‘Angels’, and the myth of the ‘New South’

Jason Luger

ANGELS-jumbo

 

Figure 1: Still from Broadway revival of ‘Angels in America’, 2017.

Fallen Angels in the Queen City 

Twenty – one years ago, the Charlotte Repertory Theater staged Tony Kushner’s award-winning play, ‘Angels in America: a Gay Fantasia on National Themes’. Known as the ‘Queen City’, Charlotte was named for King George III’s German wife, Charlotte Sophia of Mecklenburg -Strelitz: her buxom statue greets travelers as they arrive at Douglas International Airport. This fact is not lost on area drag queens.

Charlotte, then just emerging as a major national banking and transportation center, gained international headlines when ‘Angels’ – which is about AIDS, politics and gay life in 1980s New York – was forcibly closed after the city cut funding to the Repertory Theater. There had been an angry backlash from the city’s influential evangelical community (including local celebrity the Reverend Billy Graham) about the show’s themes – in particular, the fact that city funding was supporting a play focusing on the homosexual experience. Charlotte, ever conscious of its reputation vis ‘the New South’ and imbued with the civic boosterism so common in Southeast boomtowns, found itself engulfed in a cultural war which pitted cosmopolitans against hometown Bible Belt values. As seen in the Economist (below), and the New York Times (‘Play Displays a Growing City’s Cultural Tensions’, 22 March 1996), Charlotte’s episode became a national conversation about the arts, the public, and the city. The play had, by this time, opened and toured in a number of cities across the country, but few had seen the type of controversy and feverish public discourse that Charlotte witnessed (Nielsen, 2008; Tepper, 2011).

economist

No gays, please, we’re Carolinian

 Apr 24th 1997 | CHARLOTTE

Home to Fortune-500 companies like NationsBank (now Bank of America) and Wachovia (now Wells Fargo), with a new NFL team (Panthers) and major hub airport (US Airways, now American Airlines), Charlotte’s ‘New South’ identity was suddenly paralyzed.

This would not be the city’s last cultural war, and it certainly wasn’t the first.

The ‘New South’ Myth 

Jim Crow

Figure 2: Life under Jim Crow in North Carolina (1940s).

If Atlanta was ‘the city too busy to hate’, as civic boosters claimed during the precarious years of desegregation, Charlotte (in some ways, Atlanta’s little sister), was the city where making deals trumped everything. Born out of textile looms and convenient road and rail intersections, Charlotte had established itself by the mid – 20th century as the Carolina’s largest metropolitan area and a growing financial center. Race relations, Charlotte leaders claimed, took a back seat to the city’s overall progress. In 1971, Charlotte became a national test-case for mandatory busing to desegregate public schools as a result of the landmark case ‘Swann vs the Mecklenburg Board of Education’, which upheld busing as a Constitutional, and indeed necessary, antidote to the legacy of Jim Crow.

In the 1980s, Harvey Gantt, an African-American businessman, became mayor, and Charlotte was seen as a model of desegregation compared to other Southern peers, with a meritocratic leadership structure and democratic civil society. By the 1990s, Charlotte was shaking off the dust of its humble, pious, yeoman Scotch-Irish origins. A flood of newcomers to the region – many from the Midwest and Northeast – had changed the demographics considerably: Charlotteans were just as likely to be from Pittsburgh or Cleveland as they were from the rural South. Embarrassing scandals had seen the downfall of televangelist celebrities like Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker, and local business leaders like Hugh McColl – the CEO of NationsBank, and later Bank of America – had aspirations that went not heavenward, but with an eye to competing with major financial centers for talent and commercial prestige.

The arts, leaders like McColl believed, were crucial to this effort to attract talent and cement Charlotte’s reputation as a worthy home of some of the nation’s largest banks. NationsBank built a monumental new headquarters in 1992, at the time one of the tallest buildings in the country, and attached to the lobby was a new performing arts center.

charlotte

Figure 3: Charlotte city skyline, 2016.

But like the mythological financial instruments traded in these glassy, neo-gothic towers (such as the ‘Collateralized Debt Obligations’ that went ‘poof!’ in 2008-2009), the ‘New South’ shimmered / shimmers like a desert mirage, a Potemkin village, a fable. Just as ‘the South’ was a construction based on the necessity of racial and class subjugation, the ‘New South’ emerged as a necessary snake oil, a smoke and mirror act, to hasten the neoliberal remaking of the southern textile town and quickly sweep racial scars and ‘fire and brimstone’ tent revivals under the proverbial rug.

