Author Archives: csunyarts

About csunyarts

Director, Carson McCullers Center for Writers and Musicians, Columbus State University

On Returning Home and Missing My Family

Image

We took so many group photos, it was kind of hard to choose one. But here’s the family in Brooklyn Heights.

So, I can’t say this better than Lindsay, but writing a last post is difficult. And this time, perhaps thankfully, I didn’t have a 36-hour train ride home for meditation. Instead, I’ve taken these last two days in Georgia to tune out and think about what this CSU NY Arts Immersion trip has meant to me. Back at home, I found myself sort of immediately bored without somewhere to walk on Saturday evening and then sort of immediately maladjusted to the truly “free” Sunday that I had without a trip or meeting scheduled—without the buzz and hum of the city in the background. So, I do miss the city with all of its stimulation, all that it offers. But, of course, I’m going to talk about “family” for my last post…because, like the last trip taught me, it’s about the people that accompany you on a trip as much as the place you travel to.

From the beginning, this group referred to us as a “family” and insisted that we take a group photo for nearly every outing. This was quite a contrast to our last group in 2012, who ditched us as often as they could to go out exploring. While that group was interested in discovering the city on their own, this group wanted to experience it together, which meant a certain kind of openness to just about any event that was planned. They put serious trust in their professors to show them the city, and then they could reflect for themselves. For instance, when I suggested a theatrical reading of Russian literature at Joe’s Pub, almost everyone came along—and even though we were all lost because we hadn’t read Nabokov’s Pale Fire, this group made the best of it. They used humor to get through it, seeing who could laugh the loudest at a show that none of us could really understand. It might have been a dreadful event, but this family made it memorable anyway.

From what I could tell, when this group was disappointed with something, they talked through it. This, again, suggests an openness. Instead of a quick dismissal—an “I hated that”—they talked amongst themselves and then with us about what left them curious, questioning, or uncomfortable. For instance, after a visit to the MoMA, Rylan and I discussed postmodern art with one of my English students, which led to an interesting debate about works like those of Jackson Pollock and the significance of visual art as political and meaningful versus that same significance in literature. After our tour in Harlem, many students felt uncomfortable that our tour guide took us into the housing projects; they discussed this together and then with me a little, which led to some of the most honest conversations about race and class that I’ve ever had. Another instance: one art student pulled me aside at the International Center for Photography to talk about the composition of a certain series of photos, which she felt looked poorly Photoshopped. Even though she disliked the series, she was engaged with trying to understand why the photographer would use such techniques. And, of course, in my class meetings where we discussed literature, we inevitably drifted away from the actual texts and spoke about our own experiences in the city, whether good or bad.

Even if we all felt homesick and tired and maybe even tired of each other at some point in the trip, we remained a “family,” as the students put it. Family, to me, means sharing experiences in honest and open ways–unafraid to question, to engage, to make decisions about what we value in art and life, or even our values and how they change. To just know that you can trust someone else with your true feelings about what you’ve just experienced. That is the real purpose of this trip in my mind—to establish that kind of rapport. It’s not to try and cram in every artistic and historical event in New York City into three weeks time, so that students can dance through them and later talk about their experiences like badges or trophies (“I saw this; I went here; I’ve done that before”). Instead, the purpose of this trip—and I think travel more generally—is to form lasting bonds with your travel mates, to reflect together on what you are seeing and learning, to miss the people more than the place when you get home.

Like the authors that we read for this trip, who were all searching for connections with others in places far from their homes, that’s what we seek when we venture to new places out of our comfort zone. I’m glad to have found that with my 2014 New York family. We talk so much about the importance of family in the South, about how family sustains us and keeps us grounded in place. But after this trip, I know that the concept of family extends beyond the bounds of our blood relations and our region. I know that, despite all the depressing literature Southerners may write, those connections forged are very real, and that perhaps, in contradiction to some of my earlier posts, home is transportable if you are with your family.

