Southern Strategies: An Architectural Rapprochement of Queer Ethics and Rural Space in Alabama’s Black Belt

The Rural Studio is a design and build architectural program at Auburn University in Alabama. The studio was co-founded by Samuel Mockbee and D.K. Ruth in 1992 with the mission of building an “architecture of decency” for families in Alabama’s Black Belt region that lacked access to stable and permanent housing. The studio utilizes found, discarded, and donated materials to craft innovative housing solutions and public spaces in and around Hale County—a region that has played a historic role in the state as the seat of King Cotton in the antebellum south; it has since seen economic disinvestment leave it ruined, and has notoriously claimed the tittle of one the country’s poorest counties. The Rural Studio aspires to confronting this historical legacy head-on by building private and public structures throughout the county at little to no cost to its citizens. This thesis brings the work of the studio into conversation with queer theories of metronormativity and anti-urbanism as developed by theorists including Judith Halberstam and Scott Herring. I develop the architectural practices of the studio and its relationship with its clients as a queer structure of feeling that challenges contemporary architectural values with its insistence on rural, vernacular building solutions—this, I claim, is parallel to self-identified rural queers who live in the country and defy metronormative and urbane conceptions of LGBT identity. By deconstructing modern, metropolitan definitions of queerness, I seek to expand the mantle of queerness to include the clients of the Rural Studio, as well as rural-identified queers who consider the country as an inherent aspect of their queer identity. By dissecting the geographic and temporal characteristics of the urban/rural dialectic, I attempt a rapprochement of rural space and queerness as such, disabusing the notion that to be queer is to be urban. Tracing the intersectional political alliances at the heart of the Rural Studio’s design-build process, I hope to view the studio’s work as a queer organizational model for marginal subjects— one that confronts the twin legacies of Queer and Southern history—through the production of strange and intersectional political and social alliances in rural spaces.

Queer Ecologies

Our argument is thus that we should reorient our politics and take on something like a queer ecological perspective, a transgressive and historically relevant critique of dominant pairings of nature and environment with heteronormativity and homophobia, in order to outline possibilities responsive to these relations and, equally, explicitly critical of the continued organization of dominant metrosexualities through an environmentally disastrous (and often ethically void) lifestyle consumerism. Here, we are advocating a position not only of queering ecology, but of greening queer politics. The extension of queer into ecology is not, then, simply a question of making nature more welcome to gay inhabitation; it is also an invitation to open queer theory to ecological possibilities, and to thus produce a queering of ecocultural relations along the lines of Halberstam’s queering of space: “in opposition to the institutions of family, heterosexuality, and reproduction . . . according to other logics of location, movement and identification” (2005, 1). Queer ecology suggests, then, a new practice of ecological knowledges, spaces, and politics that places central attention on challenging hetero-ecologies from the perspective of non-normative sexual and gender positions.

Catriona Mortimer-Sandilands and Bruce Erickson, Queer Ecologies: Sex, Nature, Politics, Desire (Bloomington, Ind.: Indiana University Press, 2010), 22.

The Tide that Rolls

“When Hernando de Soto embarked on his civilizing mission through what would later become the American South, he left behind a trail of misery that extended from Florida to the eastern edge of the Rocky Mountains. Accompanied by priests, de Soto and his men burned their way through native villages, enslaving local citizens in iron neck collars and chains to work as beasts of burdens. The expedition was hungry for wealth, and when one slave fell from exhaustion, de Soto would behead him so as not to impede the progress of the journey. However, de Soto’s expedition was slowed down in 1540 by Tuscaloosa, the Black Warrior, king of the Mobiles. Historical accounts describe the Black Warrior as a man of gigantic stature, a commanding eminence who died, along with 11,000 of his subjects, in an intense battle with de Soto’s forces.

The Black Warrior River that winds along the western edge of Hale County, Alabama, takes its name from this decimate king. It flows from Bankhead Lake as a thin line and then opens into a thick-waisted body of water. Rivers like the Black Warrior are always somehow larger than life. They move like time, carrying along everything in their drift; they dry up and overflow and, like the history whose relentless current they suggest, constantly change shape. The land through which the Black Warrior curls is rich with defeat. One has only to kick at its red surface to detect the layers of hurt beneath it. Yet, there is a loveliness to the place that may come in part from the conflicting myths of freedom that shadow its soil. In the paintings, collages, drawings, and architecture of Samuel Mockbee, these shadows complicate everything living under them.

In these shadows, Mockbee has created a rural mythology. A place akin to William Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County, it is a living fiction in which Mockbee’s architecture, his wealthy clients, the projects of the Rural Studio, and its poor clients are interwoven with one another. This mythology is a work in progress. It is a process that continues to unfold as personal memories intersect with public histories and the poor and the black become Black Warriors, mother goddess, master of knots of fate, ciphers endowed with an agency that allows them to throw their sex hundreds of yards across a lake.”

-Samuel Mockbee and An Architecture of Decency

Welcome to the Country

From back porches to back woods, we navigate these spaces as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer people. We are pregnant high school drop outs, sex workers, closeted and not closeted preachers, first-generation immigrants, DREAMERS, sons and daughters of slaves and sharecroppers and migrant farm workers, unemployed and underemployed college graduates living with our parents and not living with our parents, trans people hitching rides and carpooling two to four hours to the closest clinics, country dyke mamas wearing flannel and wearing heels, and high femme gay boys working at gas stations and in hospitals. We sow seeds, we work in factories, we teach young people, we volunteer at the county Fire and EMT stations, and we serve coffee at the local dinner or dive. We came up in trailer homes on cinder blocks, in old falling down farm houses sitting in fields miles away from anything, or in towns with one grocery store and what seems like half a doctor’s office.

This is life in the country, on the back roads, in rural counties and small towns in the American South. There is no one rural queer experience. We come from every walk of life across this great land that is filled with both a haunting and resilient legacy.”

-Southerners on New Ground, Small Town Crossroads Report 2014

Remapping Same-Sex Desire

In contemporary American queer studies, not only is there a metropolitan bias in thinking about queer location but a coastal one as well, and we have yet to address the limitations of narrowly ascribing queer culture(s) to concentrated geographic areas and political spheres. Specifically, in the US, we have not yet begun to challenge popular assumptions that the seaboard cities are the only centres of queer culture and the primary locations from which queers can speak, when, in fact, many lesbians and gay men in the American Midwest, and in other non-urban parts of the country, often express dissatisfaction with queer communities in large urban areas on the coasts because queers in coastal cities often have a rather narrow image of what constitutes a queer identity and simultaneously exclude or marginalize those who do not fit their image of ‘queer’.

William J. Spurlin, “Remapping Same-Sex Desire: Queer writing and culture in the American heartland” in De-Centering Sexualities Politics and Representations beyond the Metropolis. London; New York: Garland Pub., 2000, 192.

Rachel Garringer Speaks

“I think it’s really important for young queer folks who come from rural areas to know that staying is an option. Sometimes I think leaving is really important if you can, but some young people don’t have the choice to leave. What are they supposed to do if they live in a place that is incredibly isolating as a queer person, where they never see representations of people in media who are queer like them and super proud to be West Virginian like them? Where are they supposed to find examples of themselves?”

Another Peculiar Institution

“Peculiar indeed it is that the South somehow could be both the citadel of perversity and too backwater for the gay social register, for gay history.”

Charles E. Morris, “Introduction: ‘Travelin’ Thru’ the Queer South,” Southern Communication Journal 74, no. 3 (2009): 233–42.