In 1996, the ‘Angels’ controversy erupted. By this time, scholars such as Kuklinski et al., (1997) had already begun to debunk the ‘New South’ myth and the fallacy of a post-racial Sunbelt. Indeed, it just so happened that many of the newcomers from other places reinforced, rather than challenged, extant southern racial attitudes and prejudices. After all, Henry Grady, the Atlantan who had coined the term ‘New South’ in 1890 – had not foreseen a region of class or race equity, but rather a resurgent South of industry and modernism. The birth of the New South, and its roads, textile mills and country clubs – coincided with a re-affirmation of white supremacy and the legislative encoding of racial apartheid (as seen in Plessy v. Ferguson in 1896).

In 1997, a local white parent sued the county over the forced school busing, and won his case. In 2000, a Federal appeals court upheld the decision, and race-based busing ended. Charlotte schools began a rapid re-segregation.

In 2008, Wachovia went bankrupt, and was purchased in a fire sale by San Francisco-based Wells Fargo.

Then came the Bathroom controversy.

Bathrooms

Figure 4: National press for North Carolina’s House Bill 2 controversy, 2016.

The 2000s had been good to the ‘Queen City’. Bank mergers and financial services growth, along with the steady expansion of US Airways’ Charlotte hub, had propelled Charlotte into the top 20 American cities, with a metro population topping 2 million by 2010. Superbowl appearances by the Panthers had also helped with national, and international name recognition – culminating in the city’s hosting of the 2012 Democratic National Convention, widely lauded as a success. In 2014, Charlotte’s CAST theater group, based in the now-trendy ‘NoDa’ arts district – staged ‘Angels in America’, to positive critical reception and this time, no public outcry.

But the election of Barack Obama in 2008, combined with decades of neoliberal economic policy resulting in the 2008-2009 financial crash and great recession, had awakened all of the South’s skeletons from their (brief) slumber. The myth of the ‘New South’ came crashing down with the stock market. The ‘Tea Party’ was born, and made North Carolina one of its command centers, backed by fantastic policy and financial support from nationwide groups like the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) and the billionaire Koch brothers.  In 2010, conservative republicans took control of North Carolina’s General Assembly, forming a veto-proof majority that effectively neutralized the Democrat Governor, Beverly Perdue. In 2012, former Charlotte mayor Pat McCrory, a republican, won the governorship. With all three branches of government under control (and significant reach into the courts as well), North Carolina’s general assembly went to work dis-assembling the fragile frame of the ‘New South’, the politically-moderate costume North Carolina had donned for a generation.

Issue after issue, North Carolina gained national headlines – strict ID rules for voters, with the effect of disenfranchising African-Americans and liberal college students; spending cuts to social programs, and perhaps most strikingly, a vicious attack on LGBTQ rights. In 2012, ‘Amendment One’ passed in a state referendum, making gay marriage a violation of state law (later repealed by a Supreme Court Decision). The ‘Moral Mondays’ protests at the General Assembly, led by local NAACP leader Rev. William Barber, gained international press.

Image:

General Assembly Police Lt. Martin Brock, right directs Rev. William Barber, President of the N.C. chapter of the NAACP to step down during “Moral Monday” demonstrations at the General Assembly in Raleigh, N.C., Monday, July 8, 2013. Nearly 700 people, led by the North Carolina Chapter of the NAACP, have been arrested over the past 10 weeks of the legislative session while protesting against policies being enacted by the North Carolina General Assembly. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)

Figure 5: Rev. William Barber at a ‘Moral Mondays’ Protest, North Carolina General Assembly, 2016.

Charlotte, the state’s largest city, again found itself front and center in the battle between cosmopolitan and conservative forces. The battlefield, as it turned out, wasn’t a play on gay themes this time, but the everyday life of transgender people. In 2016, the Charlotte City Council passed an ordinance that protected LGBTQ residents from discrimination and, notoriously, that mandated that both public and private businesses allow transgender persons to use the bathroom facility where they feel most comfortable. This was similar to non-discrimination ordinances passed in a number of other cities, including Columbia, South Carolina. And a firestorm was unleashed.

Fallen Angels, Redux 

20 years after Tony Kushner’s ‘Angels’ had fallen on the Queen City, the boomtown found its social fabric torn apart.

The city, with some of the South’s wealthiest zip codes, had become known for some of the lowest social mobility in the country, with huge gaps in social and economic indicators between white and non-white sections of town. Racial tension erupted into rioting in October 2016, when police officers killed an African-American man in Northeast Charlotte, one of the city’s poorest areas.

riots

Figure 6:Race  Riots in Charlotte, Oct. 2016

The riots exposed the myth of the ‘New South’ for what it was: a marketing ploy, and window dressing on long entrenched, deep structural problems that Charlotte – and many American cities face. These problems are especially stark in sprawling Southern cities like Charlotte where decades of re-segregation, poor public transit and uneven economic growth have resulted in a neoliberal cityscape in which quality of life has fallen for many even as affluence has increased for many others.

