Q&A With Chuck Reece: A Bitter Southerner Reimagines the Region : Code Switch A conversation with the editor-in-chief of The Bitter Southerner, a new-ish publication about Southern identity that couldn't have come about at a better time.
NPR logo Q&A With Chuck Reece: A Bitter Southerner Reimagines the Region

Q&A With Chuck Reece: A Bitter Southerner Reimagines the Region

Chuck Reece, founder and editor-in-chief of The Bitter Southerner, is leading the discussion on what it means to be Southern in a time when the country is fixed on events in the South. Courtesy of Chuck Reece hide caption

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Courtesy of Chuck Reece

Chuck Reece, founder and editor-in-chief of The Bitter Southerner, is leading the discussion on what it means to be Southern in a time when the country is fixed on events in the South.

Courtesy of Chuck Reece

Two years ago, self-described "hillbilly sophisticate" and former magazine writer Chuck Reece, who was born and raised in the Appalachian foothills in Georgia, decided to start a different kind of conversation about what it means to be Southern. Like many great American stories, The Bitter Southerner was conceived at a bar. The digital magazine launched in August 2013, promising one great story from the South every Tuesday.

In some ways, the timing couldn't have been better. The Bitter Southerner is tasked with parsing the Southern identity at a moment when the country is fixed on Southern happenings — the controversy over the Confederate flag, incidents of police brutality, the shooting of a black church in Charleston, S.C., — and what they might mean for all of us.

Reece and I share Southern roots. I'm a native Atlantan, now living in Washington, D.C., and I also write frequently about the region (including, last month, a Bitter Southerner essay on the rebel flag). I recently called Reece up to talk about our accents, the Confederate flag and gumbo as metaphor.

What makes you bitter about how people view the South — and why do we Southerners still care so much?

I think everybody wants to be proud of where they're from. I remember having to deal with this when I moved up North. When you move to New York City with an accent like mine, people think you're kinda dumb. (Laughs.) After they figured out I could put a complex sentence together, then I was fine and they were curious about me. My accent became a little more charming, I suppose.

Is that where the idea for The Bitter Southerner came from — the need to dispel those kinds of things?

Really, what drove it more than anything else is seeing the media stereotypes. With most media, you get one of two versions of the South: You sort of get the polite tea party — and I don't mean that in the political sense — genteel, hospitable South, or you get the "redneck" stereotypes. You never get anything in between. That's what bothered us.

We've got all the great stories in the middle. It feels like we tapped into something that was latent out there, which was that people in the South were hoping to find some kind of medium that would portray the good stuff in a smart way. The easiest way to explain it to you is to talk about okra.

How's that?

Okra is something we would not have if it hadn't been brought here from Africa, as seeds in the pockets of slaves. That vegetable is such an important symbolic vegetable for the South. It's what brings gumbo together. Gumbo is a metaphor for the melting pot. You're never going to see us writing about okra without acknowledging why it happened. You can't just write anything about Southern history that glosses over the bad parts. That's the thinking that's driven us so far.

When you launched the site, you couldn't have predicted how prominently the South was going to factor into national news at this point, two years later. Do you think the region is once again finding itself in a position to transform the country?

I never thought I would see that flag come down from the Alabama statehouse grounds in my lifetime. It would be a mistake to think, "Okay, now it's all fixed," because it's not, of course, but it's a sign that a lot of people in the region want to move in the right direction.

When I was a kid and didn't know any better, I looked at that flag and all I saw was rebellion, which is something a teenager likes. The reason we didn't know any better is because we weren't taught any better. We were taught wrong. We were taught a myth.

Once you realize that, you could argue that it becomes incumbent on you to learn the truth. It's not that we can teach the truth to everybody, but I think we can acknowledge the truths in the stories we tell. Maybe that moves us a little farther down the road, getting people to think a new way about certain things, while celebrating the parts of our collective heritage that are worthy of celebration.

We should be proud of our hospitality. We should be proud of our conviviality. What we should be looking at is how we share them. The Bitter Southerner can't change the region, but it can document a changing region.

What publications inspired you early on?

One thing I always point to is Tracy Thompson's book, The New Mind of the South. It got into the demographic data about how diverse the South actually is today. Tracy went and visited people and communities with different ethnic backgrounds and explored the topic of what Southern identity means now as the region diversifies.

There were also pieces of music and bands that were inspirational to us. We wound up writing a story about Killer Mike. In his album, he very proudly proclaims Southern identity, and the fact that he would do that was very striking to me at the time. Or you can go back to when Outkast first won at the Source Awards [in 1995]. In Andre 3000's acceptance speech, he said, "The South's got something to say."

When you look at Southern culture, there are so many voices in it. Charles McNair [an Alabama novelist] has written for us. He says, "There's not one South anymore; there's 10,000." It might be a little bit hyperbolic, but the idea is right.

Who isn't The Bitter Southerner for?

The two things that we're just gonna say to people is if you still buy any version of the "states' rights" argument, you're never gonna like what we do. If you don't believe that we all get made equal in God's eyes, you're not gonna like what we do.

One of my criticisms of Southern publications is that they seem to whitewash Southern history. If someone with no knowledge of the South were to read certain folks, they'd think black people didn't exist. How would you say The Bitter Southerner is doing on representing the South, both in terms of storytelling and the storytellers — especially as a place where most of the black people in this country live?

On storytelling, pretty well; on the storytellers, not as well as we should. I think historically, what we've had in the South is white folks making publications for white folks and black folks making publications for black folks.

What we've wanted from the beginning is a publication that would bring voices from all cultures of the South. Is our list of contributors as diverse as I would like for it to be? Hell, no. What I'm doing to counteract that is one at a time, finding people like you who see the value and want to contribute. We're still trying to figure out how to do that. It's important to use because we believe there's no monolithic South. I want people to get as rich a picture of the South as they can by reading us over time.

Are there stories about the South that The Bitter Southerner isn't covering that you wish you were?

One of the things I'm even more excited than I was when we started is this new section called the Folklore Project. That section gives us the opportunity to respond to events in real time. I didn't know it was going to be that important to me when we started the section, but here's the thing: We can't kid ourselves and think that we have the resources to cover an event like what happened in Charleston the way other media organizations can.

So what's our strength? It's the fact that we've assembled a community of people who see us not just as a place to find stories but a place through which they can share their own stories. It allows us to have a variety of voices speak about issues that are important to the South.

I don't want to be presumptuous and say people can pick one of our stories and get an accurate picture of what the South is about, but I hope that as the stories pile up over the years, you could take a selection of them and get a pretty good picture of what the South is like in the early part of the 21st century.