North York and The South: A Conversation with Jamila Reddy and Austin Monroe

Austin Monroe is one of those people. One of those people who will have things like 50 year retrospectives and honorary degrees from institutions who use his theories as their approach. He’s one of those people whose name will turn into a verb. Who young people will be shamed—by other young people—for not knowing. What I meant to say is: Austin is going to change the world. I know this, because he already is.

Living in this Black/woman body compels me to acknowledge the fact that I understand what it means to occupy that which does not belong to you. I imagine, in the way one imagines something they have already seen, that living in a Black/man body is to know this un-belonging.

Austin is one of those people who occupies a body that neither belongs nor belongs to you. One of those people who knows it, and is trying to make it untrue.

Austin is the brains and heart behind North York, a socio-creative [ad]venture intended to create spaces that serve to inspire and empower people to function as their truest and best selves. Established in the Fall of 2010, North York is a Brooklyn based collective of radical dreamers/subversives/queers&queens, many of whom have migrated from the South. The North York manifesto reads, “We’re a tribe of people who see value in all cultures and seek to celebrate creative expression in various forms. We reject the notions of high or low culture; we are as inspired by music as we are by food as we are by fashion as we are by nightlife as we are by art. North York exists to make cool shit happen. We are forward-thinkers who make the spaces we want to see exist now. We want to create spaces that inspire you and make you feel at home. North York honors our diverse and at times disparate histories and identities. North York is home. North York is about who we are now.”

I spoke with Austin about what it means to create space, the heart of Black American Culture, and how road trips through the Carolinas were the first journeys in a place we always knew we were leaving.

Oh, and Beyoncé. Of course.


 North York

JAMILA: What does it mean to create space?

AUSTIN: Creating space is, in a way, self-explanatory. It can both be a physical or mental space wherein a person, a group of people, a theory, or an idea is allowed to be. So more than thinking about what it means to create space, I’m interested in the implications of creating space—what hat the intentionality behind creating a certain space—or a creating a certain vibe—is.

J: What was the genesis of the idea to create North York?

A: It was a culmination of years and years engaging with media culture and events and everyday people and just not seeing certain images being shown and certain ideals being represented. I was talking to a friend of mine who helped found a start up, and he was talking about entrepreneurship, and the baseline is: you’re someone who has located a gap, and your product or service or company should exist to fill that gap—to fill that void. So the genesis of the idea was bridging those gaps that exist.

J: So what is the gap that you want to fill?

A: On a selfish level, it’s the desire to have ownership over my experience—to put something into the world that I think is good. It’s about making creative space for myself and for other people.

Movement

J: Talk to me about your move to New York. You moved to New York from North Carolina. Why?

A: That was a lifelong dream. It was always going to happen at some point, and the stars just aligned—a job worked out, and then an apartment worked out, and then three weeks later, I was moved. So that’s how that went down.

J: What was that dream? I’ve always dreamed of moving across the country. In my mind, California was the farthest place from home. If I had to look at a map and pick a place, I was like, “this is as far as I can get.”

A: Why did you want to go so far?

J: It’s not even that I was trying to escape from what I knew or anything like that—it really wasn’t even that serious. It was just a place that I thought would be most different. I felt really different growing up, so it was a place I felt was aligned with my identity. I was like, “I feel different, and this place that is so far must be different, too, by virtue of its distance.” My mom moved to California in her twenties, and there are all these Out West narratives… I just sort of romanticized it. I still sort of feel that way. And I knew that there wasn’t slavery. Won’t no plantations in California.

A: I think that’s relevant, because I always identified with the narrative of migration and the people who are pursuing a new dream—a new identity. So yeah, that’s absolutely a part of it.

J: That’s so true—migration is all about the pursuit of a new identity. That’s what it’s about. For me, I idealized the West, not because I wanted to pursue a new identity, necessarily, but because I wanted the environment to be more integral to my identity. I wanted there to be integrity between my identity and environment, and I felt like where I was, I did not have that. So the dream wasn’t to find a new identity, it was to find a new place for my current identity to exist.

