by Dr. Regina N. Bradley | Images by Allison Janae Hamilton
This essay was written in conjunction with Wonder Room, a recent artist session and installation by Allison Janae Hamilton at Recess, a non-profit art space in New York City. Southern Glossary is co-publishing this essay here and in the upcoming summer issue of the magazine.
Heat in Albany, a small city in the southwestern corner of the state of Georgia, is like no other. It bites and splatters itself across the skin, smearing across bodies like invisible paint. Albany heat was as relentless at sunrise as it was at sunset. The heat marked you with uneven tan lines and heat bumps that clumped across foreheads, cheeks, and chins. I am part of the generation where summer vacation meant playing outside in the heat until the street lights started to flicker. My folks kicked me outside or dropped me off at the community pool when I slammed the door one too many times and let out too much air conditioning. I realized early on that playing outside was my daily job. I wore my heat bumps and sweaty shorts and t-shirts like a badge of honor. I found joy in running around my grandparents’ massive yard, running up and down their then unpaved driveway, playing tag with my cousin or friends, or shooting hoops. After a hard day of play, sweat beads glistened at my temples and slid down my back. As the sun shot one last burst of heat to my face as a goodbye, I headed inside the house. At the door, my grandmother would give me a once over with her eyes to check for scrapes or sunburn and smirk. Sometimes her nostrils flared, a sign that she smelled me better than she could see me. “Go take a bath,” she commanded, gesturing to the back of our house. “You smell like outside.”
Chile, I learned early on in my life that in the South a woman smelling like outside was considered a capital offense. Smelling like outside is more than an olfactory combination of sweat or musk. Those two elements simply mean you’re “ripe” or “musty.” Smelling like outside is complicated: I usually needed more than one scrubbing with the “good soap,” the one that was extra perfume-y with a feminine scent like fresh baby powder or roses, to erase where I’d been. Outside clinged to me harder than the heat and smelled like sweat, grass, and trees (in my case pine sap). Some days it smelled like whatever was floating on the wind – rain, cow manure, lime, or car exhaust. Unlike when my grandmother fussed at the men folk in our family about smelling good, ridding me of any association with the outdoors as a black girl was extra urgent. Being marked by the outdoors didn’t stick to them the same way it stuck to me. Black men were supposed to smell like the outdoors, a symbol of pride and work instead of a symbol of shame.
Even now, as a grown woman, I am ready to fight if accused of smelling like outside. I was taught that how I smelled was a reflection of my identity as a southern black woman. Like anything in the South, social expectations are amplified and relentless. How you look, act, and smell in public is a reflection of not only yourself but your people as well. And my grandmother didn’t want our family to be associated with smelling like outside. Perhaps part of her insistence on smelling good was her sensitivity to knowing that blackness and femininity were not mutually exclusive, and that southern black womanhood was steeped in stereotypes about how black women looked messier than and smelled worse than white women. At a young age, I learned that smell paralleled black women’s agency. I remember being told that how a girl smelled was associated with sexual promiscuity (that is another story for another day).
As a scholar and creative writer who writes about the South, I often wonder about the connection between black people and the physical landscape of the South like plantations, railroads, front porches, backyards, and farmlands. The historical and cultural reckoning done in these spaces signifies the southern outdoors as a type of lingering testimony to resilience in the wake of how the South is often unforgiving to black folks. When talking about the South, very rarely do we talk about the not-so-sweet smells outside of magnolias, peaches, and honeysuckle. Black folks smelling like outside from a historical context signifies the sonic, olfactory, and industrious labor of enslaved people with little benefit. Imagine smelling the swaying bodies of black people working in the heat in tandem with the mingling of dirt, dust, blood, grunting, and sweat. Smelling like outside was an invisible by-product of slavery as an institution. It represented the believed social and cultural inferiority of black people without doing the work of recognizing that a slave’s smell also signified the backbone of how the Antebellum South sustained itself as prim and proper. In other words, before rapper Cool Breeze deemed the post-Civil Rights South the “Dirty South,” a contemporary moniker of race and class that departed from the sanitized narrative of the Civil Rights Movement, enslaved men and women’s work reflected what literally and physically made the South dirty.
Additionally, I wonder about how smelling like outside symbolized slaves’ resistance, especially those brave enough to run towards freedom. From this perspective, smelling like outside meant the mobility of not only the runaway slave’s agency, but the mobility of smells from the land and houses they worked that they took with them. Those smells mingled with new trees, new rivers, and new sweat that hid in their clothes and hair. Smelling like outside symbolized a physical and cultural geography of achieving black autonomy.
