“The Radical South”

The Radical South: Grassroots Activism, Ethnicity, and Literary Form, 1960-1985.

“The Radical South” contributes to a recent turn in scholarship on mid-twentieth century activism that recognizes the intersectionality within various global movements for civil rights and social equality. Scholars have drawn critical attention to the historical impact of activism’s global network as well as local community mobilization, opening discussion on previously unrecognized figures and locations. “The Radical South” examines the cultural impact of authors and artists who were also active participants in political and ethnic nationalist movements. Cultural representations of activism converses with and at times debates the historical record, thus converging to a more complete vision of this influential moment. I offer a cross section of examples from different movements and mediums of expression in order to bring to relief how activism encouraged experimentation with literary and cultural aesthetics. This project analyzes the performances of The Free Southern Theater, the novels of Toni Cade Bambara, Julian Mayfield, and Jose Yglesias, and two key anthologies—The Black Woman, edited by Bambara, and This Bridge Called My Back, edited by Gloria Anzaldúa and Cherríe Moraga—as examples of a hemispheric movement that innovated expressions of ethnic and political identities. I argue that these artists also envisioned themselves and their work as part of a global cultural network that experimented with aesthetic values as a means to participate in the revolution.

“The Radical South” makes two interventions. First, the project examines how authors and artists chose the smaller-scale regional community as their space of expression or object of study. Their focus on the local community and grassroots activism challenges an urban-centric view of ethnic nationalist movements. The initial chapter centers on the Free Southern Theater, an activist theater group established in Mississippi in 1963, and their combination of global avant-garde performance techniques with civil rights political platforms. Literary representations such as Julian Mayfield’s The Grand Parade, Jose Yglesias’s The Truth About Them and Toni Cade Bambara’s The Salt Eaters align with The Free Southern Theater’s experimental endeavors as they defy the manifesto-style of political unity and instead presents dissenting voices, conflict, and political ambiguity in order to incite readers to come to their own conclusions. I argue that their writing forefronts a multivocalism that refuses a single idea or cohesive political approach, a method reflected in the anthologies that challenged identity categories such as “the black woman” as much as they represented them. The critical work of these cultural activists dismantles a utopian vision of ethnic nationalism or separatism through expressions of difference and is in need of more critical attention. Even though the artists did not dismiss the role of Marxism within their activism, their use of memory, ethnicity, and regionality became poetic tools with which to adapt Marxism to their own endeavors.

Secondly, the project shows how authors and artists interwove global networks of activism into their local communities. This includes plays from authors such as Bertolt Brecht and Samuel Beckett that, through adaptation relocated conflicts in Europe to rural Mississippi; the influence of Puerto Rican and Cuban nationalism on the work of Mayfield and Yglesias; circum-Atlantic and hemispheric spiritualities in Bambara and contributors to the anthologies; and myriad other connections between politics and cultural expressions that place the local community in a global conversation. Academic scholarship has traditionally parsed out studies of these movements into departmental-style categories, and thus has elided the spirit of their original political and artistic intersections. Thus, I position multidisciplinary scholarship as the optimum method with which to approach not only social movement literature, but ethnic studies as well in order to build new vocabularies with which to discuss politically conscious texts.


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