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On Race and Property in the South

On November 19, 2020, we published Shirley Elizabeth Thompson’s “Georgia On My Mind,” the author’s reflection on her hometown of Atlanta—of growing up amid gentrification, white flight, integration, and other lingering effects of segregation—while she watched the state’s critical election returns. The Biden-Harris win in Georgia, along with those in Michigan and Pennsylvania, was crucial in creating an unambiguous margin of victory—all the more remarkable since a majority of Georgians hadn’t voted for a Democratic nominee in the presidential election since Jimmy Carter. Thompson writes, “I have been thinking a lot about the intertwined histories of race and property, power and belonging. And in recent years, suburbs have emerged as a prime battleground for struggles between Black folks and white folks over who has right of way in this country.”

Associate Chair of Black Studies at the University of Texas, Thompson has lived in Austin now for twenty years. I asked her by email if both cities feel like home, perhaps in different ways. “I do feel that Atlanta and Austin are home, as different as they are,” Thompson told me. “Atlanta has been, famously, a Black mecca. And Austin has been alarmingly white, the only major city—according to my colleague Eric Tang—that is losing Black population in spite of its rapid growth.

“The feeling of home,” she went on, “also has something to do with understanding my familial and ancestral connections to these places whether past or future (now that we’ve chosen to have and raise a child in Texas). That said, the place I get all sentimental about is South Carolina, where my enslaved ancestors lived and both of my parents have deep roots, in the rural upcountry in the case of my mother, and Columbia and the lowcountry (Georgetown area) in the case of my father.”

I asked Thompson how she understands her Southern identity, particularly having lived in Massachusetts for a time. “I have an ongoing disagreement with a colleague who argues that it is impossible to be both Black and Southern,” she said. “I suppose I became aware of the Southern-ness of my identity when I left the South to attend Harvard. The contrast was so stark, and I could tell that lots of things—from my accent and diction (I have never not said “y’all”) to my food preferences (collard greens, BBQ, sweet tea) to my expectations about social interaction—distinguished me as someone from the region.

“Since then,” she continued, “I’ve been hyperaware of how the stories my family and I tell about ourselves are bound up with Southern spaces and the difficult histories that have unfolded there under slavery and Jim Crow. These histories resonate differently, I think, within Black families who migrated North and West and stayed there. My father’s family was part of the twentieth-century migration. His parents moved from South Carolina to St. Albans, Queens, New York, and my grandfather was the pastor of a couple of large churches in Harlem. But my father chose to move back to the South as a young man. There is just something about the robustness of Black cultural institutions and networks in the South (HBCUs and churches, etc.) that can’t be matched elsewhere.”

Running through Thompson’s essay is a thread about school integration—the “Majority to Minority” bussing program she took part in as a child, and the difficulties of integration for the “kids trundled back and forth,” she writes, “a bewildering tension that I could not yet name.” I wondered if now, as an educator, she might speak to how this tension can still exist for Black students or other students of color at predominantly white institutions.

“This issue definitely persists,” Thompson said. “Ever since I have been at UT Austin, African Americans have been drastically underrepresented in the student body—between 3–4 percent students in a state where Blacks are 12 percent of the population. As an educator and institution-builder, I’ve tried to construct spaces and opportunities for respite and redress and to provide mentorship. In this Black Lives Matter, post-Trayvon moment, I feel that young people have developed better language than my generation had for articulating their grievances and demands. As much as I dole out advice, I try to listen to them and learn from their experiences.

“As a parent,” she went on, “I have been even more stunned by how little has changed. We’ve had to be really vigilant about not allowing racial bias chip away at our son’s confidence. We’ve had to help him process his own experience of quotidian racism and the big watershed societal moments in ways that don’t dampen his spirit.”

Thompson’s 2009 book, Exiles at Home: The Struggle to Become American in Creole New Orleans, looks at “French-speaking Creoles of African descent and their efforts to lay claim to the city across the middle decades of the nineteenth century, a period that saw many cultural shifts that threatened their identities,” she said. “One of their strategies for expressing their belonging was to invest in property: real estate, fashionable accessories, whiteness, and enslaved people. Questions of property, personhood, and ownership were especially fraught in New Orleans. Grappling with this history led me to the questions I pose in my current [book] project about how African Americans have navigated the relationship between property and personhood.”

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Housing has been understood to be a pervasive form of segregation and race-based—and historically state-sponsored—inequality in this country, exacerbating disparities over time. But in her current book, Thompson goes back further still. “The project takes as its starting point the uneasy proximity of personhood and property in the status of the slave and the incomplete project of Emancipation: How have persons whose bodies once composed a significant portion of their owner’s and the nation’s wealth reconstituted themselves as citizens? Or reconstituted citizenship itself? In thinking about Blacks and property, we often start from the very real fact of the racial wealth gap and the huge deficits that plague Black people across the board—in access to housing, in income, and in respect for our lives and bodily integrity, which is a starting point for classical notions of proprietorship. I want to approach the problem from a different perspective: Given the history of slavery, what do Black people know about the messy underbelly of private property and ownership and how can that deep and critical knowledge help us to imagine a more just world?”

“I started by casting a wide net temporally and spatially, but have since narrowed the scope of the project to Atlanta at the turn of the nineteenth to the twentieth century,” she said. “I’m interested in institutions, of which Atlanta has many—the Black life insurance industry, for example—but also in alternative and resistant economic, spiritual, or narrative strategies for redefining property relations that may have flown under the radar. It seems all roads lead back to Atlanta!” 

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