A: As far as I’m concerned, New York is the center of the world. This is where any and all things can and do happen. I feel like it’s good a place as any to come and try to live out some dreams and goals and to create a little world for myself as much as possible.

J: Word. So if that’s always been a childhood dream, why now? You said the stars aligned, but did it feel urgent? Or was it just the natural flow?

A: A little bit of both. I had spent two years or so after college just kind of learning—on n a personal level—learning about myself and spirituality. I spent that time doing a lot of personal work to let go of fear narratives that I had. When I started to get really comfortable with a lot of the new stuff I was learning, I was no longer comfortable standing still, or doing what I felt like was standing still. And so I knew I had to move –both physically and spiritually/mentally—So I moved.

Southern Space

J: What about the South do you embrace, and what do you reject?

A: I like the South. I really like the pleasantries and the politeness, there’s something very cute and inviting and intentional about that. And I think Southerners tend to coexist with nature in an interesting way, because there’s so much of it, specifically in the Southeast. I feel like it’s a very Black space. It’s where Black American culture started and came to be. So I feel at home with all of that—the food, the music, the slang—it all feels really good. I was going to say I reject the small-mindedness and the idea that there is a proper way to be, but I feel like you kind of encounter that everywhere. Now, living outside of the South, I can’t honestly say that that’s endemic to the South.

J: To respond to what you said about Black culture, I feel like I have always been like, “is this a Black thing, or a Southern thing?” So much of what I experience, I don’t know if it’s a Black thing or a Southern thing. And for the small-mindedness thing, I find that I do sort of believe that about the South, but I wonder if that’s because I’ve believed the narratives that have been put out about the South. But all the homies—all my friends from the South—are not that.

A: I think it’s kind of misguided to suggest that some super-progressive utopia exists in this country. I haven’t seen it, in the South or otherwise. But the people who I have personal relationships with absolutely reflect an actual progressive worldview. Most of the people I know from the South are excellent.

J: What are some personal ways—if at all—you experienced the legacy of slavery in the South? In terms of culture or general experience or energy?

A: That’s a really big question.

J: It is. It’s huge.

A: Everything is the legacy of slavery. Honestly, everything. So of course, I have. Be more specific.

J: Okay, that’s fair.

A: Because it’s everywhere.

J: What made me ask this question was – part of the reason I felt I wanted to move out of the South was because I wanted to experience place that wasn’t marked—as marked—by this huge traumatic thing that, to me, feels like it’s very much in the ground. In North Carolina, there are all of these farms and plantations. Its literally in the Earth there; its in the infrastructure. It’s everywhere. I felt like I was standing on graves of people who were… you know? I just felt like I was walking on it. Like slavery was under my feet. I just wanted to be in a place that didn’t have that same presence.

A: The legacy of it is there. For sure. There’s something. I don’t know if I can name it. But it’s there. There is a difference.

J: There is a difference. But why is it so hard to name?

Belonging

A: My mom is from Cabarrus county. And in Cabarrus county there are some very rural areas. If you go into some of those houses, they straight up still looks like slave shacks. I don’t know that they are, but for some people, the standard of living is still that.  My great aunt and uncle, they had this house made of wooden slats, and there were gaps in the slats, and they had a rusted tin roof. They didn’t have running water, they didn’t have any heat or AC, they had a woodfire stove. They both passed away between 2007 and 2010. That kind of experience was still there in 2010.

J: That’s nuts. How do you not have running water?

A: They had electricity, but the whole house was made out of wood and a tin roof. On this back gravel road, 30 minutes outside of Charlotte. I grew up going to that house. That’s an experience.

J: Oh my god. That’s so nuts.

A: So yeah, the access is right there. These structures are still standing.

