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What's the story of the South?
...and who gets to decide?
It’s not an easy question; the American South is full of stories. Rich, complicated ones that tangle together generations and land, identity and politics, power and myth, intimacy and strangeness.
Historically, it’s a place that is romanticized just as quickly as one can poke holes in the narrative. It’s been built up just as quickly as it’s been torn down. It’s fussed over, hotly debated, its history the subject of controversy big and small. And “the South” is resilient, persisting in part because Southerners have been able to tell stories about their South, reinforcing them with public monuments, commemorations, and practices that impart a “collective memory” to younger generations and new arrivals. With the help of statues and plaques, named streets and schools, those stories stick. They become the headline on the marquee. Sure, others may have their own stories to tell, but any individual’s real lived experience often gets eclipsed by myths and Big Stories.
What we remember, collectively, is a choice. But who's doing the choosing?
In our digital age, the limitations of traditional commemorative practices – monuments, statues and plaques, the tired hierarchy of granite and bronze – are clear. They proclaim a single, narrow story; they lack context and interpretation; they often reflect the needs of the era they were constructed in, rather than what they represent or who they serve today; and they can’t be annotated, despite the clear desire of Americans to do so (earnest attempts have included graffiti, stickers, and a pink pussy hat.) They aren’t even permanent, despite the intent of those who no doubt lobbied hard to gather the capital, legal permission and public will to create them.
These practices don't serve our modern needs. So what can we do?
For now, this atlas offers an intervention. The Digital Atlas of Southern Memory presents a prototype of a new form for visualizing and practicing broad-based, citizen-driven commemoration.