Meanwhile, another battle had erupted between the city of Charlotte’s (white) progressive community and the (white) state legislators, who in March 2016 passed House Bill 2 – known as ‘the Bathroom Bill’ – in the middle of the night, with no debate or public discussion. House Bill 2 (or HB2) rescinded Charlotte’s non-discrimination ordinance, and went much further: it banned any municipality from passing similar nondiscrimination ordinances, prevented cities and towns from increasing their minimum wage, and, most nefariously, mandated that transgender persons use the bathroom corresponding to the sex on their birth certificate. This was, far and away, the most draconian and far-reaching recent anti LGBTQ legislation in the country.

This blog post will not recount the specifics of the long back and forth between the General Assembly and the City, the business community, the NBA, Bank of America, the national and international press, and the efforts of the LGBTQ community or various civil rights organizations; the boycotts and travel bans; the nasty rhetoric and name calling and overall ugliness exposed in what sociologist Elijah Anderson (2011) might call a ‘tear’ in the precarious ‘cosmopolitan canopy of civility’ that was the illusion of a progressive North Carolina. Or the half-hearted (non) repeal of House Bill 2 that leaves many of its worst, and most discriminatory pieces intact and leaves LGBTQ North Carolinians without basic legal protections.

But I will conclude by suggesting that the ‘New South’, just like the ‘Old South’, just like ‘manifest destiny’ or John Winthrop’s ‘Shining City Upon the Hill’ – are conceptual rather than tangible; dreams rather than realities; phantoms rather than fact. As Faulkner himself mused, ‘the past is never dead. It’s not even past (1951).’ At the time of this writing, Confederate monuments are being taken down in cities from New Orleans to Richmond. What will rise in their place, or fall from the sky, is yet unknown.

***

References

Anderson, E. (2011) The Cosmopolitan canopy: Race and Civility in Everyday Life. New York:  WW Norton & Company.

Faulkner, W. (1951) Requiem for a Nun.

Grady, H.W. and Dyer, O. (1890) The New South. Atlanta: Robert Bonner’s Sons.

Kuklinski, J.H., Cobb, M.D. and Gilens, M. (1997) Racial attitudes and the” New South”. The Journal of Politics, 59(2), pp.323-349.

Nielsen, K. (2008) Tony Kushner’s Angels in America. New York; A&C Black.

Tepper, S.J. (2011) Not Here, Not Now, Not That!: Protest Over Art and Culture in America. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

The Economist, 24 April 1997, ‘No gays please: we’re Carolinian.’

The New York Times, 22 March 1996, ‘Play displays a growing city’s cultural tensions’. By Kevin Sack.

 

CFP/Conference — Black Geographies: Insurgent Knowledge, Spatial Poetics, and the Politics of Blackness

Black Geographies: Insurgent Knowledge, Spatial Poetics, and the Politics of Blackness

A symposium hosted by the Geography Department at the
University of California, Berkeley
Organizers: Dr. Jovan Lewis, Dr. Sharad Chari, Camilla Hawthorne, Kaily Heitz
October 18-20, 2017, UC Berkeley
CFP Deadline: June 16, 2017

Black liberation movements around the world, from the streets of Oakland and Ferguson to the shores of southern Europe, have focused international conversations among activists, academics, and artists on the importance of blackness to the geographical imagination. Importantly, this dialogue has elucidated the possibilities of blackness not only as a tool for understanding whiteness, non-being, and social/physical death, but also as a radical framework for envisioning liberation, social justice, and reconstruction. We invite our colleagues to Black Geographies to discuss the possibilities of interdisciplinary work oriented on black geographic thought. This symposium offers geography in general, and black geographies specifically, as capacious fields of inquiry that invite historical, political economic, sociological, and artistic perspectives–as well as a range of “established” and alternative methodologies.

The double valence of our use of “black geographies” refers both to the ways that geography can be used to understand the complex, overlapping spatialities of black life and the stretching of geographical knowledge that takes place when scholars consciously center questions of race and blackness. Katherine McKittrick’s important interventions, for instance, employ the concept of “poetics” to describe those landscapes and places that have been narratively and counter-conceptually created with blackness as their source.

More here.

Lees on Gentrification: ‘It’s Displacement’.

