I went to Atlanta recently for a conference, which was not altogether successful for me in an academic sense. I’m not as successful as I might be in academia, I’m told by some US colleagues, because I put all my energy into politics. My invariable response is that by the standards of what needs to be done in the current context, I don’t put enough effort into politics.
I wasn’t sure exactly what I expected from Atlanta. I was told by white people in the north to expect it to be very racist, whereas I was expecting it to have a very “New Afrikan” character.
In either case, I spent a lot of time in very white or mixed areas, and did not sense a huge difference to the north. I was hosted by a relative of a friend from Scotland, who responded to this impression by saying “Don’t be fooled, mate. If you had more time here, I could show you, this is Apartheid South Africa”.
Segregation in Atlanta is noticeable, although in central areas it does not feel altogether different to the segregation in the north of the US. I was assured that if I were to return and go further north or south from the central areas of Atlanta, I would see just how bad it gets. I had been protected from the real Georgia, I was told. If I were to take a short trip beyond, I would see. Atlanta is not representative, Atlanta is not really the Deep South.
Upon returning, I saw the film “I Am Not Your Negro”, about James Baldwin, in which Baldwin claimed that there was no difference for Afro-Americans between the north and south of the US. In vulgar economic, cultural, legal, and historical terms, this is plainly false, and it is that difference which underlies the largest, most strategically important, and least recognised national question in the US (where leftists rarely mention national questions, unfortunately).
However, I don’t think Baldwin, wherever I disagreed with his assessment of the US’s present and potential future, would have claimed they were the same because none of those differences matter at all; I suppose what he meant is that capitalist centres where various (national) communities inevitably meet are the same in terms of their dynamics, and the intolerance of “white people” (the oppressor Yankee nation) does not stem from the laws in the south, but the laws in the south came about because of the dynamics between the oppressor and oppressed nations there.
In short, if Massachusetts were as full of Afro-Americans as Georgia, Boston might maintain some of its cosmopolitan charm (itself constantly tested by oppressor nation chauvinism), but the KKK would “have to” emerge in comparable numbers there.
While I was obviously happy to be spared any encounters with KKK culture, Atlanta disappointed me by not having a very “local” culture in any sense, again owing largely to where I spent most of my time, within an academic and petty bourgeois milieu, in areas with less Afro-Americans, but enough new transplants (not only white, but Asian, etc.) to give it an apparent social structure similar to those cities in the heart of Yankeedom.
As I said, when others tell me I don’t spend enough time developing my academic career, I regret not spending more time on political work, research, and connections. I wish that I could’ve spent some time venturing into the southern environs of Atlanta to bear witness to my host’s observations. I have taken a small number of road trips in the US with other people’s cars, all firmly within “Yankee” territory. Having recently procured a car of my own, I do intend to go on “fact-finding missions” in North American regions with a “local” character so as to be better versed in the local national questions.
As long as I’m here, I have to figure out how to help out the movement here, and to do this, I need to spend more time outside of academia’s preferred geographies.