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A Southern Girl Says Goodbye to New York

Alas, it is our last evening here before an early trip home to Georgia tomorrow. I didn’t blog as much as I wanted this trip–my students put me to shame (probably because they receive grades for their posts :)) There was so much more I wanted to reflect on: how the South might just reside up in Harlem; how Coney Island always restores my soul; how I seem to always reconnect with old friends in this city; how I think I may have learned how to interact with New Yorkers on my very last evening here; how this Southern girl (unlike hometown girl Carson McCullers) ain’t ever leaving her region, not even for the cultural capital of the world. I’m going to use this excuse for my lack of posts: we’ve just stayed so busy, which means more experiences and less time to write about them. Instead, I’ll offer you some photos and let you see through my eyes what this trip has meant to me…(after all, this isn’t only a literature trip but a photography and arts trip, too).

Carson McCullers' Home in Nyack, NY.

Carson McCullers’ Home in Nyack, NY.

Sometimes the worst aspects of the South show up everywhere.

Sometimes the worst aspects of the South show up everywhere.

And the best ones also show up (at Sylvia's in Harlem).

And the best ones also show up (at Sylvia’s in Harlem).

I've dreamed of seeing Minton's ever since I read Ralph Ellison's "The Golden Age Time Past," one of my favorite jazz essays of all time.

I’ve dreamed of seeing Minton’s ever since I read Ralph Ellison’s “The Golden Age Time Past,” one of my favorite jazz essays of all time.

These are the "stars" that matter to me.

These are the “stars” that matter to me.

Catch the group in the glass  as we step into the Apollo.

Catch the group in the glass as we step into the Apollo.

The South lives in Harlem.

The South lives in Harlem.

Coney Island get-away.

Coney Island get-away.

An accidental walk back across the Brooklyn Bridge let me catch a little AG reference.

An accidental walk back across the Brooklyn Bridge let me catch a little AG reference.

Minetta's,  a site in the Village where Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Dylan Thomas, and e.e. cummings frequented.

Minetta’s, a site in the Village where Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Dylan Thomas, and e.e. cummings frequented.

My job is so cool that I get to take students to a pub--the White Horse Tavern, Dylan Thomas's favorite watering hole.

My job is so cool that I get to take students to a pub–the White Horse Tavern, Dylan Thomas’s favorite watering hole.

The end of our literary tour...with the beginning of great American literature.

The end of our literary tour…with the beginning of great American literature.

The sweetest end to this trip: a gift from a student. This means the most of anything I've gained here.

The sweetest end to this trip: a gift from a student. This means the most of anything I’ve gained here.

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Conversion Narratives and Cultural Confluences, Part Two

"No Day Shall Erase You From the Memory of Time." -Virgil

“No Day Shall Erase You From the Memory of Time.” -Virgil

I’m a humanities scholar, which to me, means that I have to look at issues from all perspectives—that I can’t just accept one answer and that I’m consistently making connections between my experiences. This is the nature of critical thinking for me. So, when I visited the new 9/11 Museum and memorial, I couldn’t help but think again about religion—this time in a somewhat different context.

To be honest, I wasn’t sure I wanted to see the new museum because I wasn’t sure this was a tragedy I wanted to relive. So it wasn’t on my list of must-do while in New York, but my friend Casey wanted to visit, so I was ready to tag along with her and one of our students. First, we got a little lost trying to get there. It’s still confusing in that area because of construction, which makes it feel more chaotic than normal walks around the city and probably also lent to my feelings of being overwhelmed when we finally arrived. The memorial itself, free and open to the public, is beautiful and peaceful: two deep ever-flowing fountains, where the bottom isn’t visible, inscribed with the names of the dead, in the same spots of the Towers. To view this scene of loss and to know that the acts of 9/11 were sparked by the misinterpretation of religion already had me thinking about my church experience the previous day. When I stepped into the museum, my meditation on (I’m going to say this quite plainly) the evils of religion continued. I was thinking about religion in absolutely different terms than I had just the day before.

Once in the museum, I was—like my experience at Judson—blown away. I don’t know what I had expected, but it wasn’t this. The first space was a bit sparse, with large artifacts like the last column, the survivor stairs, bent pieces of steel, a fire truck, select screenings of the missing person posters that emerged after 9/11. It was somewhat quiet and immense, perhaps like the parking garage that had once stood there. As we entered the areas representative of each tower, the experience was different. I walked through images (moving and still), voices telling their stories, television screens full of reports, more large artifacts like those in the entryway and then much smaller artifacts in glass cases. The walk through the North Tower exhibit was sort of circular, allowing one to get lost in the overwhelming exhibits about many different aspects of the attacks: from pre-9/11 to post 9/11, from the perspectives of those who perished, those who survived, those who served and rescued, and even those who committed the attacks. Wandering (sort of aimlessly) in an exhibit like this brought manifest feelings of awe and disbelief, sadness and sympathy, frustration and anger.

