Hanging on my dining-room wall is a photograph taken at the Tennessee State Fair by the Nashville photographer Heidi Ross. A crowd is gathered just beneath a sign marking the entrance to the fair. In the foreground, surrounded by a crush of other people, a Black man holds a small child whose arms are wrapped around his neck. An older child stands beside them. The image captures a sweet, timeless moment amid a swirl of humanity.
A few weeks ago, a team of HVAC experts arrived to install our new heat pump. Walking through the house on his way to the thermostat, one of the guys stopped to look at the photograph. “I love this,” he said. “This is an amazing picture.”
His comment reminded me of a remark a plumber made a couple of years ago while replacing a broken outdoor faucet behind our holly hedge. “You know, you used to see bumblebees just covering bushes like this in the springtime,” he said. “Now you don’t see them things at all anymore.”
If you don’t live in the South, or even if you do, you might assume that red-state white guys don’t care about biodiversity loss and don’t fall in love with art that highlights the beauty of Black subjects. Stereotypes of what white Southerners value, like stereotypes about the South itself, are so pervasive as to be nearly ubiquitous.
Plenty of people here live up to such assumptions, of course, and many of them actively work to remind others of how much truth such stereotypes still contain. But I’ve always found it more absorbing — and also more soul-expanding and more instructive — to linger instead with those who remind me that human beings are infinitely more complex than we often imagine they are. Despite our bloody history, and contemporary politicians intent on suppressing that truth, many people here defy what non-Southerners think they know about this place.
The new PBS documentary series “Southern Storytellers,” directed and produced by the Arkansas filmmaker Craig Renaud, makes this point as directly and as forcefully as I have ever seen it made on television, a medium that is in large part responsible for the stereotype itself. Across three episodes — the last airs tomorrow night; the first two are available for streaming on PBS Passport and Amazon Prime — the series captures nearly every aspect of this confounding place.
The first episode opens with David Joy, a North Carolina writer who looks and sounds every bit like the Southern Appalachian native he is. But he is not a stereotype. He is a man who sees his homeplace clearly and who writes like his hand was touched by God. “I think what I want people to recognize about the South is that it is a very, very complex place,” he says, sitting barefoot on the tailgate of a pickup truck. “It’s full of whole lot of beauty. It’s full of a whole lot of bad things as well.”
The documentary examines both the bad and the beautiful, and always through the voice of a storyteller, that subspecies of humanity so endemic to the American South. “I think we are a region of storytellers,” the Alabama native Harper Lee says in a voice-over — one of several ways the series includes Southern authors from the past.
In another earlier recording, Eudora Welty, asked by an interviewer why her home state of Mississippi has produced so many writers, notes that it’s partly the result of Southerners’ rural isolation. “In earlier days, people had nothing to entertain them but family stories,” she says.
Today, entertainment options abound, and the writers at the heart of this documentary work within many artistic and intellectual traditions. The diverse group includes Jericho Brown, Jason Isbell, Lyle Lovett, Amanda Shires, Mary Steenburgen, Angie Thomas and Natasha Trethewey, among others. There are screenwriters and songwriters, poets and novelists, memoirists and historians. And often they are writing from a perspective that was almost entirely absent — or violently silenced — in the South of Ms. Welty and Ms. Lee.
Speaking against the silence of the past is a recurrent theme in “Southern Storytellers.” The Mississippi writer Jesmyn Ward notes that the Black section of her hometown cemetery is in back, behind the white section. “It’s just heartbreaking,” she says. “There’s this erasure of people, this erasure of the past, this erasure of these lived histories. So I want to push back against that. Because it shouldn’t happen.”
In a scene filmed at the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Ala., Michael W. Twitty, author of “The Cooking Gene,” reads aloud from placards describing the “crimes” for which Black men were lynched. “I want you to think about what the last meals of these men and women were,” he says. “What does it mean to be a Black woman who cooks on a plantation, who bears your slaveholder’s children? What is the kitchen at that point? The kitchen becomes a space of trauma and turmoil, not just a space where you make good food. These are the narratives that get woven out of the glorification of the South as a moonlight-and-magnolias place.”
Other storytellers in this documentary may seem, on the surface, to have almost nothing to do with the Southern past. Their art responds nevertheless to those historical forces, if only because they grew up in a place that was shaped by them. The screenwriter Qui Nguyen, who grew up in Arkansas as the son of Vietnamese refugees, believes that many people have a “stereotyped idea of what a Southerner looks like, or feels like, or sounds like.” A lot of them, he says, “probably wouldn’t guess this face being a part of it, and yet I’m completely a part of the Southern fabric.”
No writer has a lock on what it means to be Southern, but collectively these voices — straight and queer, old and young, Black and white and brown; writing in fiction and nonfiction, in poetry and song — are telling us an important story about what the South is and what it has been, whether we understand it or not. As the singer-songwriter Adia Victoria says, “Being a Southerner is a strange thing. You ponder about it. You gnaw on it. But you never can quite get to the heart of the South.”
Even more than the region’s oral tradition, that truth explains why this place has raised up far more than its share of storytellers. And why the stories will always, always keep coming.
Margaret Renkl, a contributing Opinion writer, is the author of the books “Graceland, at Last” and “Late Migrations.” Her next book, “The Comfort of Crows: A Backyard Year,” will be published in October.