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spring/summer 2019

Letters to the South

Joy Priest

Before I left Lorain for Washington, D.C., then Texas, then Ithaca, then New York City, I thought every place was more or less like it, except in size. Nothing could be further from the truth. 

—Toni Morrison, “Home,” The Source of Self-Regard


Dear South,


I love you. I love you so much. 


At 30 years old, I know now that it is a privilege, to be of you, from you. 

To have been conceived here. To have shaped a self on you, epiphytic, 

like Spanish moss, growing where space allows. 


But Dear South, you should feel lucky too. To be of me, from me. I am a pencil, 

and I carry you with me where ever I go. 


Before I left Kentucky for New Jersey and New York City for a year, to come back to you 

in South Carolina, I didn’t know who you were. I took you for granted. 

I didn’t know what I had. 


When you grow up in a place, it often isn’t legible to you. 

It’s what you assume the entire world to be. That there is another way, 

another world, doesn’t occur to you 

for a while, often not until you leave and have some distance. 


You are a physical reality the way I am—a place on a map, a body. 

But these are things men have made, 

& so I know you are so much more, beyond men 

and what they have called us. People mistake you 

for a location: below and behind the Mason-Dixon. 

But I know you are Lorain, Ohio and Los Angeles, St. Louis too. 


I have wrestled with this letter. 

Because when you address someone you should know who you are speaking to. Dear South, what are you if not a location on a map? 


You are 

where ever two people are gathered on a porch, talking face to face. You are 

as simple as a specific kind of light, recognizable to people who have lived in it. You are,

a lilting nonchalance. You are 

slow and conscientious. You are

an arm resting on the open window 

of a pickup truck, whose driver knows better than to speed 

down a road the neighbors’ children play on. You are

bugs around a florescent bulb in the night. You are

cars rusting in an unmanicured lawn. You are

unmanicured like this letter. But you are big cities too. You are

rural and urban. & everywhere you are 

is Dixie. 


Growing up, Dixie was just a highway 

that ran through my city from the Ohio River, south, to Fort Knox. 

It held an abundance of used car lots. BUY HERE PAY HERE signs 

and rally flags ribboning the air from one end to the other. 

Now I know: Dixie is as body-less as you. 

It is Lorain, Ohio and Los Angeles, St. Louis too.  


The truth is, you are only connected to the land 

in the same way that I am: through my ancestors. 


I was born in you and you were born in them. 

In their bondage, their labor, the markets they created. 

You are the ground and history of America 

because they were. You are where they came from and everywhere 

they chose to settle. You are everywhere 

they have been, like home. 


I guess what I’m saying, is Blackness 

is what makes you legible. 


Where ever Black people have been.

Where ever the laws and customs have been shaped around Black bodies. 

Where my ancestors are concentrated—in the swamp, the trees, the dirt, 

the food, the language. And, like water, where ever Black people carry you. 


Someone always wants to leave you Dear South. 

Someone always wants to leave you behind. 

That’s how the American curriculum teaches us to treat history. 

The American curriculum treats Blackness like history. 

You hold all of our history. America’s Special Collections. 

You are so much more, of course, but this is how they would have us see 

the archive—forgotten. 


In everything I write, you will be the present and future, Dear South. 

JOY PRIEST grew up in Louisville, KY across the street from the world's most famous horseracing track. She is a 2019-2020 Fine Arts Work Center fellow and received her MFA in poetry with a certificate in Women & Gender Studies from the University of South Carolina, where she served as Senior Editor of Yemassee Journal. She was the 2018 Gregory Pardlo Scholar at The Frost Place, and her work has been published in Best New Poets 2014 and 2016Callaloo, Gulf Coast, and Mississippi Review, among others.

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