Yes, of course, anger. Anger directed at the terrorists that committed these acts, that were the cause of this memorial in which I stood. Now I could go back to my earlier dismissal of organized religion, even religion generally, and say, “Look what happens when the wrong people appropriate, manipulate, misinterpret, and misuse religion.” I’m not singling out Islam or contemporary religion either—there is, of course, a long history of the Christian religion and violence going hand-in-hand. For instance, in the history of my own region, slave-owners beat their slaves during the week and worshipped God on Sundays, reframing biblical stories to justify their violent ownership of other people (see the narratives of Frederick Douglass and Harriet Jacobs). It would have been easy for me to quickly forget my Sunday experience at Judson and return to my pessimistic view of religion.

But the 9/11 Museum did more than just document the event and stir up my emotions; it also brought people together to think about this tragedy. While the museum was crowded, this crowd didn’t seem to be there for simple spectacle. They moved through the exhibits slowly, they lingered, and most importantly, they shared their stories with each other. As a practiced eavesdropper, I overheard many stories about where people were during 9/11 and what it meant for them to come to this site. Upon our entrance to the museum, a man was telling the security guard that he used to park in this garage everyday for work. My student and I shared our stories with each other, too. Afterwards, we all shared more, discussing what we had seen and what had been particularly moving to us. It occurred to me, as I sat outside listening the ever-flowing fountain and watching folks exit the museum with drawn hushed faces, that this memorial isn’t about the evils of religion—although I felt so angry, so sad about the intolerance that generally accompanies extremist religious perspectives and that led to the loss of so many people on 9/11. In the end, the nature of the museum and memorial (which encourages overwhelming immersion but also thoughtful emotion) brought me back to my conversion at Judson—to an affirmation that a faith in humanity–and humanity itself–will triumph over violent extremism in the end.

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Conversion Narratives and Cultural Confluences, Part One

I should start this post by saying I’m not a religious person and that even my spirituality is rooted very much in the human world. When people ask me about my religious or spiritual beliefs, I always answer that I put my faith in people—and in the artistic creations of people. Literature. Music. Visual Art. All arts, really. While I normally avoid organized religion, that faith in literature is what drew me in to a real church on Sunday. When I saw that a sermon about Eudora Welty was offered at Judson Memorial Church just around the corner from our lodgings at NYU, I was intrigued. My friend Casey, a graduate school colleague who also studies southern literature and culture, visited, and we decided to brave the sermon together—along with two of my literature students. It just seemed too good, too serendipitous: how could we pass up a church service about a Southern writer in New York?

When we arrived, we were, perhaps, unpleasantly surprised to learn that it was children’s day, which meant that the Sunday school class would be performing all of the music, much of the reading, and even some theatrical skits. We double-checked the program to make sure that the Eudora Welty sermon was still part of the service before climbing the stairs to the church space. Once inside, we were warmly greeted by a chaotic scene of diverse peoples roaming around, including the Sunday school teacher who would deliver the sermon. (Just so you get a good picture of this place and its people, our speaker was a long-haired bespectacled hippie-type, wearing a Yankees jersey with “Grand Poobah” printed on the back). After looking again at the program, I noticed that the songs sung were not traditional hymns but instead Wilco, Patty Griffin, and Nick Lowe songs. I was a little astounded that this could be categorized as “church.” It seemed more like “fun,” which has never been my church experience (at Episcopal or Methodist churches, anyway).

