By Lucy Rudman
10 days. 12 cities. 2,300 miles.
This summer, Elyzabeth Wilder had the unique opportunity, along with playwrights Addae Moon, Donnette Lavinia Grays, and David Lee Nelson, to participate in an exploratory tour through the South. The group had one goal in mind: to revisit and redefine what it means to be Southern. Following the belief of their Artistic Director Rick Dildine, they knew the only way to do that was to foster open conversations among Southern people.
The tour started in Montgomery, Alabama and ended in Anniston, Alabama. In between, there were three stops in Alabama, three in Tennessee, two in South Carolina, one in Georgia, one in Louisiana, one in Mississippi, and one in Arkansas. The one-hour town meetings were set up with the goal of being inclusive, free to the public, and were held in art museums, theaters and community centers.
“I personally drove 2,000 [miles] of that. Partly because I sort of knew the areas that we were visiting, but also because I get carsick in the backseat,” Wilder explained with a laugh as she recounted the statistics that defined her Southern journey.
“One thing we learned was that each town, each city, had its own personality and its own set of issues that it was grappling with,” Wilder explained. “The other thing we observed is that, when conversations first began, the people who were participating wanted us to know the progress that they had made in their community, and the strengths of their community.”
She described the “Southern defensiveness” the team felt at every stop. “The people participating wanted to dispel myths about the South,” Wilder said. She also credited the Southern identity of everyone involved in the tour.
Because the team grew up in the South and they knew the culture, the participants felt as though they “didn’t have to prove themselves.” Additionally, Wilder notes every conversation “came back to race.”
Among the 12 scheduled meetings, the group also took two informal stops. One was here, on the Mountain, and the other was a small town in Arkansas.
At Sewanee, Wilder says the group enjoyed a more unusual occurrence: “scholarly discussion about larger institutional issues.” Their talk focused less on personal phenomenon and more on the big picture. Other Sewanee participants included Professors Virginia Craighill (C’82), John Grammer, and Emily Senefeld (C’05).
The other of the informal stops offered a sobering reminder not every town is working towards a more inclusive Southern identity. Elaine, Arkansas, a small town of around 600, was an unscheduled stop, one where, Wilder details, there is “literally a road” that divides the white side of town from the black.
In one word? “Heartbreaking…because you looked at this community, and the problem felt so big that it felt like it would never be solved,” Wilder explained.
No matter where she traveled, Wilder took Sewanee with her. She has done work with the Sewanee Project on Slavery, Race and Reconciliation on campus and remains aware of the deep, discriminatory, and cruel past of the South.
Sewanee encourages conversations regarding these issues, just as Wilder and the team did on their trip and still do.
“We all have a past that we have to acknowledge before we can move forward. It’s not just about how we are going to identify the problems, it’s about how we are going to create actionable change,” she said.
At the end of their trip, each playwright was asked to write a reflective essay meant to “shape and inform” a new mission statement for the Southern Writers’ Foundation. This mission statement, and a mini-documentary filmed during the tour, will premiere at the Southern Writers’ Festival, a literary gathering in Montogomery Alabama, taking place from Friday, October 19 at 7 p.m until Sunday, October 21 at 11 a.m. Wilder is also participating as a playwright, where her play The Light of the World will be produced and performed. The event is open to the public and passes are available for purchase here.