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Stories

Black Remigration in the South

Lots of Black folks have been heading South, enough to call it the Great Remigration.

In 2008, I moved to Southern California. That November, I waited in temperate weather at my designated polling place, a light-brown grade school, to vote for Barack Obama. I was as hype as a little kid standing in line for the ice cream truck, holding my vote in my hands like a crisp dollar bill. “I’ll take a double scoop of hope, America!”

I spent Obama’s presidency moving from Orange County to Los Angeles and then to Denver for a couple years before moving back to Southern California to study creative writing at the University of California, Riverside. By the time graduation rolled around, I’d decided it was time to move back to my Old Kentucky Home. Staying in the death heat of Riverside indefinitely was not an option. Following my classmates to mild-weather L.A. didn’t make sense for me. I had lived in that city with a healthy salary and a company car, and I still needed a roommate. I wasn’t trying to live that starving-artist life in my 30s.

I wouldn’t be alone in my move. Lots of Black folks were headed South.

In Louisville, the trees changed with the seasons and I could survive as a professional writer without the prospect of poverty. The endless summers of Los Angeles had a way of disorienting me—Was my life progressing? Did it matter? Did I matter? Every morning, I’d wake to a dewy breeze that smelled like vacation, and every night I’d fall asleep under the brown-dark purgatory of a city that never fully dimmed its lights. Trips home surrounded by friends and family who’d known me for decades reoriented me in space and time. When I was with them, I didn’t have to try so hard to belong.

I wouldn’t be alone in my move. Lots of Black folks were headed South. Enough folks were moving every year to call it the Great Remigration—the reversal of the 55-year period known as the Great Migration that started in 1916 when millions of African Americans fled the Jim Crow South. We’re making the move back for economic reasons but also because news stories of Black lives lost to racism have been just as likely to come out of big cities on the coast as they have been to come out of the South.

But still I was hesitant. Kentucky is a red state, a deeply conservative place—a notch on the Bible Belt. Governor Matt Bevin killed the health-care exchange that was built to provide access to insurance in the wake of the Affordable Care Act. Kim Davis is the county clerk who brought national attention to Kentucky when she refused to sign marriage licenses for gay couples. And in a state where more than one in five children go hungry, an $18 million tax break was given to a Noah’s Ark amusement park. But my high-school best friend assured me, “It looks crazier from the outside than it feels.”

photo by Minda Honey

Eight years after leaving for California, I was back home in Kentucky—specifically back home with my mother. I was sure that Hillary Clinton would be our next president, and I was confident she would continue the progress the Obama administration had pushed forward on regarding civil rights and health care. In November, my new polling place was filled with white people and Black people and Hispanic people, old and young. Neighbors greeted each other warmly, volunteers guided voters with a hand on their arm and a smile. Of all the things the South is—the bigotry, the poverty, the stifling Christianity—it is also warm and welcoming, a truth I struggled to remember after Donald J. Trump was announced the next president of the United States. I wondered if maybe leaving the liberal sanctuary of Southern California had been a mistake.

Post-election, my life as a Black woman in Kentucky felt bittersweet. There was the joy of being with my friends, my family, and my work as a writer. But unease at the signs of racism around me—the confederate flags waving from the tailgates of pickup trucks and the red “Make America Great Again” hats and bumper stickers that always caught my eye—were constant reminders of the ugliness in my community. The pride I had in publishing a new piece could quickly be swept away by news that the state was now attacking the city’s university or the state’s last abortion clinic or that the police had shot yet another unarmed citizen. Personal accomplishments felt trivial; political challenges felt insurmountable.

photo by Minda Honey

But I kept writing. I began to meet other people who felt like me, who were also pushing back against injustice. I became friends with women who were heavily involved with defending Planned Parenthood, and I interviewed people, like a curator at the local art museum who proudly proclaimed to be the daughter of immigrants, and another curator who brought Black films to the museum’s cinema and gave tickets to the Black student unions at the area high schools. These were all folks who had voluntarily moved to Louisville. What Louisville—and the South—needs are more people like us who are willing to relocate and add our voice to the voices of those already here demanding change.

The nation acts like the South is an out-of-the-way place where it can hide all its ugliness. Racism isn’t here; it’s there. Homophobia isn’t here; it’s there. Anti-Semite, anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant, that’s their problem not ours. But Black bodies have been found hanging from trees in the Pacific Northwest, violent attacks against immigrants have happened in the heartland, and Californian voters passed an anti-same-sex-marriage measure in 2013. The South is in all of us. To change the South is to change this nation. To ignore it is to rush to the raised end of a sinking ship like the water won’t rise.

The nation acts like the South is an out-of-the-way place where it can hide all its ugliness. Racism isn’t here; it’s there.

As a writer, I feel like I have both the responsibility and the right to help reroute the narrative of the South. To become a new voice of the South alongside writers like Jesmyn Ward, Kiese Laymon, and Brittney Cooper. To use our words to reshape the landscape. I claim the South. I claim Kentucky. I call Louisville my own from the wide, flowing Ohio River to the top of the magnolia trees and deep down to the stalagmites in Mammoth Cave. This is my home.

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