When the service started, the children—age ranges 5 to 16 or so—took over. All of their performances were moving, from the piano preludes to the songs to the theatrical deliveries of significant first lines of literature (like Harry Potter, which apparently is not devil-worship material in this church!) and brief important scenes from the Bible (my favorite was Samson and Delilah: ask me about it when you see me). By far, the most meaningful was when several children of different ages spoke about what God meant to them. For instance, a boy in his tweens or early teens said that he didn’t really know how God fit into his life or if he believed at all, that he was still figuring it out. Another, a girl probably 10 or so, said something like this: “There are lots of stories out there about God and the Bible. Some of them I don’t believe. I don’t believe that God is a great big man looking out over all of us from the sky. I believe that God is love.” I was still astounded that a “church” would allow young people to express their beliefs so openly—mostly, to question their beliefs so openly. By the time our guest preacher stepped in, I was pretty much converted—converted to the idea that religion can reflect the best parts of my faith in humanity and the arts. Certainly, this place was challenging all of my previous beliefs about the nature of God.

But, going forward, the sermon absolutely opened my heart in ways I had not expected. It was more than a nod to Eudora; it was the life story of a southern ex-pat from Alabama who lived his life in New York. It was the life story of our guest preacher, who told us about his love for the city, but also his love for his birth place—who spoke to the discomfort of being asked to explain (and perhaps apologize for) a southern region characterized by ignorance, violence, and prejudice. He talked about college football as a sort of religion. He talked about sweet tea. He led us into Eudora Welty with pride in his home region, suggesting that, although the South may be a region historically associated with tragedy and trauma, it is also home to the best American writers of the past 100 years. He must have listed at least 50 writers (including all of the writers on my syllabus—our own Carson, too). We Southerners in the audience pretty much clapped—we pretty much clapped out loud, happy to hear our region being discussed in positive terms in this Northern city. In a church. Surrounded by people of all walks of life. I now knew I had been converted to thinking about religion in a different way.

But let me get to Eudora Welty’s significance in the sermon. First, he acknowledged that Welty might roll over in her grave, that it might be a stretch to include her in a Sunday sermon, and then he read bits from The Optimist’s Daughter. He kept discussing Welty’s use of the word “confluence”—of her descriptions of confluence. Of course, he related it to his own experiences in New York and to the congregation itself. And then, as so rarely happens to me in church (but often happens in a good class with a good teacher), I understood. Sitting in this peaceful space with my friend and students, surrounded by a diverse group of open-hearted folks, listening to a man tell me that the meaning of Welty’s confluence brought us close to something spiritual (what he referred to as God), I believed it. I was converted by his discussions of confluence, what I viewed as the confluences between North and South, literature and religion, the cultural confluences of the people in this great city. But really, I was simply affirmed: he affirmed that my faith in humanity and the arts does not (perhaps should not?) have to conflict with Christianity. It’s about embracing our confluences—not dwelling on our differences in hateful ways—which, not surprisingly to me, is something that we Southerners work hard at, despite our history.

This is the cover of the Judson Memorial Kids' Day Program, where "God" can mean and be many, many things, including love.

This is the cover of the Judson Memorial Kids’ Day Program, where “God” can mean and be many, many things, including love.

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Cultural Exports (or: A Tale of Two Cities, Part Two)

In case you don't recognize them, those are collard greens--that were offered cold on a salad bar.

In case you don’t recognize them, those are collard greens to the right–they were cold, an addition to the salad bar.

Remember I said that thing about missing home and seeing it everywhere? Maybe it’s that I look for it everywhere. Even before I got here, I started looking for it. While I’m from South Carolina and I currently live in Georgia, I spent seven formative years in South Louisiana getting my Ph.D. at LSU. Sure, I left there, but somehow I didn’t really leave there—LA is in my heart, especially New Orleans. Part of the reason for that is because I love the music so much. So, when I saw that Kermit Ruffins was playing at the Brooklyn Bowl on the first Saturday after my arrival, it was a no-brainer—I bought my ticket straight away.

But, as should be expected, I didn’t just go dance the night away and lose myself in the music. I reflected (ah, the life of an academic—unable to NOT reflect). And what I reflected on this time was the exportation of southern culture, which seems to be in line with the trip theme of “Southern writers in New York.” Some might argue that Kermit Ruffins is the essence of popular New Orleans music these days, and some—like me—might argue that New Orleans music is the essence of southern music. So, when I got to the Brooklyn Bowl and saw lines outside the door, I was heartened. When I talked to some folks outside who were jazzed (excuse the punny phrasing) to see Kermit play, I was moved that so many others appreciated the music from my “heart” city of New Orleans.

