Back in May of last year, Ryan Rish and Julie Warner responded to this tweet:
The fact that there was so much going on in the Deep South that dealt with these interwoven issues had been weighing heavily on my mind for the last several years. Working to make sure that the South—the Deep South—was more visible within national conversations on literacies, digital media and civic engagement in ways that it didn’t seem to be was a central impetus behind that tweet. I wanted to explore the mapping of this work, both literally and figuratively, not in the Obama sense, but rather, from a more community-based and context-specific perspective.
Since that time, and with the development of our group, my answers to the central question of why the U.S. South is such an important context to focus on when we talk of multiliteracies, new literacies, digital literacies and civic engagement has gradually shifted. It has shifted from one in which presence and descriptions are central to one that focuses on what literacies practiced and enacted in the South can tell us about the “way forward” when it comes to how we think about education, equity, access and civic engagement. What better place to begin than with the part of the world that gave us the Stand in the Schoolhouse Door, The Little Rock 9, the Montgomery Bus Boycott, or the Selma to Montgomery March? However, to tie the importance of the South exclusively to its Civil Rights past within conversations about digital literacies limits the conversation in unnecessary ways.
Perhaps it would be more accurate to partially frame the importance of the Southern context in terms the ways it invites different sorts of “time travel.” As Zandria Robinson writes in her review of Laymon’s “Long Division” (2013):
Treatments of the South often fix the region in time and space. When return migrants are eager to “come home” to the South, they remember a respectable imagined community of all-black neighborhoods with doctors staying next door to factory workers. When southern expatriates in the North or West who plan never to return talk about the South, they point to the Jena 6 and Trayvon Martin and imagine country road ramblings and edge-of-town lynchings. When white Yankees think on the South, they remind themselves of their own relative goodness compared to Phil Robertson. The South is forever rural, forever 1964, sometimes forever slavery, which obscures the way it both is and is not those things. To say that the South ain’t changed and is all country is not true. But then neither is saying it has changed and is new and shiny and cosmopolitan.
With work like Robinson’s (2014) “This Ain’t Chicago: Race, Class and Regional Identity in the Post-Soul South” placed next to Creswell’s conceptualization of mobility as “politicized movement” as central to understanding the cultural, historical, social, artistic and political legacy of the South– it’s easy to see how mobility can be, and is a central issue in exploring literacies (digital or otherwise) that are practiced and which circulate within the South.
In this post, I’d like to foreground the question of why using a mobilities framework to look at literacies in the South is central not just to the work of this group but to the development of literacies research and practice as a whole. To do so, I begin by presenting an example of an educational issue rooted in the Southern context and suggest ways that the example highlights the power of a mobilities framework for moving us (literacies researchers and people living in the Deep South) from a predominantly descriptive stance (i.e., what is/isn’t present in the literature, or classrooms, or scholarly conversation) to a critical stance within our thinking about digital literacies within and outside of Southern contexts.
Within the United States context, there is, perhaps, no more powerful example of the role of mobility (and the literacies and discourses attached to it) than that of desegregation and resegregation of public schools. Though the resegregation of public schools since the Brown v. Board decision is apparent in communities across the states, current attention has been directed to this phenomenon as it has played out in Tuscaloosa, Alabama (see The Atlantic Monthly and research by Propublica). This issue illustrates the ways that mobility operates along different scales (personal, communal, institutional, ideological) and is represented by a variety of literacies (court documents, letters of personal citizens, proposed amendments to state constitutions, rezoning plans, etc.).
In the work highlighted by Propublica, the resistance of whites to integration is provided as the backdrop for a “resurgence” of segregation that has had “devastating consequences” for Black students. In the article, award-winning journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones quotes John England as saying that “desegregation had not ended the stigmatization of black children, it had reinforced it…the answer cannot be ‘the only way to get good schools is to have white people in them.”
England’s quote and the article are referential of the ways that in this Southern context, legislated morality has led to physical and political movement as a way to resist ideological change. Discernable linkages exist between the ongoing narrative represented in the piece and the theorization of (im)mobility politics, which directs attention to “motive force, speed, rhythm, route, experience and friction,” with which things move. The multiliteracies of which the New London Group wrote about almost two decades ago are on full display through Hannah-Jones’ work masterful layering of historical and contemporary photographs, video, variations in textual layout and web authoring that move readers through the piece in ways not conceivable when “A Pedagogy of Multiliteracies” was first published.
As a scholar of literacies work, to me one of the most interesting contributions of the online article is its attention to representing, over time how academic concepts like the “tipping point” and the actions of both groups and individuals have continued to provide a context in which Tuscaloosa schools have maintained a high level of segregation over time. Central within this representation is an intergenerational narrative of education, as experienced by three generations of African Americans.
In further connecting Hannah-Jones’ article to my own work, and in conversation with other scholars of color who live and work within the Tuscaloosa community, I wonder how this intergenerational perspective might be constructed differently if the narrative was in the authorial hands of other parents and children living within this educational context. What is lost, when “Segregation Now” gains national prominence, is the opportunity to consider what being educated “looks like” over time, and for different people with a range of life experiences and orientations to what it means to be(come) educated.
What is gained when we direct attention to digital literacies in Southern contexts is (1) the ability to think about what it would mean for this story to be told by those for whom it matters most, and (2) the enactment of practices that exemplify this kind of literacies work. In this way, work in the Southern context is linked to work being done in other contexts that take the “Pedagogy of Multiliteracies” article as a starting point.
The next steps require that we think expansively, creatively and critically about what projects with this ethic and methodology at their center are–and would be. What does it look like for folks rooted in a southern context to take up these issues through multiple literacies, and further how might this lead to the kind of civic pluralism that Cazden et al propose? Maybe it looks a little like this:
In what ways does Bridge the Gulf and the Propublica report represent the potential significance and contribution of literacies work in the deep South to a larger conversation on how and why we construct literac(ies) as central to the education and civic engagement of youth, in particular? Why is a mobilities framework essential to framing the conversation about literacies practices and pedagogies in the Deep South—and other contexts?
Why should attention to mobilities—especially as explored within the South—be centralized as a means for understanding and exploring the possibility for social justice as enacted through multiple literacies?
For literacies researchers, educators, and community leaders, I believe the answer to each of these questions lies in our move from a descriptive representation of standards and norms to a stance in which literacies as used to enact standards of resistance take center stage—in what ways do our literacies allow us to move into new spaces of being that make it possible for all of us to most fully “be?” These are the literacies that are present for us in our thinking about Civil Rights legislation, about reparations for Interned Japanese immigrants, about Wounded Knee and compensation for Black farmers, and about the intergenerational legacies that we might leave for the generations to come. These are the literacies that are so crucial to consider within the context of the South, and beyond.