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.

The Other Side of the Tracks

How railroads, highways and other man-made lines racially divide America’s cities.

Shreveport, La.

“Look at racial maps of many American cities, and stark boundaries between neighboring black and white communities frequently denote an impassable railroad or highway, or a historically uncrossable avenue. Infrastructure has long played this role: reinforcing unspoken divides, walling off communities, containing their expansion, physically isolating them from schools or parks or neighbors nearby.”

Wishing for a Benign Vision

At one level, my interest in the historical experiences of queers in the South reflects a desire to create a narrative that would allow me to bring the seemingly disparate parts of my identity together, if only for a textual moment. Yet I am leery of this desire for synthesis, for given the normative definitions that coalesce around “the South” and “southern,” (i.e., the South as more racist, sexist, heterosexist, etc. than the rest of the country), this desire seems suspect. I have had to ask myself what this “togetherness” would symbolize. Is reconciliation necessary, desirable, or even possible? The impulse to distance myself from dominant definitions of southern seems as suspect as the desire to create a definition of southern  that could include me, however. Is this impulse a wish for a benign vision of my regional identity–one that would place me outside the oppressive structures of power that shape normative definitions of southern? Is it a search for a place of innocence? Whom would a potential reconciliation serve, and whom would it serve best? And perhaps most important (to return to the issue of my own assumptions about what constitutes “southern”) who is this “we” I wish to make visible?

– Donna Jo Smith

Queering the South

Movement and love making, heat and heritage, pursed lips and tongues wagging, culture’s enabling constraint—all implicated in this fanning of queer desire, and well suited to (dis)orient our mapping en route, but without ever reaching a specified destination, to southern queer world making. Or, as Dolly Parton sang in Transamerica (2005), we’re just ‘‘travelin’ thru. As of this writing it has been a dozen years since the publication of John Howard’s Carryin’ On in the Lesbian and Gay South, James T. Sears’ Lonely Hunters, and the ‘‘Queering the South’’ conference at Emory University. Though important scholarship on sexuality and the South preceded these works, it would be fitting in this context to call such a confluence, in the words of one of this field’s conspicuously gay Southerners, ‘‘catalytic events.’’ That is, with these works one witnessed accelerated queer movement in both Southern Studies and Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer (LGBTQ) Studies. Region and desire constituted pathbreaking perspectives by incongruity regarding and intersection between two academic regimes of the normal.

Since 1997 a diverse group of academics and activists have been traversing those varied experiential, cultural, and political southern terrains, disrupting predominant myths and imaginaries about southern queerness that had historically rendered it indigenous and invisible. 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. Along the way, que(e)rying regionalism and sexuality in Dixie has helped us to rethink what we thought we knew about the South and same-sex desire, practice, identity, location, and community; not only same-sex desire, practice, identity, location, and community in the South, but how such a regional focus can provide fresh vantages on the sexual landscape of the United States writ large and beyond.

Explorations both pre-and post-Stonewall, within and among ‘‘southern queer ecologies,’’ have revealed many identifications and disidentifications, antagonisms and solidarities, continuities and ruptures, across gender, race, and class. Southern engagements of home and migration, homecoming and diaspora, church and state, congregation and legislation, nation and transnationality, space and place, time and memory, and violence, among others, have sounded new queer cadences even as we recognize the familiar drawl. From queering the southern literary canon to studies of queer rurality, James T. Sears’ observation has not only been substantiated but richly enacted: ‘‘Southern history is never simple and seldom straight.”

Morris, Charles E. “Introduction: ‘Travelin’ Thru’ the Queer South.” Southern Communication Journal 74, no. 3 (2009): 233–42. doi:10.1080/10417940903060963.

Prison-Industrial Complex Unravels in Mississippi

“On Thursday, Chris Epps, who abruptly resigned as the $132,000-a-year Corrections Commissioner a day before, pleaded not guilty to an indictment that he received more than $700,000 in bribes that helped him pay off his $360,000 home and beach condo.

[…]

Corruption has included gangs extorting the families of inmates. Gang members have also paid correctional officers to not only smuggle in drugs and other contraband, but also to do favors for gangs, including allegedly “popping” locks to enable assaults and killings.”

NYT: Chief Quits as Mississippi Prisons Face Inquiry

A federal lawsuit filed in 2013 by the Southern Poverty Law Center and the American Civil Liberties Union charged that at one state prison, the East Mississippi Correctional Facility, mentally ill prisoners were “locked down in filthy cells for days, weeks or even years.”

“Setting fires is often the only way to get medical attention in emergencies,” said the lawsuit, which is pending in the United States District Court for the Southern District of Mississippi.

The prison, which houses about 1,400 inmates, is managed through a contract with the state by the Utah-based Management Training Corporation.

In 2012, a federal judge approved an agreement between the Justice Department and the state to implement an overhaul at another state jail, the Walnut Grove Youth Correctional Facility, where it was discovered that staff members had coerced inmates to have sex in exchange for food.