J: That’s so interesting. There were a lot of reminders for me in the South. There were a lot of reminders that we weren’t so far removed from being slaves. And I think that was reason for being like, “All right. I gotta go.” I remember driving to the beach and we would stop in gas stations and be terrified. Terrified. Absolutely terrified. And I feel like the unspoken fear was “these white people think we should be slaves.” These white people in these gas stations, selling confederate flags… they’re everywhere. I feel like there was a resentment that I felt from these white people.

A: For sure.

J: The memory of slavery was still something that felt sweet, instead of something that felt like a place of shame.

A: It felt like something they had lost.

J: Totally. It felt like something that they had lost.

A: I remember that we were driving back from Florida or Georgia or something, and we stopped at this restaurant, it looked like a well-lit, modern restaurant, and we were the only Black people in there. I might be dramatizing this, but I feel like the whole place got silent when we walked in. And we were seated eventually, and then we were not served. We waited. We sat there for 45 minutes. And eventually we were like, “Alright.”

J: You can only have so many experiences of blatant racism that you can call coincidence.

A: Yeah. It’s crazy. We were not served. This was in the 2000s. So yeah, the legacy is real there.

J: Yeah. All of those little reminders that you’re not welcome… I just feel like they were too abundant. I had to roll out.

A: Too abundant for sure.

J: So where do you feel like your home is? What does home feel like?

A: I don’t know. In my hometown and state and region there are so many feelings of home-ness and safety but also so many feelings of dispossession—feeling like I didn’t really belong. So I guess a more full definition or a more full understanding of home, for me, is that it isn’t necessary a physical place. I think as long have people who I love and support me, then I can rock anywhere. Honestly. I think New York is starting to feel like home. When I went to visit over the holidays, I was definitely glad to be back. But it felt distinctly different. It didn’t feel like a space that was my own, or a place that was my own.

J: Do you mean your house? Or North Carolina?

A: Both. It’s like, I love this place, and I love these people. But this isn’t my place.


 These Other Southerners:

Austin Monroe is a curator, event planner and student living in New York.

Visit North York’s Facebook Page: https://www.facebook.com/NorthYorkCreative?pnref=about.overview

Jamila Reddy

Jamila Reddy

Jamila Reddy is a writer, director, and facilitator of dreams based currently in Brooklyn (but always in pursuit of magic wherever it may be). She spends her days exploring, reflecting, and trying to get free.  As a queer/Black/Southern woman, Jamila is thankful for language and the light it shines on the dark corners of transformation. She received BAs in Sociology and Dramatic Arts from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.  She recently completed and self-published her collection of poems, the consequence of silence. 

http://jamilareddy.com/

© Copyright Jamila Reddy 2015


The South is in the Cake and it is Inside Me

“Excuse me,” I stopped the waitress just as she turned to put our order in, “do you know what makes it ‘Old Fashioned’?”

~The “Old Fashioned” Coconut Cake~

“I don’t actually. I’ll go ask.” I, trying to temper the typical wave of disdain that washes over me when I spot ‘old’ or ‘old fashioned’ next to menu items, was sitting in a gourmet pastry shop with my friend and her boyfriend whom I had just met. The pastry shop, on Federal Hill in Providence, was the same one in which I met the first long-term boyfriend I’d had since high school. Being my first return since our break up, I was already jittery due to the number of awkward interactions with his former coworkers I would inevitably have. The cake bit fueled my agitation.

The waitress returned with our pastries and I, squirmy and expectant, sat with my eye-brows lifted and chin up with a half-smile ready for her answer. “So, it turns out it just means it’s from the South. I don’t know why we even have it. I mean, no one from the South lives here.” My friend, aware of my slight neurosis on the subject, pointed at me and smiled. I found the word Yankee, one I thought I’d won the battle over, floating up from the ghostly crypts of my mind. Though it was sort of a double-offense (the attempt to take the South out of a cake and the South out of me,) I was embarrassed by my knee-jerk defense and turned to the possibility of sugar-rush for consolation.

