Ellen Ann Fentress
The Academy Stories editor
Does The Academy Stories matter now? Fair question, since coronavirus has infected all of us, whether or not it’s specifically invaded our lungs or our loved ones’ so far. It’s confiscated how we live, along with jobs, routines, paychecks and savings. Millions are still on the job, their own health up for grabs every shift, working out of need—self-isolating isn’t equal opportunity— and a sense of duty.
Coronavirus has our attention. Yet spare a slice of headspace for a covid-19 adjacent truth: in a past time of crisis, another show of disdain for the common good birthed the academy movement. It left the excluded to fend for themselves. Statistics make clear the racial disparity in coronavirus for blacks and whites. In Louisiana and Mississippi, an approximate 70 percent of the fatalities are black when blacks represent a respective 32 and 38 percent of the states’ populations. “Sometimes racial data tell us something we don’t know,” writes Ibram X. Kendi in The Atlantic. “Other times we need racial data to confirm something we already seem to know.”
Besides the higher rate of underlying medical conditions like high blood pressure and diabetes, there’s a difference in levels of daily exposure, depending on whether a worker is in a front-line job or has the option to work at home. The disrupted school year packs inequality of race and class for students. The lack of internet connection has ended school for thousands of poor children. Thousands of more comfortable classmates are still at work via video classroom on the family high-speed wifi. (I noticed a Twitter exchange between high-bar housebound mothers over their children’s dress-up choices for an upcoming online class Tomie dePaola appreciation party).
The worst of the Trump coronavirus response uncannily steals from the playbook of the worst of white Southern history too: Exploitation of the vulnerable. Disregard for the wider good, buoyed by a willingness to twist the truth and deploy a worn vocabulary for the sales job. Othering comes with the deal as well.
The Trump-loving Southern GOP governors lagged the rest of the country in stay-home policies, slow to require businesses to close and allow workers protection at home. It was Mississippi native Ida Wells, the country’s greatest journalist, who noted “The appeal to the white man’s pocket has ever been more effectual than all the appeals ever made to his conscience.” The Republican governors of the South are still on brand. (Ida Wells lost her Holly Springs parents in the 1878 yellow fever epidemic when she was 16) It’s no coincidence that the same general configuration of southern states still refuses to expand Medicaid as well. That refusal has played into the death spiral of multiple rural hospitals over the last decade, leaving their communities with no good options as the pandemic arrives.
Credit: Mississippi Center for Justice
“States’ rights” is a beloved diversionary cry from the wrong side of history. In 2020, it’s stunning to see Southern GOP governors and the president still blatantly giving the term fake reverence and airtime. In the 1960s, white governors gave pious lip service to States Rights to resist full citizenship for black citizens. It was the bogus rallying cry to justify the Civil War rather than proclaiming the defense of the right to continue slavery as the real reason to shed blood.
Waving the banner of “personal freedom” is also a certain category of white males’ dog whistle, entitling them to lopsidedly do what they want to do: keep a business open, smoke or deprive employees of paid sick leave or good health insurance. Or found a school for their own children while the rest make do with local resource leftovers.
Academies were all about the liberty myth in 1970. White parents declared no federal court was going to tell them where and with whom their children would go to school. In their telling, fleeing integration amounted to a defiant act of patriotism. Scores of academies use the Patriots or the Rebels as sports mascots or take it a step further, naming themselves the Crusaders as favored believers on a mission.
Delusions replicate like a virus, and many of us still contend with outbreaks inside our heads. I mean a white-centered insular worldview that neglects to notice—nor subsequently care enough about—what’s outside our own range of sight. As an academy alum and, of course, a white Deep South native, I find that whenever I check for white and class-skewed perceptions, I come up positive. I’ve got work to do. To me, the stories and questions of this project matter. If the analytics of The Academy Stories are indicators, this truth-telling matters to at least 14,000 other readers so far as well.
So let’s keep going. Many of you are already. A half dozen new essays are headed for site publication in these stay-home weeks. Their writers say they’ve been intending to write their stories for months and are using the time to do so. Important pieces are forthcoming.
