioned local boosterism or simply the cancerous spread of the lobbying-industrial complex (in the case of Northern Virginia).
Whatever the cause, old places changed or faded, and suburbs and shopping malls that may seem utterly banal to the passer-through or casual observer sprouted up on top or next to the preceding communities. Many of the people who live there were not displaced like the poor who face natural disaster or gentrification (or both), but enjoyed the freedom to choose to migrate, take a job, start a family far from where they started. This new middle or upper class in the South may have more latitude than most in charting their own fate, but they are still carried along by capitalist forces that created new industries and communities while erasing, or nearly erasing, older ones. We might abuse Marx by saying that people, poor or prosperous, make place in circumstances not entirely of their own choosing.
In thinking about place, it might help to refine the resolution and get specific. In a recent issue, the local alt-weekly Creative Loafing posed the question, “What does it mean to be middle class in Atlanta?” It offered the example of Taj. She owns a home in the Old Fourth Ward, the historic black community just east of Downtown where Martin Luther King was born, which has been increasingly overrun by hipsters and yuppies in the last decade. (Your intrepid correspondent can’t really afford to buy a home there at this point.) Taj holds a PhD in sociology and makes $98,000 a year. You might think she is just one more drop in the wave of economic and demographic change that is transforming the face of Atlanta, which has been labeled the most unequal city in an increasingly unequal United States.
But, of course, the reality is more complicated: Taj works two full-time jobs; takes care of four children by herself since a divorce; and had to face the humiliation of requesting public assistance to feed her kids and keep the lights on, despite her high level of education and professional status. Along with all this, she grows food in her front lawn and hopes to “open a market on the same English Avenue property where she was raised by her grandmother,” in a “food desert” on the West Side. What seems at first like an instance of the nameless, faceless force of gentrification upending and changing a historic Southern community—at least from a superficial glance—turns out to be a story of placedeness, layered and embroidered with the same changing conditions that are reshaping cities across the country. This is, perhaps, an argument for the rootedness, inertia, and continuity that historians often recognize when others are getting carried away with bluster about rapid and inexorable change.
Years ago, as an undergraduate, I participated in a wonderful course called “Charleston: To Learn a Place,” taught by English professor Sam Watson and architectural historian Kingston Heath, and we visited the quintessentially ancient Southern city, in search of the real Charleston. Presumably the real city is the historic, tourist-sought place that traffics heavily on its own distinct identity. But what of the Citgo on the fringes of downtown, or the Taco Bell or Chipotle in its suburbs? What about working-class North Charleston, where those who cannot live in central Charleston’s tony districts eke out a life? Those are as much, if not more so, places than the historical setpiece that makes up the core of the tourist city. This is where people’s lives occur. They may be exploited, disrupted, displaced, marginalized, and so forth (even as the historic downtown is processed and manufactured into Southern-pageant-as-Cheez-Wiz), but the fast-food corridors and expansive low-rent suburbs are where people’s lives take place and unfold. Even if dysplacement is happening in the South’s eternal quest for a New South—and it is, it always has been since at least the Civil War—new stories are lived and new narratives are told in a remade landscape.
In focusing, rightly, on dysplacement, perhaps we should not lose sight of the lives that are placed and re-placed by dynamic forces such as capitalism, demographic change, and cultural transformation in the late twentieth and early twenty first century. People make place every day, in their every day choices and decisions, in PTA meetings and casual conversations at the convenience store, as much or more so than elites who decide what a place is or ought to be. Those with power and money exercise undue influence on who can be where, but the rest of us still define new communities and landscapes even as we struggle to shake the hangover of dysplacement.
Read Joel Suarez’s take on the Fields essay here.