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You see, the coconut cake is a southern classic. When I say that, I don’t mean “By the way, southerners make that kind of cake and you should know that.” As they put it in the New Encyclopedia of Southern Culture, “To many southerners, the thought of favorite cakes brings to mind certain occasions. Weddings, holidays, “dinner on the grounds” church picnics, and funerals. Memories of fellowship hall tables laden with traditional southern sweets such as pineapple upside-down cake, Lane cake, coconut cake, and red velvet cake not only conjure tastes but also stories of the ladies who bake them.” The coconut cake is an icon of the South both because of the memories it conjures for southerners and because of the southern memory embedded in its layers.

I could go into all of the ingredients and their legacies here. Sugarcane and sugar plantations, the flour trade in the Gulf, and the Mexican origins of vanilla certainly set the stage for a discussion of coconut cake’s global roots. Since the primary descriptor of this cake is the coconut, however, I’ll give a little background there. The conditions that came together to make the Southern Coconut Cake possible are not listed exhaustively above.

1840s: the demand for cheap soap ingredients spawned the development of coconut plantations, built and run off of slave labor, in tropical regions around the world, especially in the Caribbean.

1500s: Portuguese trading conquests spurred an uptick in the appearance of the coconut in European written records, but accounts of Europeans enjoying coconut “milk”* date back to the 1200s.

A long time ago: It is speculated that coconuts’ first use was for clean drinking water in tropical and coastal areas. It is also speculated that coconuts evolved on the coastal regions of Gondawanaland.

1880s: Dried coconut was first manufactured in the 1880s, right around the time southern bakers* began dressing up otherwise boring cakes with coconut shavings.

1840s-1880s: Evidently, trading the fruits of enslaved labor between the Caribbean and the U.S. South was so efficient that coconuts could be available for sale in a port city like Charleston within four days of harvest in the Caribbean.*

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Like I said, a southern classic. So, why don’t they just say that on the menu? Is it a fear of losing credit over their baked goods? A tactic to avoid questions? A way to impart an exotic hint while not spoiling the surprise? Does “Old Fashioned” just sound better? Does it roll off the tongue better?

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Recently, while in the Rhode Island Historical Society archives, I decided to do a little genealogical digging on a rumor I’d heard about being related to the Lizzie Borden, the famous (infamous?) axe-murderer from Fall River, Massachusetts. (My southern relatives would have been proud; they LOVE searching for new genealogical material.) It seems we’re pretty distant cousins which is both a drag and somewhat reassuring (for my parents at least.) Our common relative, it turns out, is a guy named Richard Borden who actually came over from England to Plymouth, Rhode Island in 1638 as one of the first British colonizers of what would become the United States. He was a member of the Friends Society and served as general treasurer and commissioner of the Plymouth Colony.  In 1661, he bought sixty acres near “Newtokonkonut Hill”* (now spelled Neutaconkanut,) which is about a half mile from where I live currently and provides an excellent view of the port city of Providence’s skyline. A few years later, he “purchased” land in New Jersey from “certain Indians.” In Borden’s willed goods, there is a record for an enslaved black man and woman valued at £50 and three enslaved black children valued at £25. They are listed among an inventory of his animals.

Richard Borden

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I turned my attention toward the cake, Neutaconkanut Hill somewhere in the background. The icing was bright white and glittered with fine coconut shavings. The cake itself was soft-yellow and, from sight alone, seemed to own the word moist like no other cake could. Dense, but not too dense. Form and flavor in seamless union. It was absolutely perfect; the raspberry sauce design of a flower on the plate was overkill. Sinking my fork into it felt pornographic even before I put the cake in my mouth. I’ll stop there.

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*Its “milk” is actually called coconut water.

*“Southern women,” with a flavor of southern white belle, usually get the credit here, but I am choosing “baker” to return to who actually baked the cake.

