interview with authors saralee stafford and neal shirley
When you study history, one thing that happens is you start to realize how recent and arbitrary everything in society is. How quickly things shift, and how inevitable those changes feel to the people who grow up in their aftermath. Countries, borders, governments, the judicial system, the police force, and prisons may all seem as eternal and indestructible as life itself, when in reality they are very recent inventions whose staying-power was not self-evident only a couple hundred years ago.
Two people who know this all too well are Saralee Stafford and Neal Shirley. Their book Dixie be Damned — 300 Years of Insurrection in the American South is now out with AK Press, and it’s a must-read for anyone interested in the history of resistance.
Like the title reveals, Dixie be Damned looks at the last few hundred years of revolt in the South, covering slave uprisings, maroon societies, mine strikes and mass-prison outbreaks of convict laborers, textile mill strikes, urban riots, prison riots, and many decisive moments in between. In the book, Stafford and Shirley paint a picture of America where rebellion against slave and property owners, bosses, and law enforcement is a constant as much as its ongoing suppression and obscuration. One where prison walls now appear indestructible as a result of hundreds of years of successful prison breaks. One where prisons are filled with black and brown people because the “end of slavery” only meant the democratization of bondage and the criminalization of black life. And one where work is increasingly fragmented, precarious, surveilled, and all-consuming because when it isn’t, people unionize, go on strike, and sabotage their workplace.
It’s a great book, where each chapter focuses on a specific era of uprisings, the individuals and families that fueled them, the alliances that made them possible, and the tactics employed. Given that so much of history is written by “winners”, their book is an impressive collection of accounts and stories that normally don’t get told. The book’s focus on the South is also refreshing – and so necessary in the aftermath of last week’s shooting in Charleston, South Carolina. Dixie be Damnedcovers many instances of insurrectionary activity and slave rebellion in Charleston, including stories about Denmark Vesey, the former slave who distributed insurrectionary literature from the Caribbean to Charleston and member of Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church until it was burned to the ground in 1822.
We interviewed the book’s authors Saralee Stafford and Neal Shirley, both contributors to Mask Magazine. Read what they have to say about how they came to write the book, and why it’s so highly relevant today.