Consider the scene in Toni Morrison’s novel Beloved where a formerly enslaved woman named Baby Suggs leads a weekly worship service in the Clearing, a small and open patch of land in the middle of a forest by her home. After a quick prayer, Baby Suggs calls out to the black men, women, and children to come and celebrate themselves. Baby Suggs called to children to laugh, men to dance, and women to cry: “It started that way: laughing children, dancing men, crying women, and then it got mixed up. . .exhausted and riven, all and each lay about the Clearing damp and gasping for breath” (Morrison, 103). Sonically, each group represented an act of reclamation: the children’s laughter reclaimed innocence, the men’s stomping feet indicated self-reclamation, and the sound of women’s crying reclaimed the memories of those they were forced to forget in the past and reckoning with the moment of joy in seeing their men and children in the present. Additionally, the work of reclamation that each group represented could be theorized to present a certain smell: their acts are indicative of working and smelling like outside. Baby Suggs re-emphasizes the sacred nature of their new outside work: “‘Here,’ she said, ‘in this here place, we flesh; flesh that weeps, laughs; flesh that dances on bare feet in grass. Love it. Love it hard. Yonder they do not love your flesh. They despise it” (103).
Baby Suggs encourages the attendees to love themselves, including their flaws and possibly their scars if, as the text suggests elsewhere, those in attendance were formerly enslaved. The radical nature of what Baby Suggs suggests – black self love and autonomy – takes place outdoors. Baby Suggs’ reconciliation of the outdoors as sites of (in)visibility and healing is especially striking because it mirrors the daily struggle of reconciling the trauma and hope black people faced on a daily basis. Further, Baby Suggs’ use of “yonder” phonetically suggests the South’s cultural and conceptual mobility. In this sense, “yonder” has double meaning: it is the literal physical location right outside of the Clearing as well as a signifier of turning back south to the land where there is an expected definition and performance of black people’s relationship to southern soil as traumatic and unforgiving.
Although Baby Suggs is a fictional character, she does represent the complexity of (southern) black women’s connection to land and dictation of self-agency. Baby Suggs is in the company of other black women who work and smell like outside: Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth, the countless unnamed black women who worked multiple fields of cotton, corn, indigo, and rice across the South, the root women and priestesses, and the grandmothers and aunties who snap peas, shuck corn, and pull collard green leaves from their stems on their front porches. The smells of the land, like the land itself, formulate historical and cultural markers of southern blackness, conjuring up stories and storytellers that are not restricted to words.
I’d like to close with one more consideration of what it means to smell like outside for black folks. In recent history we have been inundated with images and sonic narratives of black men, women, boys, and girls violently dying at the hands of police officers. The increasing tensions between contemporary black communities and the state are documented via social media – i.e. hashtags and other forms of social media as sites of memory and interrogation, phone videos, and pictures. Perhaps smelling like outside in this current moment means smelling, literally, like death. Death on black bodies is well archived visually but there is a jarring correlation between smelling like outside and death. Consider the death of Mike Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. After being shot to death by Darren Wilson, Brown’s body laid out in the street untouched and uncovered for four hours in the August heat. While four hours is not long enough to physically smell like decomposition, Brown’s body lying in a street in the summer heat signifies some of the initial definitions of what smelling outside suggested to white people: his blackness was illicit and ultimately a threat. Even the act of covering Brown’s body from growing crowds and his community, an act of recognizing Brown as someone beyond the stereotypes associated with young black and larger sized men and boys, was too laborious. In this instance, Mike Brown smelling like outside was a reflection of his mistreatment as a black person. Him smelling like outside was not a reflection of his self-worth but of those around him who failed to recognize his humanity.
Dr. Regina N. Bradley is a writer, scholar, and researcher of African American Life and Culture. She is an alumna Nasir Jones HipHop Fellow (Harvard University, Spring 2016) and is an Assistant Professor of English and African Diaspora Studies at Kennesaw State University in Kennesaw, GA.
Allison Janae Hamilton is a visual artist working in photography, video, sculpture, installation, and taxidermy. Born in Kentucky and raised in Florida, she now lives and works in New York City. She has exhibited at museums and institutions such as the Museum of Modern Art, the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery, The Jewish Museum, Fundación Botín, The Museum of Contemporary Photography, and the Tacoma Art Museum.
Recess creates opportunities for artists to work in a public setting, initiating partnerships among artists and audiences. By welcoming radical thinkers to take risks as they address complex questions in real time with their public, Recess defines and advances the possibilities of contemporary creative practice. Their programs reimagine traditional studio, exhibition, and classroom platforms, offering artists, audiences, and program participants flexible frameworks in which to generate new works and ideas.