And then someone asked me if I’d tried the fried chicken at Brooklyn Bowl because they are known for their fried chicken.

I don’t know why that simple question set me off thinking, but it did. I wanted to answer that just about everybody I know fries up his/her own chicken with a special recipe and that there are probably 20 or more restaurants that serve the “best” fried chicken in the town where I live. I started to feel like I was in a place where fried chicken and traditional jazz were exotic. I started to think that maybe these folks were fetishizing the South, coming to Brooklyn to eat fried chicken and dance and sing along to “Marie” as if they were in New Orleans or some other Southern locale. Somehow, it also felt a little unfair that they only experienced the best aspects of the culture without understanding how the centuries of violence and oppression came to inform these aspects. When you live in the South, it is much harder to ignore that history and its reverberations. In some ways, I could connect this experience to the Kara Walker installation—there was a strangely discomforting distance between art and audience.

But maybe that’s just the way—art cannot create authenticity for us; it is, after all, artifice. Maybe I should be happy that people are just searching for a hip Southern experience, that they want to eat southern food and see Kermit Ruffins (because there are plenty of Southerners who don’t want to celebrate our rich culture). Still, I left a little disappointed because seeing Kermit in Brooklyn is not anything like seeing New Orleans music in New Orleans. The place is intrinsic to the culture—the music and everything else—and there’s a spirit that is not transportable. As Tom Piazza (a native New Yorker) writes in his memoir, Why New Orleans Matters, “New Orleanians are attached to tradition, which is fused to a sense of place, to the ground itself…” (104). Much of this “tradition” is also born from the horrifying and complicated history of the region. So, if you’re seeking New Orleans culture or Southern culture of any kind, it’s best to just go there and dance in place, listen for the reverb, and maybe even fry your own chicken.

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Sweet Musings on Art, History, and Consumption

Interacting with art and history at the Kara E. Walker installation, A Subtlety.

Interacting with art and history at the Kara E. Walker installation, A Subtlety.

My professor partner-in-crime, Rylan Steele, makes sure we all see great art while we’re here, and man, am I glad. I had seen articles about the Kara E. Walker installation pop up on Facebook, but I hadn’t thought much about whether I’d go while visiting NYC. After a semi-grueling (but marvelous!) day spent touring Brooklyn Heights with Sherill Tippins and a trip to the Brooklyn Museum, Rylan and I hopped in a cab, made it to the Domino Sugar Factory, and waited in line with hundreds of others to see the Walker installation titled A Subtlety.

In short, it was amazing and not at all subtle. While the sugar mammy sphinx and her sugar baby helpers were a sight, the place itself was something to behold. The smell of sugar hits you instantly when you walk in—both sweet and sour. The walls of the space are muddied with molasses stains, and piles of dark brown sugar rest in every crevice. Beautiful but dirty. (Perhaps that sums up the exhibit itself—beautiful and dirty, sweet and sour?). But these descriptions have been given again and again, and Evette Dionne’s and Kirsten West Savali’s articles speak particularly well to some of the emotions that Walker’s installation brings to the surface. There are scores of well-written reviews out there, and I’m not sure that I can add more in terms of interpretation, but I do want to talk about Walker’s work in a southern context.

 Walker has southern roots, having lived in Atlanta during her adolescent years and then remaining there for college, and her work often showcases the iconic image of the mammy figure that she incorporated into her installation at the sugar factory. Now, while I know that this piece is specific to the history of Brooklyn and the destruction of the factory, I also read that part of Walker’s inspiration in continually re-creating these stereotypical black icons came after seeing a giant mammy-shaped restaurant outside of Natchez, MS. And this is what I want to think about: why that restaurant remains—not in any ironic form—and then why an installation like Walker’s would probably not see a 45 minute line out the door in the Southeast. Certainly, across the mill towns of the South, there are historical spaces doomed to demolition and gentrification where Walker (or other artists) might create a similar installation. But I’m not sure that Southerners are ready to see this image outside of an offensively kitschy roadside attraction— this time so gigantic, so horrifically iconic (that the mammy stands in as our American “sphinx”). And I’m not sure we’re ready to deal with the emotions we confront when we see it. Because those are emotions about slavery, labor, oppression, and exploitation of people’s bodies and minds—specifically of African Americans and specifically of African American women.