*Emancipation occurred in different places the Caribbean (in some places due in large part to slave uprisings and resistance) in the early to mid 1800s.  Here, I am thinking about how the trade itself was established based on enslaved labor.

*“Coconut” and the last three syllables of “Newtokonkonut” just felt worth mentioning.

For more on coconut cakes outside of the South, the Southern Foodways Alliance has an incredible piece on Edna Stuart, her restaurant (http://www.southernfoodways.org/interview/ednas-restaurant/) and the coconut cakes she makes (https://www.southernfoodways.org/going-nuts-for-coconut-layer-cake/).

What We’re Reading: A word on a book concerning geography…

Demonic Grounds

In Demonic Grounds: Black Women and the Cartographies of Struggle , Katherine McKittrick creates a rich territory for the fields of black feminism, black studies and geography to intersect and learn from one another by considering the geographic spaces that black women both analyze and shape regularly.  As she puts it in her introduction, McKittrick sees the geographies of black women as, “a conceptual arena through which more humanly workable geographies can be and are imagined.” [1]  She is interested in critiquing traditional geographies (geographies of domination,) their relationship with black women’s geographies and narratives that perpetuate seeing black lives and histories as “ungeographic.”[2] Inspired by Sylvia Wynter, she uses the word “demonic” to explain that this book does not seek to uncover the lost stories of black women, but to create a “discussion about what black women’s historical-contextual locations bring to bear on our present geographic organization.”[3]  What can it mean for people to better understand the spaces black women move in and work on as we live in spaces structured around traditional geographies?  What can these spaces show us?  What is “dangerous” about those spaces? McKittrick weaves together the work of writers and theorists like Olaudah Equiano, Octavia Butler, Neil Smith and Patricia Hill Collins in chapters on spaces like the auction block, black Canada, and books like Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl.

[1] McKittrick, Katherine. Demonic Grounds: Black Women and the Cartographies of Struggle. (Minneapolis, London: University of Minnesota Press, 2006), xii.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid., xxvi


The “What We’re Reading” Series
We decided to create this series of posts for a couple of reasons.  While we’re pulling on lots of different sources when thinking about Broadly Speaking, we don’t always get to cite all the books that inform/inspire our writing.  We hope this space serves as a more accessible archive of the stuff we’re reading these days.  Also, we love a good book list, so really we’re just trying to pay it forward. If there are books you want to recommend to us, please send us an email at broadlyspeakingthesouth@gmail.com!

Censoring Southern Space

Recently (if you haven’t picked up on this already) I’ve been thinking a lot about the South as a moral geography*, or as a place that is made up of cultural and political practices instead of a physical borders.  What are the stuffs that the South is made of beyond what I imagine it to be and what it looks like on a topographical map? What are the political practices that both shape the South and are read as southern political practices?

While pondering these questions, a friend sent me the following link. The long of the short is this: in December 2013, local archivists in Franklin County, NC uncovered a variety of documents in the Franklin County courthouse dating back to 1840.  As they began the arduous process of sorting through the papers, the North Carolina Archives became involved and halted their work.  The next thing they knew, someone had come in and burned all of the documents.  There are lots of ways to speculate about what these documents could have been, what they could have meant.  Some people reason that these documents contained records relating to the brief moment of property distribution to former slaves just after the Civil War.  Since most of that land was subsequently reclaimed by whites, these documents could have proven some land in North Carolina to be owned illegally today.  We won’t know what they meant besides the that they contained information important enough to be destroyed.

The story here is complicated and unclear, but it is just one example of the practices that censor the political and physical landscape of the South today.  Who owns and does not southern lands now did not arise out of nothing. It arose from the cultural and political practices of today and the cultural and political practices that make up the South’s history.

https://stumblingintheshadowsofgiants.files.wordpress.com/2013/12/boxes-burned.jpg?w=676

Some of the worst of the mold damage

To read more about this story, click here.

*Term coined in the works of Michael Shapiro, a political science scholar at the University of Hawai’i at Manoa