Here’s where we stand. Since The Academy Stories launched in late October 2019, our estimated 14,000-strong community has joined in reading, sharing, writing individual accounts and commenting. There are Academy Stories accounts on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram too, great spaces to engage in real-time conversation (Please follow and take part there as well). Thanks goes to the Mississippi Humanities Council for funding the project’s launch in 2019, as well as supporting a public conversation at Delta State University on February 18. Thanks to The Bitter Southerner for publishing the original essay “Are You a Seg Academy Alum, Too? Let’s Talk,” which began the online dialogue. Two individual supporters have donated to keep conversation and topics moving forward in the next few months while we seek regular funding. Many thanks for their generosity and belief in the project. (Care to donate?) Next up on the site will be accounts from contributors who didn’t attend an academy but were impacted by an academy’s presence in their community during the days of the Seventies and Eighties. Other rounds of submissions will focus on present-day academy stories and a conversation on systemic ways to equalize education in communities with a thriving academy. There are hopes for a podcast, video component and upcoming Zoom symposium. Thanks to website builder Talamieka Brice and to tech partner Bobby Anderson as well.
Here’s something that’s been a surprise. Despite the presence of scores of academies in towns throughout the South, there have been no Seventies and Eighties academy alum essayists from states other than Mississippi and Virginia. Academy alums from the other nine southern states, we want to hear from you! Start writing.
National coverage has helped spread the word on the project, including pieces in The Washington Post , Slate , Mother Jones , the Hechinger Report and Forbes . In fact, The Washington Post coverage has produced exciting meaningful results. University of North Carolina medical school professor Stuart Levin took personal interest when he spotted the Post piece about The Academy Stories project. He’d spent the 1976-1977 school year as an tenth grader at Beeson Academy in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, an experience he hadn’t thought about much for years. He reached out to the project and decided to write an essay which was published in December. Around the same time, he helped mapped out a proposed Social Justice in Health Care Day at the UNC Raleigh medical campus, programming designed to explicitly show medical students the historic legacy of racial disparity in medicine in the South. The March 6, 2020 event involved about 75 students, medical faculty and UNC professor Dr. William Sturkey, author of the biracial town history Hattiesburg: An American City in Black and White. Current third-year UNC Raleigh med students toured southeast Raleigh to better understand the history of redlining and its after affects. UNC med students signed on with a southeast Raleigh community clinic’s volunteer roster to offer covid-19 testing specifically for the homeless, a curbside pharmacy and see and triage potential coronavirus patients. In a convoluted sense, the students’ opportunity to serve at the clinic started with Dr. Levin’s self-confrontation in writing his academy account.
“My Academy Stories essay was written to gain a better personal understanding of the impact of systemic racism on my experiences in Hattiesburg,” said Dr. Levin. “I felt a true reckoning was essential to move forward.” He’s unsurprised but stricken by the racial divide in coronavirus outcomes. “The pandemic clearly indicates it’s incumbent for our society to understand the history of systemic racism to address racial disparities in health outcomes.”
UNC-Raleigh med school group with Stuart Levin on far right.
Last week in her poignant piece “Mentored by the Dead” in Image Journal, southern writer Jamie Quatro remembered the words of Oxford professor C.S. Lewis’ Evensong sermon for students on October 22, 1939 on the eve of World War II. Should Oxford undergraduates—or any of us—put aside all but the crisis hovering over us in times like these? Lewis thought not. A crisis, whether war or pandemic, simply allows us to see stakes in plain view that we can choose to ignore in ordinary times. “We see unmistakably the sort of universe in which we have all along been living and must come to terms with it,” Lewis said. “The war has not really raised up a new enemy but only aggravated an old one.”
The unmooring of hard times can send us off balance, open to the reach of new ideas and thinking while experiencing loss. “Darkness and turmoil stimulate the imagination in a certain way. They allow you to see things you might ordinarily overlook,” writes Thomas Moore in Dark Nights of the Soul.
The truth is maybe it’s presumptuous to think we’re equipped to judge what does and doesn’t matter now since we don’t know the ending yet. The moment is historic. It’s fast evolving. But what I do grasp is this: to believe in the potential of our continuing hard conversation is to hope in our shared future to come when this is over. How fitting that a crisis of nature is showing us we are all exquisitely connected to each other, the welfare of one of us bearing on the well-being of all of us utterly down to the very cellular level. I hope we don’t forget the truth of our uninvited biology lesson. In the meantime, thank you for connecting in this journey too.