But maybe I’m wrong: maybe lines would form, maybe the wait would be hours, just to be a part of something controversial. When I saw people snapping selfies with Walker’s sphinx looming in the background, it made me feel uncomfortable—as if I was part of a trend, some art installation fad—not a part of an intellectual artistic endeavor. This is not in any way a critique of Walker’s installation, but more a critique of the audience–of thinking about what it means to stand beneath an artistic rendering of American history with an audience that may not be fully aware of its meaning. For instance, many of my college students in Georgia get the Civil War and Civil Rights movement confused, and so many of us (Southerners or not) still consider Gone With the Wind to be an iconic American film, maybe even a substitution for actual history, when we need to be thinking about those iconic characters and settings in a critical way.

This is what I think Walker’s installation does…but I also wondered if her statement wasn’t lost a little. Like the rest of the spectators, I stood there gawking, almost as if the sugar mammy sphinx was a consumable roadside attraction in the middle of nowhere Mississippi.

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Great Architecture or Illuminated Tombstones? (or: Thinking about Home)

“Great architecture in a great city” or “Illuminated tombstones in a necropolis”? (phrasing borrowed from Tennessee Williams’ “Happy August the 10th.”)

While the classes that I taught in New York in 2012 revolved around Sherill Tippins’ February House, this year I decided to take a different approach with classes: to investigate Southern writers who lived and wrote in New York at some point in their lives. Since this program was founded because of Carson McCullers’ journey to New York City at age 17, I felt that a class that explored McCullers alongside other writers who undertook similar journeys might be, simply put, fun. Because the trip participants are all “Southerners” (if not by birth, then by current residency), I figured we’d all be able to tell about our own journeys as well. We’re reading Capote, Williams, McCullers, Walker—more canonical authors—alongside contemporary authors Karen Russell, Donna Tartt, and Allan Gurganus. Thus far, we’ve discussed the ways that the traditional southern gothic writers described New York and the South in their work, comparing and contrasting the ways these two places intersect and divide.

So, that’s my lens—that’s what I’m thinking about, as a Southerner visiting New York City. And thus far, I’m puzzled. So puzzled that I’m experiencing a little writer’s block. I’ve been thinking that, perhaps, to understand one’s own culture, one has to leave it. And then miss it. And then see it everywhere, even when one is estranged from it. And then understand that leaving it doesn’t necessarily make anything any better. It’s not that there’s no place like home–it might be that there is just no place to call home. Ever.

For instance, in Truman Capote’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Holly Golightly is actually Lulamae Golightly from Tulip, Texas—the wild thing that stole turkey eggs and ran through brier patches. Even in New York, she cannot escape that identity. In Carson McCullers “Who Has Seen the Wind?,” Ken is also an ex-pat Texan, working on a novel about his gritty hometown. The New York literary life eventually drives him mad. In Williams’ “Happy August the 10th,” Elphinstone has filled the bookshelves with such titles as Notable Southern Bullshit, as described by her roommate Horne, a woman whom Elphinstone both loves and despises. In the end, both characters view the city’s buildings as tombstones: “…she watched the city’s profile, creep with understandable reluctance into morning, because, my God, yes, Horne’s comment did fit those monolithic structures downtown, they truly were like a lot of illuminated tombstones in a necropolis” (472). All of these characters are at home in New York, and yet, out of place. They are successes but failures; they are with companions but alone; they are caught between past and present, also between places. New York City cannot save them.

I don’t want to make this the bluest—or the mean reddest—post ever written, but I can’t help but reflect on what feelings of homelessness can do to folks: put them continually on the run and in search of home in people and places (like Capote’s Holly) or make them crazy and violent (like McCullers’ Ken), or if they are perceptive, make them begin to change and to seek different meanings of home (like Williams’ Elphinstone who we think might make amends with Horne despite her now bleak view of the city itself). One thing is certain: this feeling of searching for a home (of a certain sort of homesickness, which McCullers wrote about so often) is not unique to out-of-place Southerners who must flee their region. While some suggest it’s made worse because of the slow—snail’s pace—progress in the South, finding your “place” (considering all the metaphorical meanings of that word) is exhausting, even in one of the most progressive and culturally diverse cities in the world.

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