Professor Loretta Lees appeared on talk show ‘Renegade, Inc.’ to discuss the impacts of gentrification – which she defines as resulting in displacement against one’s will. And critiques the more recent turn toward ‘regeneration’ as a more palatable form of social cleansing. https://www.rt.com/shows/renegade-inc/387555-gentrification-alternative-socially-cleansed/

 

 

The relationship between universities and the cities where they are located

Steven J. Diner discusses his new book, Universities and Their Cities: Urban Higher Education in America, in a recent interview with Inside Higher Ed. Read the interview here: https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2017/05/04/author-discusses-new-book-relationships-including-tensions-over-race-and-economics?utm_source=Inside+Higher+Ed&utm_campaign=a5c8c771da-DNU20170504&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_1fcbc04421-a5c8c771da-197367501&mc_cid=a5c8c771da&mc_eid=8edda0c773

 

Urban Protests, Housing Evictions, and Neighborhoods Dismembered: A Shared Collective Experience in the 15M

by Juliana Luna Freire

“15Mpedia, para que todo el mundo pueda contar <>” [15Mpedia, so that everyone can tell one’s 15M] is the description of a creative commons platform, within a larger idealized project called 15Mcc (15M Creative Commons), created to catalogue narratives, data, maps, articles, among other items related to the social movement originated in Spain in 2011 from the financial crisis that hit the whole continent. The platform attempts to convene sources about a social protest that reverberated over five years ago, as an ongoing example of “rhyzomatic revolution” happening in networked societies (Castells 2012, Merrifield 2014). We could argue that it generated a non-unified movement of multiple collective groups making impact in contemporary Spanish politics by precisely engaging virtual and physical use of space (Merrifield 2014).

Indignados and 15M, as political projects, can be interpreted as responses to the 2008 financial crisis in Spain. From the subdivision of these movements, two specific projects were created to focus solely on housing: the Platform for those Affected by Mortgages (PAH) and the Movement for the Right of Housing. Some of these visual material on independent productions of camping protests in the city of Barcelona and the appearance of manifests and protests anti-eviction (#nomásdesahucios) indicate how specific cultural projects appropriate the collective experience of housing/eviction and a loss of sense of commune in their virtual and physical platforms to question capitalist use of urban space.

libresdelosbancos.png

The photo above displays the following sentence: “Queremos ser libres, no presos de los bancos / porque la utopia es posible” [We want to be free, not jailed by the banks. Because utopia is possible]. The process of combined images of eviction and political protest counterbalance the lack of hope and disbelief in the process of seeing the human fabric that constitutes neighborhoods dismembered: in a move of the people against the system (Ressel 2011), of the acampadas against neoliberalism (Harvey 2012), and of the citizens of the city against the economic forces that govern it.

It is possible to notice that there was a combination of a series of economic factors that lead to high numbers of evictions. One of them, the cláusula suelo, a common financial practice followed by a later court decision on how the loan interest for housing were using abusive practices that protected instead bank institutions. Many lost their housing due to the implementation of those practices. Another complicating factor was the sale of public housing to banks, which subsequently lead to more removals: https://pahparla.blogspot.com.es/2017/01/comunnicado-encasa-cibeles.html?m=1.

One particular project that provides a collective experience of the neighborhoods being dismembered is “Poner rostro a las víctimas” [Put a face on the victims], photographing and distributing brief biographic information on the families being evicted .

Anti-eviction platform and protest were, then, fighting also the eviction of ill, disabled, elderly included, previous to the change of the law that protected that kind of eviction. A legal resolution from 1 de Julio de 2009 which determined protection in terms of electricity cuts for a series of individuals considered “colectivos vulnerables” [vulnerable groups], called “bono social” [social benefit]. Using the hashtag #Pobrezaenergéticamata [energy poverty kills], it tells stories such as the one of Rosa, an elderly lady in Reus, Tarragona (Nov. 2016). Because her gas supply was removed, she started using candles and ended up dead due to a fire.  What this indicates is also other forms of housing removal other than just displacement.

Occupation increased in urban areas during and after the crisis, and took different forms of activities and political ideas. For more information on the phenomenon of Okupas in Spain, please refer to Stephen Villaseca’s work (2013), offering a thorough reading on the ongoing movement before the 15M, and the protest of different groups against capitalist speculation, okuppying abandoned city spaces and creating new, communitarian uses for them.

Works Cited

Castells, Manuel.Networks of Outrage and Hope: Social Movements in the Internet Age. Cambridge, UK; Malden, MA: Polity, 2012.

Fominaya, Cristina. “Spain is different”: Podemos and the 15-M. 29 May 2014. Open Democracy.net. 10 Mar. 2017.

Harvey, David. Rebel Cities: From the Right to the City to the Urban Revolution. New York: Verso, 2012.

Merrifield, Andy. The New Urban Question. New York: PlutoPress, 2014.

Ressel, Stéphane. ¡Indignaos! Barcelona: Ediciones Destino, 2011.

Snyder, Jonathan. Poetics of Opposition in Contemporary Spain: Politics and the Work of Urban Culture. London: Palgrave, 2015.

Villaseca, Stephen. Barcelonan Okupas: Squatter Power! Madison: Fairleigh Dickinson, 2013.